Beach retreats. Yoga. Visiting reptiles. Or how about a Porsche? In an attempt to keep employees from burning out, some agencies are loosening the tethers of the workplace and piling on the perks.
Later this year, new federal labor regulations granting overtime pay to all employees who make less than $50,400 a year are expected to go into effect, forcing agencies to confront their spotty record on issues like entry-level pay and work/life balance. The days (and nights, and weekends) of thankless toil for junior account executives making just enough to live with their parents would seem to be at a close.
Plenty of agencies have been hip to the burnout problem for years. So while some facts of agency life are impervious to change — clients need work fast, and pitches take time to pull together — there are things agencies can do to ease the pain. Those range from flexible hours and unlimited personal time off policies to fun and surprising breaks in the workday that make them feel better about being there.
More agencies are starting to offer flexible working hours. The idea is, if there is a lull, let folks take advantage of it. At Pinta, in addition to providing paid vacations from 10 days to three weeks depending on time at the company, employees get one half-day a month for personal time off. The agency encourages employees to use it by not allowing them to carry it over from month to month.
"We know there's a lot of burnout, so we want people to use their PTO as much as possible," says Lauren Cortiñas, Pinta’s managing director.
Another trend is unlimited personal time off — and sometimes that's unlimited paid time off. Project:WorldWide recently switched from a set amount of vacation days to unlimited paid time off. Brian Martin, SVP of marketing and communications, said, "The policy allows staffers to pursue passion projects that enhance creativity. It allows for flexibility in life, which makes employees more appreciative and committed at work."
Elite SEM is another offering unlimited paid time off. Jennifer Garrison, director of human resources for Elite, says her agency encourages employees to take at least 12 days off a year, and the average is three to four weeks a year. The agency also allows individuals to set their own workloads. "Burnout typically comes from feeling like work has been imposed upon a person, where our system of the meritocracy allows people to choose their work, and the sense of ownership keeps people engaged in the work regardless of the workload," she says.
Reality vs policy
Can employees actually take advantage of these policies? Does the workload allow it? Are those who slip away made to feel like slackers?
One executive explained his agency's unlimited time-off policy as, "If that means an extra day off or working from home, we support that."
Another, explaining flexible work time, said, "Employees can take their laptops to the beach for their lunch break."
But Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the 4A's, points out that having a flex-time policy isn’t the same as feeling comfortable to use it. "My belief is that it's very dependent on who your supervisor is. Yes, agencies can have policies for flex time or working from home, but if your manager doesn’t support that, or doesn’t walk that walk, then chances are that people on that team are not going to" take advantage of the policy.
Unlimited PTO definitely does impact the workflow, according to Lauren Prince, president and CEO of Chandelier Creative. To minimize issues, Chandelier has guidelines for how much notice staffers have to give, depending on how long they want to be away. "No one takes off unless their team is really onboard."
A ‘funner’ workplace
Ask agencies how they help employees achieve a better balance between life and work, and they will nearly all mention offering activities that people could do at work — yoga, lunches, classes, parties.
Jones Knowles Ritchie, a design shop in New York, hosts bi-monthly socials that have included a palm reader and massages. Taking the idea of balance literally, the company hold monthly yoga sessions in the office.
Every Thursday at the Geneva offices of Base Design, an independent branding shop that also has offices in New York and Brussels, staffers take turns cooking a big lunch for all. "The time your team spends getting to know each other as friends is as important as the time they spend collaborating as co-workers," says Thierry Brunfaut, creative director and partner
Last year, six-year-old Chandelier Creative, (the independent shop behind those Old Navy commercials) began to emphasize creating a strong company culture with the goal of retaining employees. It's held in-office workshops on crochet and knitting, pottery-making, figure drawing, and cheese-making. Prince says, "The purpose is to inspire the whole team and get them away from thinking about a client and, instead, interacting with each other and having fun."
Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners (RTO+P), an independent full-service shop in Philadelphia, celebrates new employees who make it through the first 30 days with a party and quirky gifts such as a case of Spam, a tattoo or a lizard. Chief Creative Officer Steve Red says RTO+P doesn't see these activities as perks or retention strategies, but rather as acknowledgement that agency life is hard. "It is day and night," he acknowledges. Parties are a way to tell employees, "Yeah, we're going to work our asses off. But we believe in who we are."
It all sounds cool. But — you're still at work. Does a mid-day break, fun as it is, just push the end of the workday further away? If that's the case, these agencies could be on the hook for more overtime pay, as well as the cost of catering and reptile visits.
Well is good
Another strategy for helping employees achieve a better work/life balance is to educate staff about staying healthy and combatting stress. Independent digital shop Organic will contribute up to $1,000 for an employee's personal development activity, including things like standup comedy or foreign-language classes.
Heidi Taglio, associate partner and director of HR at Eleven, a creative marketing agency in San Francisco, sets up "wellness popups" throughout the month, bringing in masseurs, acupuncturists and chiropractors. Sometimes they're animal popups, including kittens and dogs. (Petting animals has been shown to lower people's blood pressure.) The most recent was a reptile popup, featuring snakes, scorpions and lizards.
All-hands retreats with team-building exercises, visioning and drinking are commonplace. Some agencies take pride in going over the top. RTO+P's annual three-day retreat kicks off with the entire crew drinking actual Kool-Aid to affirm their commitment. Each day is capped by games or a talent show in which winners have been given a washer and dryer; a trip to Dollywood; and, yes, that Porsche.
Chandelier upped the ante on retreats last year by taking the entire staff to Japan for a "design inspiration trip." The New York-based agency maintains a house in East Hampton dubbed Mermaid Ranch, designed in part by members of the staff. Anyone can visit the place to vacation, meet with clients or do intensive work. Its latest endeavor is a visiting artist program at the ranch.
Give them some snakes and some parties, and most agency staff are happy — but they'll likely be even happier with overtime pay.