This post was written by littleBIG Founder & Director Sally Harley.
If you want a decent work/life balance then agency life is not for you. That’s the trope anyway. It’s part of the reason that I never set out to build an “agency”. The perception was that working for an agency means ridiculous long hours for low pay because it’s a “love job” (I wrote about some of the other reasons “agency” was/is sometimes a dirty word here).
Frankly I believe if your agency (or any other business for that matter) relies consistently on people working long hours with high levels of stress then there’s something wrong. Most agencies are selling head hours. If you can’t deliver the service and results your clients desire within the head hours you’ve estimated (most of the time) then something’s not working.
How do we tackle work/life balance at littleBIG?
Our standard hours are 9am-5pm with half hour lunch breaks. Most of the time, we manage to deliver our work within these hours aside from “outside of hours” events, promotions, campaigns, key deadlines etc. which happen quite frequently for us. But the majority of the planning and execution of our work is undertaken within standard business hours.
When people do work for more than four hours “outside of hours”, we offer time in lieu so they can maintain some balance. It’s not expected you work these long hours consistently with a smile and constant gratitude for the privilege.
Obviously, we all like to throw in some more hours from time to time to feel on top of things during busy periods, and sometimes it’s simply necessary. But if that’s every day or even every week consistently, we look closely at an individual’s work-day and processes and identify how we can help them to work more efficiently, share the load more, etc. As a business owner, this is the first sign of the business running inefficiently and something I like to be on top of immediately.
Parents, students or those in burn-out recovery will know that 9am-5pm 5 days per week, while “short”, “easy” hours in the context of broader agency-land, can be hard hours to maintain. If we counted out people who couldn’t work standard full-time hours we’d be missing out on some of the most impactful talent the business, and our clients, have ever seen.
A third of our staff work less than 37.5 hours per week. Some of us work fewer than five standard days, others work shorter days in the office, with set hours from home/flexibly. We foster open conversations about work hours so that both parties (employer and employee) are clear about the time and deliverables required to make things work on both sides and usually there’s some to and fro-ing to settle on the format that works best.
One of the most powerful tools we’ve developed in making part-time senior positions work is contractually arranging a weekly block of hours to be worked flexibly. For example, if you can’t work in the office more than three days per week due to childcare commitments, we might agree that you need to work four or so hours a week from home/at meetings/evenings/weekends – whatever the need and circumstance might be, to ensure workflow continues effectively and is not held up. It’s been our secret sauce to making senior part-time roles work.
I admit I cringe a bit at that word now. “Workplace wellness” has become a buzz phrase and can be perceived as something HR managers or business owners implement to tick a box and tout they prioritise workplace wellness so their staff feel valued and motiviated to work harder or longer. And it’s likely a strategy that works. Not knocking it! But the term does invite some cynicsm sometimes.
What I mean by wellness being a key priority for work/life balance at littleBIG is, we believe if you aren’t feeling well mentally, physically and emotionally, you’re not going to perform well at work.
One of the main reasons we try to limit long work hours is so staff can prioritise whatever it is that makes them feel well outside of work time – excercise, socialise, meditate, cook, get a great sleep… We actively discuss these things with our team and encourage them to make space in their life for them. Clearly getting the balance right is a win for everyone in every way.
Multiple studies have proven social connection is a key driver for health and wellness. We prioritise regular group gatherings where we simply socialise together to strengthen our connection. We take time away from the office every six months to review our team goals, set new ones, challenge ourselves and eachother, workshop various things and be active together. This team connection also contributes to our business and individual wellness.
So, work/life balance is absolutely possible when working for an agency. I encourage other agency heads to take the topic seriously and make incremental changes to improve the balance for their teams. The entire industry wins if we can keep the deep breadth of talent within agencies happy and thriving. Let’s keep them with us rather than lose them to “in-house” because they’re burned out and desperate for balance.