What we've learned from ten years of flexible working.
Steve Maskell | 29 April 2020
With many people talking about new ways of working in response to the Covid-19 crisis – we thought it was a good time to share some of what we have learned about flexible working.
Our flexible way of working was designed and implemented ten years ago – partially in response to the ongoing impact of the Global Financial Crisis.
By designing a way of working from a new set of principles we were able to balance work and lifestyle – while also being flexible about when and where that work happens – benefiting the employee, the team, the business and our clients.
This article was inspired and updated from an earlier article by Clare Parkes.
Ten years of flexible working.
Over the last year or so, there has been a lot of media attention on changing work practices including Perpetual Guardian introducing a four day week, Vodafone giving teams time off on a Friday through summer and Microsoft piloting a four day week, as some examples. With radical changes for the majority of businesses now working from home during Covid-19 lockdown – and rapidly changing the way their teams work – the conversation about flexible working hours has come up again.
DNA introduced a flexible working system over ten years ago in response to the impact and downstream effect of the Global Finance Crisis (GFC). A challenging period when the contracting of the design work we were known for was incredibly variable. Due to restrictions on budgets – as well as shifting priorities of clients – the subsequent variability in revenue resulted in considerable pressure on financial performance.
Genesis of a powerful idea.
Faced with several challenges stemming from lumpy demand – we conceived a better way of working that would not only provide flexibility for the business but also be both fair and rewarding to employees.
We started with two fundamental issues that we needed to resolve.
For a business model based on payment for services rendered, one of the universal challenges is that the volume of work can sometimes be inconsistent. It can be tricky having the right capacity – needing fewer practitioners when there is less work on – and needing more when things get hectic. It's a yoyo effect.
There had also been a dirty little secret at the heart of the industry. As an employee, you might agree to a contract based on an annual salary and a provision to work 40 hours a week – but the reality did not reflect this, especially in agencies. Employees were pretty much expected to work extra hours every day – and sometimes extreme hours without additional reward except the occasional day in lieu or bottle of wine.
As a younger designer, I would regularly clock 12 hour days many weeks – if not more sometimes – and gladly did in exchange for 40 hours of salary, pizzas, a shared camaraderie with the team doing the same thing and the occasional bottle of plonk. Working long hours over your nominal was just the way things were in agencies. Work hard; play hard. And it worked for a very long time.
The right time to change.
We had been planning for change, and the GFC was the pivot point to do something – and establish flexible working more ambitiously. We saw this as an opportunity to create something that not only benefited the business – but was fairer and more equitable for employees.
We needed to design a system that re-oriented the way we worked, to value outputs over inputs and enable us to manage the flex around demand.
For our clients too, this was a turning point that saw the first gradual appreciation of human-centred design practice and foreshadowed the increasing immersion of design into many of their own organisations.
We anticipated that our capability and expertise would shift dramatically over the coming years – as it has. Demand for that capability would also change – requiring us to consider new ways of working with clients and new ways of working with each other.
A hallmark of flexible working was the options it unlocked in culture, process, practice and product to support these changes.
Principles of a flexible work system.
One of the first things we established were some experience principles that would guide the design and implementation of the system. The purpose of this was to enable it to be adjustable over time – ensuring its longevity and enduring value.
The principles we started with and validated to benefit employees, the business and clients included:
Flexibility to align with demand from clients
Emphasis on quality of outcomes – rather than quantity of effort
Fair and consistent compensation of the team
Improved wellbeing through a more managed work-life balance
Improved productivity outcomes through management of time
Reduction in the downtime between projects
By reviewing and modifying a flexible system design through these principles – we have been able to evaluate and optimise the efficacy.
These principles also ensured that implementation – although it took several months to transition the new team to new contracts and practices – kept everyone focussed on the benefits we were looking to achieve.
The reality is that we may have lost a very small number of the team through the implementation. However, we have gained a significant number of employees attracted by the nature of the system – and a majority of the team who have expressed they would find it hard to return to working in more traditional ways.
Flexible work practices.
DNA's flexible work practices allow the team to opt into a flexible pattern of work based on their agreed fixed hours per fortnight. The team can work those hours how it suits them – as long as they are meeting the needs of our clients and their team.
With a typical employment contract being for 72 hours a fortnight, it has meant people can potentially work four days a week. The system then provides flexibility to change the number of hours to work daily or when those hours are worked – during a week or fortnight.
Work patterns may include working a four day week, mostly taking Friday off, but sometimes other days of the week. They also might include working less each day over five days – or working more hours one week and less hours the next week.
The trade-off of this flexibility is that employees may work additional time as required to meet client needs. The team is also able to choose when and how they work to suit themselves, the team, the client and business needs.
Although it is unusual to have the whole business working from home as we have been recently – we already had people on the team permanently working remotely around the country – or working from home for a portion of their week when the type of work suited. We have always been supportive of this flexibility and believe it has no impact on the quality of work.
The flexibility also extended to the number of hours you might work as part of your contract – with some employees choosing to work a mix of hours dependent on their circumstances or preferences. For example, we have some on our team with young families who choose to work less – to have more time at home.
At the other end of the spectrum, we might have people who prefer to work a more traditional set of hours.
Some of this is dependent on role types – but it is always an individual conversation between the employee and their team lead.
Flexibility in these contracts enables the business to provide additional options for people in terms of work commitment – while also providing the benefits and security of full-time employment, including leave entitlements and notice periods. Most importantly, from a team culture perspective, these roles are not considered or treated any different from full-time positions attracting the same benefits. Everyone is treated as a full member of the team.
This has a carry on effect for short term contractors as well – who also benefit from being welcomed as a full member of the team.
To manage the flexibility, we created a compensation system that recognised and compensated people for all the time they worked – either as time in-lieu or as additional hours paid.
We came up with a compensation system that had built into it different ways time is valued – dependent on how it was deployed. The system has evolved and been optimised over the last ten years. Originally compensation was based on:
Core hours: The core hours employees are paid for each fortnight as per their employment contract
Chance time: When demand is high on projects we unlock additional hours that the team or individual use to complete work
Me time: For additional hours over their core hours when they might work some additional time – individuals receive the time in lieu to be used at their discretion
DNA time: If you have not been able to work your core hours that week, then you owe that time back to the business.
The team is paid fortnightly, and any variations are accounted for, and either added to their balance or paid out accordingly. A small premium is paid on time over the core hours.
Like any new system, people are not entirely used to; there were some challenges to overcome. Mostly these were habitual or long-standing workplace traditions that had ingrained a fixed mindset about what working was supposed to be. A mindset that typically included 9 am - 5 pm days, five days a week on a fixed salary – that does not reflect the opportunities of modern technology and life preferences.
Some of the challenges raised when implementing the system were:
I will need to work harder in the time I have
I need to work longer hours in '4 days'
I'm going to struggle because I can't stay in touch with everyone
My team need to work in the office, not at home so I can understand what they're doing and we can coordinate the work effectively
I might need to work differently – and I don't know how to do that
We need to think of the customer impact, what if they need to get in touch or we can't respond to their needs unless we're in the office
We need to work 40 hours; otherwise, our productivity is bound to be impacted and therefore, how can we afford to adopt anything else.
Although these may have seemed difficult to overcome at the time, we worked through them with the team and optimised the system as we progressed.
Co-designed and iterated.
It has always been in our nature as a business to question the way things are done – and to ask humans what they think – to get better outcomes.
We've learnt that even with our team – as with any human-centred design approach – the more we listen, the better we can refine something to deliver the right outcomes:
Individuals feel trusted, empowered and more in control of their work, their time and their lives
The business has extra capacity available for those times when it needs to deliver more than normal
The business benefits from great talent as they choose to work here because of our approach to work practices
The team are rewarded more than a typical market-level salary if they work extra time when possible – and with an additional percentage over the average pro-rata salary
The value delivered by employees is more clearly understood and enables greater conversation and variation over time
Our experience has demonstrated the value of designing with the people with the most to gain – while also considering how we can continually improve and enhance the system.
Looking back – and forward.
It has not always been easy. There have been challenges; to easily administer the system, onboard people from traditional systems, or derive the full value across all employees all of the time. However, the benefits delivered have consistently outweighed these challenges. Like any complex adaptive system – you need to be continually evaluating and updating it. We have found solutions to these challenges and continue to consider better ways to achieve the desired outcomes.
Now with the current Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent recovery, it is forcing everyone to re-evaluate their understanding of how to work.
In DNA, this is no different. Although we may have a strong foundation for flexibility, we will still need to be working to refine it. Creating the right balance between the needs of the business and the culture of the team is a work in progress, needing love and attention like any highly tuned, high-performance engine.
As we look forward, our flexible working system gives us more options right now than many others. It will provide us with the ability to tune the system to meet the new realities in the short term – and still deliver on the principles we established ten years ago.
What could you do?
One crucial step it seems in the successful adoption of any workplace change is to work closely with those who will be a participant in the new practices – your employees, their teams and the parts of the organisation that support them. They will implicitly have the answers and will help you to understand how you can achieve the change within the dynamic of your business.
If a flexible system is a solution your business wants to adopt, then it should be designed through engaging with your employees, mapping their experience, modelling alternative scenarios and prototyping with constrained and manageable experiments. It may require a more holistic design exercise – than simple cost reduction – but the long term benefits of this at a more human scale are worth it.
If you want to know more about flexible working – or how to design a system that is right for your business – then get in touch with the team at DNA.