How flexible working can make us all more creative
A view from Katie Carruthers

How flexible working can make us all more creative

Embracing flexible working is the key to enabling great creative talent to thrive.

Most of the people reading this will be lucky enough to work in places that do their best to foster creativity – in agencies we usually have the pool tables, the coloured bean bags, the coffee shop or bar, and (in our case) unicorns everywhere. And even though a day sketching out ideas in the sunshine on the roof terrace is very enjoyable, much of the rest of the way we all work is very traditional.

Most people in the creative industry still work five days a week, from 9am-6pm at least, although for many, leaving at 6pm is a luxury. It’s more like late nights and weekends, especially when there’s a pitch – Domino’s Vegi Volcano at 11pm anyone?

We call ourselves creative, but is churning out ideas day and night at the same old tables really making the most of our talents? Many of us were attracted to the industry because we were writers, illustrators, artists, filmmakers, but with long working hours, that other half of ourselves often falls by the wayside. We’re so busy thinking about how to sell butter, beer, or the latest car for the urban explorer, that we don’t have time to make robots, paint landscapes or write novels anymore.

Afraid of leaving your desk?

So, what’s the answer? I’ve been thinking a lot about flexible working recently. At the moment, it’s probably slightly frowned upon in many agencies; it’s something they’re obliged to at least consider when parents ask for it. And for parents who take up flexible hours, most end up working round the clock as they feel bad for not being in the office all the time. They often cram in to four days what many people get done in five, all out of guilt.

But why, why is it only parents (and I don’t have any stats for this, but I’m pretty sure it’s predominantly women / mums) who ask to work flexibly? If we’re all so creative, why don’t we want to get out there and explore more sides to our creativity? All the industry gurus talk about getting inspiration while they’re out having a walk or doing pretty much anything except sitting at their desk, so why are people so afraid to leave it? What is chaining us all to our desks? I wonder if the traditional working week is actually killing creativity…

Fearless, flexible futures

So, I’m a Creative Director and a mother, and my agency is fabulously flexible. I work four days a week, and even then only school hours, for now at least, while my three kids are really young. Term time contracts are also available. Again, I don’t have the stats but from personal experience this seems almost unheard of in the industry. People are usually shocked that I’m allowed to work these kinds of hours. But I asked for it, and they said yes. It’s hectic but it works.

Now my youngest kid is at the school nursery I have Fridays to myself – I could have gone back to work on Fridays but I decided to keep it for writing fiction. I really love my job but I really love writing fiction too, and life is so hectic that I can’t always do it after hours. I suppose that’s the issue with being a parent, the homework / washing school uniform / making Willy Wonka costumes, eats up the evening time you might otherwise have dedicated to other talents.

So now on Fridays I have between 9am and 3pm to focus on science fiction for teenagers – the first novel is written and I’m on to the second. Who knows if they’ll ever appear in Waterstones but at least I’m enjoying trying. And I’m sure it makes me more creative at work. I have ideas buzzing around from all sorts of different areas in life and I’ll often find sci-fi creeping into my work – after all, extra-terrestrials may also need probiotic yogurt to combat bloating…  

Don’t ask don’t get

However, whenever I’ve talked about flexible working to people, many feel they can’t ask because they don’t have kids. But why can’t people work flexibly so they can just get a better work / life balance, and whether they’re spending time with their kids or writing a graphic novel, their happiness, their creativity, and their sanity will all have a positive effect on their work. I realise there’s a salary cut involved, but who knows, maybe that side project will earn money one day.  

I admit I was originally going to write about combining motherhood with work, but for most mothers the issue is dealing with childcare while trying to get their job done, hence the focus on flexible working. And if it becomes a positive thing for lots of people, parents alone won’t be stigmatised for it.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that flexible working should be admired as a great way to be creative, something to show off about rather than feel guilty about. So, why not let people take that MA in creative writing, sign up to that comedy course, write that film, as after all its artists, musicians and authors we steal most of our ideas from anyway, so why not just have them in-house? Here’s to a new era of encouraging creative people to be more creative.

Katie Carruthers is  a creative Director at Digitas