Do flexible working practices need a tailored approach?

Starcom's leaked email has reignited a much-needed debate.

Flexible working: recent survey suggests advertising falls behind other industries
Flexible working: recent survey suggests advertising falls behind other industries

Starcom parent Publicis Media announced its flexible working scheme with much trumpeting. But it was more of a sad trombone "parp" that greeted a leaked email suggesting that Starcom’s policy had backfired.

The agency was quick to issue a statement in which Publicis Media UK chief executive Sue Frogley said that while she understood "Friday is a common day to work flexibly, we want to bring back the ‘Friday feeling’ in the office".

St Luke’s founder Neil Henderson, for one, is unsurprised at the side of human nature the story revealed: "When St Luke’s was first set up in 1995 as a co-operative, there was a group of junior people in the company that were there to represent the interests of the shareholders.

"One of the first things they said was that they wanted to take Friday afternoons off. We quickly learned that people will take off as much time as they possibly can. So we squashed that."

% of agencies offering:
Part-time working 88%
Home working 75%
Flexitime 49%
Staggered hours 41%
Compressed hours 33%
Job sharing 27%
Annualised hours 9%
Term-time working 9%
Self-rostering 8%
Other 2%
None offered 4%
Source: IPA Agency Census, 2016

Absenteeism on the scale that Starcom witnessed can often "reflect a lack of clear drive, ambition and work ethic demonstrated by a leadership team", Jon Goulding, chief executive of Atomic London, said. "Behave how you wish others to behave."

Others argue that this premise of being seen in the office is outdated. For Sally Boulton, head of talent at Tribal Worldwide London, "presenteeism – being ‘seen’ to be glued to your desk – feels increasingly outmoded, especially for the younger generation, who are coming to expect flexibility as a condition for taking a job".

The ad industry trails other sectors but has been improving its flexible agenda, according to recent research. The Flexible Jobs Index, an annual survey by consultancy Timewise, analysed more than five million UK job ads to assess how many offer flexible working. Across all industries, 15% of vacancies included flexible working options, compared with just 12% in advertising, marketing and PR, though this was an increase from last year’s 9%.

Of course, many agencies might not promote flexible working benefits in their job ads, but they still offer them to staff. According to the IPA’s Agency Census in 2016, 88% of agencies offer part-time working, with 75% offering home working. As the IPA points out, the legal position since June 2014 is that the "right to request flexible working has been extended to all eligible employees, not just those with caring responsibilities".

Emily Hawkins, M&C Saatchi’s group people director, thinks the creative industries are ahead, but often this "can be eclipsed by the demands of pitching and production deadlines, which can be intensive".

"In a lot of agencies, people are supportive of making sure their colleagues and themselves get a good balance and so where it might not be a formal policy in some places, people look out for each other and themselves and are sensible about their hours where they can be. Tight teams do that naturally."

Ursula Marchese, group head of talent at Rapp, which recently launched a flexible working manifesto to "make work work for everybody", suggested a flexible working scheme should be nuanced. "We’re tailoring it to individual needs," she says. "But we’re also not going to put out a statement and let chaos reign."

However, for Sarah Baumann, managing director of VaynerMedia London, a "one-size-fits-all" approach is harder to make work and so it’s more difficult at larger agencies. "As you get to a certain size, it’s very difficult to be bespoke," she said.

Getting flexible working right, though, has numerous benefits, according to Tammy Einav, joint chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB: talent retention and motivation, increased productivity, and better work/life balance.

"And while there are some well-documented concerns about the potentially deleterious effect that flexible working at scale can have on agency culture as the physical workplace becomes less of a focal point for the workforce, like with work/life – it is a balance," Einav said.

Agencies’ flexible working policies

Adam & Eve/DDB
Broad flexible working policy, but tries to treat on a case-by-case basis, often holding a trial period with candid feedback from an individual and their team. Sometimes formalises new working arrangements as part of an individual’s contractual terms, but often leaves it to the discretion of their immediate teams.

Atomic London
Built around job and team type. While the principles are universal, each department head creates their own flexible working guidelines. For example, for planners, who need time away from the office to think.

M&C Saatchi
Runs a "core hours scheme" between 10am and 4pm, during which all key agency meetings are held. Staff are able to request flexible working around people’s wellbeing and personal needs.

Rapp
Just launched a flexible working manifesto. Built on a core HR statement, managers will be instrumental in handling requests of individual staff according to their needs.

St Luke’s
Says it appreciates "importance of work/life balance", recognises it can boost employee motivation, cut employee stress and improve their performance.

VaynerMedia London
No formal policy as such. Working from home, flexible hours for fitness and personal needs are allowed "as required, when appropriate and without judgment".

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