Can flexible working ever work in adland or is it just a pipe dream?

Starcom's flexible working policy has teething problems, it would seem. But can flexible working ever work in an industry historically beset by presenteeism?

Flexible working: can it ever work?
Flexible working: can it ever work?

Flexible working is perceived as a huge benefit to staff; when it works, it allows people to have a life around their work and find the time to do crucial things such as booking GP appointments, visiting the bank and dealing with family emergencies. It also makes employees feel valued, trusted and engaged.

But as we have seen this week, there is a flip side. Publicis Groupe agency Starcom wrote an email to staff indicating that it is less than impressed by the fact that its staff appear to be taking up its flexible working policy on Fridays with a little too much aplomb. Its office, Starcom wrote in the email, is empty on Fridays and this has been noted by clients.  

Sue Frogley, chief executive of Publicis Media UK, told Campaign that the company is "proud" of its flexible working policy – introduced six months ago – and that the agency is "working hard to balance fully embracing flexible working whilst recognising the needs of teams and teamwork, agency culture, and the need to collaborate and join-up seamlessly in creating integrated work". 

Writing in Campaign yesterday (Wednesday), Creature's Dan Cullen-Shute reckoned the debacle shows an unpalatable truth: that it’s really hard to make flexible working work because, by virtue of the job, agencies are beholden to their clients and the industry is based on teamwork, rather than individuals. 

Rob Jane, chief talent officer at Wavemaker, agrees. He "grappled with" the idea of flexible working before implementing it a year ago for precisely this reason – while tech has made it possible for us all to do our jobs remotely, it's difficult to make work in practice. 

"I think the thing about flexible working is it's easy to talk about and hard to bring to life," he says. "We wanted to make sure people had the space to manage their lives and to flourish in their roles – but it is not easy to do and the balance you have to get is sometimes hard to tread. It's very, very easy to get the balance wrong."

At the end, he says, it's about give and take between employee and employer, and "continual evaluation." And when that balance is struck right, he adds, flexible working can be an agency's "superpower."

"We wanted to make sure people had the space to manage their lives and to flourish in their roles – but it is not easy to do"
— Rob Jane, Wavemaker

Flexible working is also an option at Ogilvy, but chief people officer Helen Matthews agrees that it has not been plane sailing at all times either, admitting that at one stage even her own team felt like they were passing like "ships in the night". A simple conversation, though, was all it took to ensure everyone was in the office at the same time at least twice a week – and it's communication, she says, that is at the heart of successful flexible working.

The benefit of flexible working is that you give staff autonomy, treat everybody like an adult and trust people to make the right call. 

"We have a fairly firm policy around flexible working in that we embrace it and actively encourage it. We need to look at [the relationship between the employer and employee] as an adult/adult relationship, [and] move away from [perceiving it] as an adult/child relationship," Matthews tells Campaign.  

But the fact that shifting to a remote working culture is a huge adjustment for an industry historically beset with presenteesism and a long working hours culture can't be overlooked.

What happens if you're a manager and you struggle with the fact that suddenly all of your team are working from home? Isn't it tough for the people ultimately accountable for client work? There does need to be an element of handholding to work through any perceived challenges, Matthews adds.

But Jane thinks we're just on the cusp of this revolution and workplaces will move more towards remote working cultures, meaning managers will need to upskill to learn how to effectively manage remote teams.  

"We now need to think about the new skills that managers and leaders need to have. Part of that is the way they manage displaced, virtual people – how to manage in a decentralised way," he adds. 

A significant mindset shift

Charlie Lyons, founder and general manager at design and tech agency Beyond, agrees. The biggest challenge Lyons faced when he introduced flexible working two years ago was, perhaps surprisingly, his own mindset. His biggest learning adjustment has been accepting that "just because I can't see [a colleague] doesn't mean they are slacking off", he says. But Beyond has never looked back.

"We started it and it was a bit weird at first. I'm 40, I run the office, I'm used to being visible and there was a behaviour change I had to make within myself:" he explains. "It's about treating [staff] with maximum respect and trust."

Practically, there are things that agencies thinking about implementing flexible working need to consider, such as ways to create a spirit of openness and accountability. At Beyond, for example, everyone has regular performance goals and are expected to be contactable when not in the office and present when client work demands it (you can read its open-source guide here).

But when it's done correctly, there are tangible business benefits – Beyond has made The Sunday Times' top 100 companies to work for and Lyons says introducing flexible working has coincided with its strongest-ever performance period. 

"Just because I can't see [a colleague] doesn't mean they are slacking off"
— Charlie Lyons, Beyond

Ultimately, introducing flexible working is about creating a positive workplace culture and the business benefit is attracting a broader range of talent. But Lyons also says there is a productivity benefit – while managers may fear staff would slack off, the reverse is in fact true. Engaged employees work harder because they appreciate the flexibility and feel driven to prove themselves. 

And that's not to say there aren't measures in place to make sure people are hitting targets. Beyond has weekly, monthly and quarterly performance objectives. So you'd know "pretty quickly" if performance was lacking, Lyons adds. 

"The culture when I was growing up in advertising was you're in, you're present, you show face," he explains. "People would work really long hours but what would really irk me is people would stay late but not actually doing any work – just surf the internet. That's not right. I've never subscribed to that."

Maintaining team spirit and agency culture 

Workplace culture is something Sarah Douglas, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's chief executive, has spent a lot of time thinking about. The leadership team is currently assessing whether to introduce more flexible working as the business looks to evolve to better serve employee well-being.

She says: "I would love to be able to say to my people 'I couldn't give a shit where you work'… but the challenge is: how you do that without eroding culture?

"You have these relationships with people where you have good camaraderie, great ability to make eachother laugh – and that comes from bumping into each other and living amongst each other as a community day in, day out."

"I would love to be able to say to my people 'I couldn't give a shit where you work'… but the challenge is: how you do that without eroding culture?"
— Sarah Douglas, AMV

Douglas believes that, ultimately, flexible working is "the direction of travel" and agencies need to create workplaces where people are happy to be and where their ability to be creative is enhanced. But the challenge is finding the right balance and not damaging the fabric of close-knit teams.

"Ideas develop inch by inch and conversation by conversation. You can do that in a WhatsApp group – but it has to be as well as having good face time, not instead of face time," she continues. "It's like that old Michael Jordan quote: 'Talent wins games, teamwork wins championships.' And if we want to be a winning culture, which we do, we cannot compromise on that spirit of the team. 

"There's a balance to be struck and I really am wrestling with this myself at the moment. Because I want to do what my people want – which is greater flexibility – but in a way that does not compromise on the core value of camaraderie and teamwork, which is so important not just to our culture but to our ability to develop ideas." 

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