Why we’re running our agency like a factory
A view from Aidan McClure

Why we’re running our agency like a factory

Creative industries are notoriously bad about allowing people to switch off, but maybe we can learn from the least creative places to work.

I’ve done a fair few factory visits as a creative. I love them: the minty-fresh-smelling Wrigley's chewing gum factory in Plymouth, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, with its mile-long production line and roof riddled with RAF bullet holes, and the McCain chip factory in Scarborough, with its expert chip tasters. I’m looking forward to snooping round the Branston factory when we’re out of lockdown. These Willy Wonka temples of efficiency have honed, sliced and squeezed every drop of fat out of the process – every movement and sound a synchronised ballet that is mesmerising to watch.  

Even breaks are carefully co-ordinated. In the VW factory, a buzzer goes off, the production line stops and everyone takes their break together. It’s quite a sight seeing hundreds of workers all sitting down to eat bratwurst together. The sounds of cogs and metal on metal is replaced by lively chatter as everyone leaves behind the monotony of the production line – an hour to let the mind switch off and wander away from work.  

This is basic human rights, of course. In this country, workers have a right to 20 uninterrupted minutes in a six-hour day and 11 hours of rest before work starts the following day. But it’s not just about human rights. It has been proved that someone who has an uninterrupted break works harder than someone who doesn’t, improving the overall output of the company.  

Sitting down to our second lockdown in October and faced with the monotonous production line of wake-up, breakfast, video call, video call, maybe lunch, video call, video call, video call, dinner, video call, sleep, it made us think: are we looking after our people? Are we creating the best conditions for creativity? The daily sense of déjà vu wasn’t going to change any time soon and should we, like a factory, engineer downtime in order for us all to switch off without interruption to improve our wellbeing as well as our creative output?  

We know this is where ideas come from: the gaps in between work when our brains relax and have the opportunity to subconsciously solve problems.

So we made the decision to run Wonderhood like a factory. This means we all start at the same time. Everyone takes a mandatory one-hour lunch break between 12:30pm and 1:30pm. No emails or meetings during lunch. No emails or meetings between 7pm and 8am and weekends unless it is urgent. The important thing is to do this together, so it’s uninterrupted. If you need to get stuff off your to-do list, press “send later” and the email arrives during socially acceptable hours. 

What’s interesting is that weird presenteeism thing around sending emails every hour of the day disappeared almost immediately. We’re not saying everyone is putting their feet up during this time – especially not if you’re home-schooling – but it’s time that’s yours. Time to actually do stuff that’s not staring at people in boxes on a screen. Time that breaks the monotony of the production line and lets your brain breathe.  

We’ve also kicked off the year with one-to-one walks with every member of the team to check in, shoot the breeze and stretch the legs. The Japanese call these Gemba walks, where managers stroll the factory floor, observe the work process, chat to employees, gain knowledge and explore opportunities for improvement. This has turned out to be the highlight of the week and something we’re continuing to do.  

The question is: will we keep doing this beyond this lockdown? Absolutely. There’s no way we’re going back to the endless working without breaks and blurring of work and personal life. 

Creative industries are notoriously bad about allowing people to switch off. But maybe we can all learn from the least creative places to work. Run your agency like a factory and you might see an improvement in the wellbeing and efficiency of your workforce. You then might see an improvement in the quality of your product: your creative output.    

Aidan McClure is founding partner and chief creative officer of Wonderhood Studios.

Photo: Getty Images