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19 June 2015

We’ve got flexible working all wrong and yes it can work for agencies too

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Here at f1 last month we read Business ReImagined by Dave Coplin. It’s a good read and a persuasive case for allowing technology to liberate us from the ‘old’ ways of working and to re-imagine how we run our lives. Not working 24/7 from an office is the default position. We have to work flexibly. But at f1 we work with agencies who find the notion of flexible working hard to embrace. So we put some common pushbacks about flexible working in a client serving environment to the book’s co-creator, Nick Morris. Nick is currently head of Cloud PR at Microsoft UK but has 13 years of agency experience, too.

If you have a team of people working flexibly how do you maintain the team spirit and collaboration that is so important in a client servicing role?

I have to start by saying that the notion of flexible working has gone all wrong. If you say, ‘I don’t work Fridays,’ that’s not flexible. In fact it’s inflexible. Flexible working isn’t about working from home one day a week or working part time. It’s about working differently and being mindful about where you need to be to get your work done on any given day. How about, for example, working from the client one day or from a different city? Or from a business hub in your own community? Are there other places you can bump into new people in a productive way? Are you working on something that means you really need to not be disturbed? We have to redefine what we mean by working flexibly and then we’ll see the benefits.

When it comes to team spirit perhaps the answer is simply to be more thoughtful. If your team works flexibly there will be fewer opportunities to mix face to face so you have to arrange things carefully, thoughtfully. Simply being in the same building at the same time doesn’t automatically mean that there will be a good team spirit. Make it special when the team is together. It’s also true that real camaraderie comes from working together. Flexible working doesn’t stand in the way of you working together and it also allows you to be more agile creating different groups for different projects, which leads to new camaraderie.

Agency life often includes an ‘all hours’ culture of working. Is this compatible with flexible working?

No it’s not. But we have to take this to task. I feel awkward if I turn up after 9am too, even though there is no rule saying I shouldn’t. We rib each other about leaving ‘early’. Why is this? Rules do seem to exist but we should scrutinise why they do. If the answer is because they have always been like this then they need looking at.

Another push back is that the client wants you on call 24/7. How can you deliver on this if half the team is not on hand?

From client perspective the worst fear is of churn in the agency and the team. This sort of fear is stifling so agencies should manage it thoughtfully by asking what’s best for the client while acknowledging that change in the team is an opportunity – it’s a cliché but it’s true. Keep some pillars the same for the client and move other skills in and out – the best work often comes from the freshest brains and change is a huge influencer.

As a client I want (although I can’t insist on it) people that want to work for me and on my business. I want those on the team to be always learning, motivated, excited. That’s why I hire an agency – to bring outside ideas to the table. If that means they needed to be afforded a certain level of flexibility then that’s fine. For example, someone in one of our agency teams right now is doing a Masters. I’ve no idea when but it doesn’t matter. The added value I get is that they are better consultants, and they bring learning and insight from elsewhere.

What are your tips for taming the email beast and allowing technology to liberate not make things even worse?

Flexible work depends on technology and everyone has their techniques for managing it. Dave Coplin often asks a joke question at his talks: “Hands up if you don’t get enough email.” You have to work out what your acceptable parameters are at home and at work.

I do have two tips. Definitely the first thing you should do in any organisation is dramatically limit the use of the cc and reply all buttons. Think about your upward management – you do not need to include your boss in all your emails! The second is to use other tools to communicate. Play to the strengths of instant messenger if you want a conversation, for example, or social media for more public statements.

 

For a great illustration of how to ReImagine your work, have a look at this RSA animation: https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-animate/2013/09/rsa-animate—re-imagining-work/