By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

March 27, 2019 | 8 min read

Between co-working spaces and the rise of the ‘side hustles’, the younger generation is becoming habituated to more flexible working situations. And as Brexit threatens to tear up the creative industry’s ability to recruit talent from outside the country, competition for those young people is going to become fiercer than ever.

At Drum Arms London, a panel of industry experts set out to understand the changing attitudes to work and determine what the future of work might look like. The panel discussion was moderated by The Drum associate editor, Sonoo Singh.

Anna Whitehouse, founder of the influential Mother Pukka blog and the author of ‘Parenting the sh*t out of life’ book, says that businesses need to redefine what flexible working really means. It does not necessarily mean working outside of regular office hours.

“The 9-to-5 gets a bad rep. My ideal working environment is the 9-5, and I think that's something that doesn't get spoken about. All I need is a little bit of flexibility if my daughter's sick, or if there's an issue with the trains, that I'm not feeling like I have to email my boss if I have a doctor’s appointment etc. When it comes to flexibility at work, I don't think it's necessarily everyone being chucked out into the cold to get on with it.”

She argues that simply making flexible working hours a matter of course can actually make it ‘immediately inflexible’. Instead, the panel pointed out that most young people looking for ‘flexible’ working are simply looking for more consideration around doctor’s appointments and transport troubles, and the language to describe those needs. Sarah Ellis, co-founder of Amazing If and the managing director Gravity Road, told the audience how when she came back from maternity leave she was suddenly more conscious about how language can affect how people consider the need for flexibility:

“Somebody once said to me 'We can't do this meeting at 8.30 because Sarah has ‘childcare issues,' and I was like 'It's not childcare issues; it's just Max, my little boy'. It's funny how language is really important when you talk about these things. It was positively meant; somebody was trying to be accommodating, but the language made me feel really bad about the whole thing.”

Flexible working : here is what we really want

Apart from ensuring that talent is retained, there are more tangible benefits to flexible working hours. A lack of outside stimulus is often stifling and, even when client contact hours are baked into workflow, a rigid routine is not always conducive to creativity. That would be bad enough in any industry, but for the creative sector it’s especially damaging, according to Sue Frogley, UK CEO of Publicis Media.

Publicis Groupe recently announced that it will offer a flexible approach to work to all of its employees in the UK, in an attempt to galvanise the teams and improve the fluid way in which they work.

The panel advocated allowing and even encouraging team members to flex their creative muscles through ‘side hustles’. Ellis explained that an awful lot of people’s reaction to flexible working is “emotional, not rational” and that the perception of greater freedom is an irresistible lure: “A lot of creativity is fuelled by people who are curious, and that's never going to come from all being in one place.”

Ash Tailor, the global category director at Britvic, believes that while a company and its employees need to be transparent about outside work, it is something that should be actively encouraged within a business:“For me it's less about my second interview question 'Have you got a side hustle?' - but more about actually what is the culture I'm trying to create within the business… I hate the word 'side hustle,' because it feels as if it's something hidden in the background. I would like to create a workplace where we give the employees the tools and the confidence to deliver the innovation and creativity they desire. For instance, we're helping an entrepreneur currently set up a business, everything from proposition and what the marketing campaign is going to be.”

In turn, the panel agreed, that will drive positivity and creativity within the business. However, they also believe that transparency around flexibility and side hustles are vital, since there is still a perceived reticence among business leaders to transition away from a more controlled, rigid working environment. They advocated everything from having employees ‘call out’ when they leave for a personal errand to having frank conversations about how best to manage out-of-hours emails in order to encourage trust.

Having recently undertaken a company-wide relocation to White City, Frogley from Publicis Media says that the move was an opportunity for the Groupe to create an environment more in keeping with the expectations of the upcoming generation of workers. She argued that, while she was initially sceptical, the creation of a framework for flexible working has proven to be vital:

“There are six behaviours we have identified: communicate effectively; use geographies and boundaries; trust; know that other people are different; and use technology efficiently — and everybody now is trying to follow these.

“We also did an online training session, which allowed us to discuss instances such as 'What if somebody's disappeared?' etc. So if you've done the training, and we have everybody following the behaviours, then it automatically becomes self-policing. It has been interesting to watch that happen.”

The panel was also keen to note that having those frameworks in place is useful for preventing the use of fake bonhomie in recruitment, in which recruiters play-act at offering flexibility. Having the means to prove the viability of fluid working hours should, at least in theory, guarantee the satisfaction of employer and employee alike.

Tech: the danger can be over-productivity

Technology has traditionally been seen as being the great liberator when it comes to working out-of-office. As an audience member at the end of the panel pointed out, it has provided many sufferers of chronic illnesses a means to rejoin the workforce. However, the panel also noted that the pressure to constantly be ‘on’ has led to some negative effects on workers’ health and mindset. Consequently, they advocated a more deliberate use of tech and digital tools.

Whitehouse shared the example of a ‘a Tinder app for job shares’ that enables workers around Westminster to bid for and split work on a case-by-case basis. She did note, though, that the temptation is to overuse said technology: “I think the danger is over-productivity. I think the conversation has to move on from 'Is it a good idea?' Yes it is a good idea; it's all there for you to take advantage of and earn more money through as companies, but how do we help people switch off?”

Ellis agreed, noting that tech is often an enabler of direct person-to-person relationships rather than a replacement for them:

“The best example I've seen of that is a company called The Hoxby Collective. It's a freelancer community that's all virtual, but what they do is use technology in a really smart way.

“They use Slack, and they have various different threads on there, and some of the threads are intentionally... almost like 'water cooler chats,' so that you're getting some of that social interaction. The other thing they do is meet-ups based on where you live. So [say] I live out near Hampton Court; if you were like 'Right, I live in that kind of area,' they take it in turns to go and meet up in a coffee shop or share each other's kitchen.”

While the panel was open about the realities and pitfalls surrounding flexible working, they also stressed that the benefits are worth it, particularly in the creative industries. The advice from Whitehouse was: “Let’s all go rogue” stressing that when it comes to future of work, organisations need to look at changing their traditional approach to work. Frogley adds that as an industry, we need to question what needs to evolve to enable people to work more collaboratively across different disciplines, divisions and organisations.

While investing in the frameworks and tech infrastructure that underpins that new working culture can be a challenge, the reality is that the genie is out of the bottle for flexible working, and that the best future workplaces will be ones that encourage greater freedom for their employees.

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