Flexible working is great, but the theory is a lot easier than the practice

Creature's founder reflects on the furore over Starcom's recent email to staff about 'noticeably empty' Fridays.

So, tough day for Starcom, which has discovered that the one major downside of launching a flexible-working initiative is that, well, the people who work for you are likely to start working flexibly.

It was a bold move that initially filled the trade press with "positive sentiment", as their own buzz-monitoring team no doubt reported, back in the days when they felt they actually had to turn up to the office. But, I’m afraid, if you’ve come here looking for cheap sniping, you’re going to leave disappointed – I’ll leave that to the Twitter accounts of their media rivals. Go nuts, gang. 

See, Starcom, perhaps inadvertently, has revealed a truth that oft goes unspoken nowadays – it’s really hard to make flexible working work.

Now, the one thing I should make clear upfront – not least because I’m writing this on holiday (I know, flexible working, lol) and have no desire to spend the next few days dealing with an avalanche of tweets calling me a dinosaur (a Jurassic snark, if you will) – is that I think flexible working is great and any culture that expects you to be at your desk all the time just because is no culture at all.

People getting to spend more time with their family – or even, he says with slightly less conviction and a bit of a forced smile, their hobby/passion/side-hustle – while they continue to get the job done is a brilliant thing. It’s something we try to support wherever we can at Creature and we’re very, very proud when it comes off. 

But that’s the theory. And, as is so often the case, the theory is a hell of a lot easier than the practice.

First off, we are, whether we like it or not, a service industry: we are beholden to our clients. So it’s not entirely in our hands, much as we might like it to be. It’s easy to stand on stage and tell people to say no to an 8am meeting – but if that’s the only slot everybody else can do, refusing only gets you so far, whether you (or they) like it or not. But, ultimately, that’s workable: you have smart, progressive clients, you get them on board, you make sure people are available when they’re needed and that they don’t take the piss, and you work it out together.

The second thing, though, is trickier. I saw a fair bit of chat yesterday about the true test being whether productivity has fallen; which sounds great, but isn’t really how advertising works. We rarely work as individuals. We work in a "we all come together and bounce off each other and make amazing things happen" kind of way. We’re a bunch of teams bound together by – if we’re lucky and work really fucking hard – an exciting culture, a desire to do something brilliant and systems that make all of that happen. Systems that, for decades, have been built on the people you need sitting next to you. 

Starcom won’t have sent the email that sparked this week’s furore lightly. It won’t have been because a senior bod walked the floor on a Friday and got fewer hungover fist-bumps than they were expecting. But nor will it be because it got a weekly report that showed a downturn in productivity in sector 7G. It will have been because stuff stopped working quite as well as it had in the past. Because processes and systems were falling apart. And because people, clients and agency folk alike felt like the place had slightly less of a buzz about it.

It’s easy to dismiss the buzz. But it matters. That sense of community matters. It’s one of the things that makes advertising great. And it’s certainly one of the things that makes individual agencies within it great. And, as we’ve learned at Creature over the past eight years, it’s fragile as hell. 

We work hard to make sure everyone feels welcome – but we also work hard to make sure we have something everyone wants to be a part of. There’s no doubt flexible working will come to play a huge part in the latter – but if we don’t understand and acknowledge the complexities involved, we don’t stand a chance.

Dan Cullen-Shute is founder and chief executive of Creature

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