The long read: it’s time for the creative industry to think more creatively about work/life balance
Storycatcher Katy has just left us for a few months to do a far more important job: be a Mum. She emailed me the link to this Campaign article about inflexibility for working mothers a few days ago, with an accompanying note, “I am incredibly grateful to have landed myself a role at Storycatchers where I truly believe post-baby working will actually work.”
It’s obviously wonderful that she feels this way – but also deeply depressing. Because for every agency that works like Storycatchers – full flexitime and remote working options for all, as the norm – there must be 50 more that don’t. Which means there are women like Katy all over the country worrying about how they’ll balance family life and agency life when they’re ready to return to work. Women who know before they ask that their request for a 3 or 4-day week, or late starts/early finishes, will be turned down.
Women that have to give more than they’ve got just to stay in the game, and businesses that would rather let talent and experience walk out of the door than think creatively about working mothers.
Research conducted by Bianca Richards as part of her MA in advertising suggests that “94% of mothers working in advertising believe the industry fails to accommodate their needs”, identifying booze culture, lack of senior female role models, lack of flexibility and a general intolerance towards responsibilities outside of work as key issues.
The 2017 IPA Diversity Survey shows that more women are entering our industry, which is almost evenly split between men and women, yet this is only reflected in the c-suite of 4 of the UK’s top 30 agencies – shamefully, 2 of them have no women at all at c-level. Women are entering the industry – but something is stopping them from rising to the top.
Of course, this isn’t just an agency issue. Research by the PwC, Women Returners and 30% Club reported that of 427,000 professional women in the UK returning from a career break, two-thirds will return to a lower level role and, of those, 29,000 will be forced to work fewer hours than they’d like due to a lack of flexible working options.
Laura Hinton, executive board member and head of people at PwC, said: “The business and economic arguments for getting more women back into high quality work following a career break are compelling. Our research shows the UK economy could see a £1.7bn boost, women will get higher earnings and businesses will benefit from a stronger pipeline of female leaders and more diverse teams. Many women want to return, it is the system that needs to change.”
It’s easy to beat a feminist drum about this, but the societal pressures that force women to choose between a family and a career also bear heavily on Dads. In our industry, the typical ‘always on’ agency working culture does men a huge disservice too – it’s very easy for Dad missing bedtime to be the rule, rather than the exception. It’s estimated that only 2 – 8% of couples will take advantage of the new Shared Parental Leave arrangements, such is the stigma around taking time out to care for your children.
Storycatchers was founded on the principle that family comes first. Partly because our Directors are all parents with young children, and partly because we’re a growing agency and want to attract and retain the very best people. Because of course it’s not all sunshine and Waltons – there are hard commercial reasons to treat our people like grown-ups and allow them reasonable scope to set their own hours and place of work.
In a remarkably short space of time, we’ve gone from recruiters politely asking who on earth we are, to proactively presenting seriously seasoned industry candidates asking to interview with us. It should come as no surprise to anyone that true autonomy is highly sought after – and we are more than happy to welcome the increasing number of experienced professionals of all genders that are seeking to exit the hamster wheel and find a more equitable way of working.
Storycatchers rarely (if ever) call in sick. They don’t need to. The freedom to work interchangeably between our hub and their home offices means if they’re feeling under the weather they stay at home and nurse it, setting the alarm later and working from their sofa or bed. Little niggling bugs are nipped in the bud before they turn into giant slayers (and bring the rest of us down).
Our people come in late after the gym, or leave early for a session with their PT. Flexitime creates the time and headspace for people to take care of themselves, physically and mentally. There’s usually at least one dog in at Welbeck, to stroke or take for a walk on the village green – because yes, we purposely chose offices tucked in 15,000 acres of lush green parkland. We understand the pressures our industry puts people under – we’ve all got the scars – and we try and alleviate as many as we can. Wellness – and creativity – flourishes.
So why are so many businesses resistant to change? In advertising, the standard line given to women whose requests for part time or flexi hours are refused, is that clients need them to be at their desk 37.5 hours a week (and the rest) – especially if they work in client services – because it wouldn’t be practically possible for colleagues to pick up their projects on their days off.
But if a relatively small agency like ours can manage it, anyone can. Our newest Storycatcher, Lisa, asked for her hours to reflect the fact she’d like to spend every Wednesday morning at home with her gorgeous toddler. New Mum Debbie needs 3 days a week for now. Rich needs to do the school run in the morning. When flexibility is written into your business’s culture and DNA, it’s really not difficult to accommodate these requests – because let’s face it, they’re not unreasonable.
There’s also the worry that if you grant your employees true autonomy over their hours and place of work, you can’t be fully sure they aren’t taking advantage of it all.
This comes from a really cynical place – and we’ve found the exact opposite to be true. Our people work harder, as a true team. No one wants to let anyone else down. No one wants to be the one that breaks the magic and forces us to put edges and boundaries in place.
And we want people to take advantage of the situation when they can – that’s the point. There will be days and weeks where your feet don’t touch the ground and the work just never ends. If you’re quiet of an afternoon, send up a quiet prayer to the deity of your choosing and close your laptop. Go and do something that reminds you that you’re a human, not a machine. Come back tomorrow morning and bring that humanity to bear in your work.
Which brings me round to my final point – so far, this has all been very ‘me me me’. What about the clients? What kind of service and experience do they get from this kind of set up? Well, practically, they get a longer working window, what with all the staggered hours. I don’t think (m)any of our clients would know we worked this way, if we didn’t tell them.
But the real benefit is the energy and absolute focus they get from our people, who have the time to deal with their personal stuff, so when they’re on, they’re on – all cylinders firing and blazing. Ideas don’t come easily when you’re chained to a desk, and they don’t come easily when you’re run down, stressed and distracted. We create the space for our people to bring their humanity to bear on their work and be brilliant.
I’ve made it sound like it’s perfect – all positively bucolic. Of course it isn’t. Working this way exposes every weakness in your IT systems and processes – they need to be absolutely bombproof. When we’re all really busy, Storycatcher Hayley has to prise us all out of our respective shells like stubborn mussels, to come together and play.
It’s not perfect. But it works perfectly for us – especially if it means we’ll continue to benefit from the positivity, energy, experience and seasoned intelligence people like Katy bring to our accounts, the other side of maternity leave.
Clients need their agencies to reflect their audiences – which means agencies need to attract and retain people of all ages. All genders. All races and religions. Investing time and money in people and immersing them in your clients’ businesses and challenges only to lose them when they hit 35 or so simply doesn’t make sense. The technology exists for people to work together anytime, anywhere – now’s the time for all businesses to see their employees as rounded individuals and think more creatively about their ways of working.