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How do you solve a problem like... a broken work-life balance?

What can agencies do to shield workers from constant communication?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we look at the quest for the fabled work-life balance.

Portugal recently passed a law banning employers from contacting remote workers after hours – joining France, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, Argentina and India, which each have similar laws.

In the UK and US, there are no such protections. But agencies have been grappling with this issue for many years. We asked a bunch of our readers how their agency protects staff from perpetual communication and helps establish (and guard) something that looks like a work-life balance.

How do you solve a problem like... a broken work-life balance?

Anne Stagg, UK chief executive officer, Merkle

It’s about being flexible to meet our people’s needs, which is what the last 18 months have taught us. The future of work – this blend of home and office working – relies on getting the work-life balance right and ensuring we listen to our people’s priorities and needs, which are different than before, and find ways to support them.

Shared parental leave, wellness days, assistance with care and lockdown support calls are all ways we are supporting our people – staying connected, listening to their challenges, constantly finding ways to adapt and encouraging constant communication. Thus providing that support and trust to give people the flexibility they need.

M-L Robinson, client partner, Harbour Collective

The days of long hours and working weekends as markers of success are over. Today, smart agencies strive to promote balance wherever possible. We have an unlimited holiday policy, trusting our people to decide how much time they need. We’ve also introduced catch-up days, where staff can take a day to get on top of their workload without the distraction of meetings, calls or interruption. Our policy (since lockdown) of not sending emails between 6pm and 9am, or at weekends, has also proved popular. Without question, productivity goes up when you trust people to manage their own time and encourage them to respect other people’s time.

Emma Greenaway, head of European accounts, Cult

“Balance... what balance?” is how most of us have always felt, and with Zoom, Slack and Hangouts now infiltrating our homes, even our desks are staring at us into the evening while we’re watching Gogglebox. But removing the pressure to be in a particular location has been critical in ensuring staff have flexibility, be it to make pick up or spin class. Being militant about blocking out ‘no meeting time’ has meant the lockdown routine of back-to-back meetings is alleviated. Lastly, being strict about day-end allows us all to switch off, ignore pesky notifications and take some time to relax.

Aurelie Haroutunian, HR manager, Syzygy

We’ve rolled out our ‘Wellness Day.’ Everyone gets the final Friday of every month off to spend time in a way that benefits their mental health. We’ve always encouraged team members to consider mental wellbeing and provided support, but this is new, as is our formalized approach to flexible working. Flexible hours let our staff adapt work to their other priorities, from childcare duties to workout regimes. We’ve introduced ‘SYZ Team Days’ – staff are encouraged to come into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays to collaborate and socialize. Providing both enables us to balance work and home alongside mental wellbeing.

Paul Ferry, director and co-founder, ShopTalk

The key is to focus on that word – ‘balance.’ In an industry as rapid as design, we aim to be an efficient, progressive and challenging partner to our clients, but without the creative burnout. We do this by keeping a constant eye on those scales, and always adjust where necessary to keep them from toppling over. It’s as simple as keeping work within working hours – and if, on rare occasions, out-of-hours work is needed, flexible working times and location ensure our team can balance their own needs. It’s about creating a workplace that fuels and rewards our people, with our monthly appreciation program ShopSpot providing fun, out-of-work experiences.

Queenie Lo, chief executive officer, UXUS

As a design agency, we work with global teams and projects with tight turnarounds, so contact outside working hours is all but inevitable. While we have a number of policies in place to ensure work-life balance, including a culture of flexible and remote working, time off in lieu and discouraging email response out of hours, in today’s new office structure a safe space for communication is the missing puzzle piece. We encourage open dialogue with managers to help individuals manage workload and stress, but we also try and work closely with clients to carefully design our workflow and deadlines.

Linda Nguyen, human resources manager, Waste

In our new hybrid working world, it’s easy for boundaries to get broken down. To combat this, we’ve created a WFH etiquette guide, including a list of Slack emojis we recommend the team use to show they’re unavailable – whether they’re busy, recharging or spending time with their family. We’re also helping people kick the habit of checking messages outside of working hours, turning off all Slack notifications between 6pm and 9am and asking people to avoid sending emails between 7pm and 8am. We encourage our leaders to model this behavior, so they’re not putting pressure on their teams unconsciously or giving the impression that working overtime is the norm.

Susan Pratchett, managing director, Europe, Virtue

There’s no perfect answer; what works for some stresses others out. So rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, we’re trying to create a more considered approach to how we work together, which allows for different geographies, priorities and working styles. It’s about breaking the mindset of ‘always urgent.’ This includes allocating focused blocks of collective working time, being respectful of different time zones when scheduling meetings, ongoing thought to how we use different communication tools and when, and, most importantly, as leadership setting the right example.

Charlene Charity, head of strategy, Digitas

Employers need to show they genuinely care about their employees, and part of their responsibility is supporting a healthy work-life balance. The key things for me are: understanding employees’ workload and ways of working, and addressing challenges that can lead to a work-life imbalance; ensuring that people aren’t resourced more than the hours they have in the day and, if they are, build a case for extra resource; and building a collaborative culture and teams – from chief executive to apprentices – that roll their sleeves up and dig in when needed. This should be underpinned by honesty and transparency. Employees have a reservoir of goodwill for their employer that needs to be dipped into every now and again, and what you want to avoid is for that reservoir to dry up.

Tom Laranjo, managing director, Total Media

The ‘talent crisis’ facing our industry has driven an necessary acceleration in our thinking about how to deliver a healthier work-life balance and protect our teams’ wellbeing, with our efforts concentrating around three clear and interconnected themes: having a clear vision for what a good ‘work-life balance’ looks like and making sure that we are continually communicating why this is important; building in capacity to support a healthy balance and avoid simply saying people should ‘look after themselves’; and involving all stakeholders in establishing and maintaining balance as there is little realistic chance of delivering a positive balance if clients and partners are not part of the solution.

Above all these three areas sits the need to be honest with ourselves about where we really are on this issue and so, in the spirit of honesty, I would finish with saying that we are a long way from being perfect in this area and, like many, have our work cut out in order to provide an environment that attracts and retains the best talent around.

Danielle Sherman, director of people and culture, Organic

At Organic, you will (almost) never receive a Teams message or email after hours from an executive, unless it is time sensitive. Our leadership will actually tell staff not to email unless it’s an urgent matter and explain that after-hours messaging is not part of our culture. For holidays we have often given our staff an extra day off to kick-start their break. We also offer flexibility in working hours – we trust our staff to be accountable for their work and to our clients. It’s not a formal policy as much as the culture we have created.

Joanna Trippett, managing director, Byte

Management must lead by example. At Byte, we do this by calling out unnecessary behaviors such as using Slack out of hours on non-business-critical topics, by management not being actively online at night and by genuinely not expecting people to work late just for the sake of it. Our work-life balance initiatives include encouraging staff to schedule emails and Slacks at times that won’t interrupt teams when offline, no WhatsApp groups and fostering a culture that allows management to be called out if we don’t follow the rules ourselves. Teams only believe in culture if they can feel it.

Nicola Kemp, managing editor, Creativebrief

The very concept of work-life balance is a fundamentally flawed pursuit; the notion that all aspects of your life will be in a constant state of perfect harmony sets us all up to fail. Policies dictating when you can and cannot send text messages recognize the challenge of our industry’s ‘always on’ demands, but in isolation are not enough to tackle a culture of presenteeism and long hours.

With research from women’s network Bloom showing that 42% of female employees feel burnt out, making progress is vital. While in the midst of the ‘great resignation,’ companies that fail to give their employees enough control over where and when they work will find it difficult to attract and retain the best talent.

But the good news is we are on the precipice of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign the workplace for the better (WACL’s #FlexibleFirst toolkit is a great place to start). But that opportunity demands a change of approach; for what is the ‘great resignation’ if not a reset moment? For companies and employees alike this isn’t easy; particularly in the thick of the seemingly never-ending demands of the festive season. So I leave you with some of the best advice ever shared with me, by PR and marketing supremo Veronique Rhys-Evans: “You will remember missing the school play, but you won’t remember why.” It’s on all of us to hold the space for the things that matter most.

Izzy Blach, chief happiness officer, Good Apple

The overall happiness, wellbeing and success of each ‘Apple’ is central to our core values (pun intended). We embrace the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality, because happy, well-balanced employees garner fantastic results for our clients. Employees have generous PTO, company holidays and their birthday off, and a company-wide holiday recess during the last week of December. Paid volunteer time and sabbaticals are also offered. Client teams have designated account leads on call after hours, so other team members can fully ‘clock out’ and unplug. On Fridays, there’s a no video and afternoon meetings policy to help combat Zoom fatigue and alleviate any need to work on weekends.

Claire Hollands, managing director, MullenLowe

The holy grail of work-life balance isn’t easy as it means something different to everyone – be that gym time or kids’ bath time. For me, balance can be restored by creating a productive work environment that retains our strong culture and by being empathetic to our colleagues. To fuel this, we have flexible office days and core hours of 10am-4pm. While these principles set a framework, the important thing is how we live and breathe them in our culture, communication with our clients being key. This requires a more nuanced understanding of each other, which empowers and supports employees to get to a balance that works for them.

Mel Chapman, co-chief executive officer, Jungle Creations

A new wave of young talent is entering the workplace and bringing with it new expectations that are challenging the status quo. After conducting an internal survey, we learned that our employees are much more focused on family benefits rather than individual perks.

We believe that employers need to take more consideration of situations outside of the office walls. It’s not only about nurturing people’s wellbeing and embracing their mental health needs, but doing so in a flexible manner – for example, this month we’ve initiated a ‘Wellbeing Day’ for people to nourish their mental health, and you can feel the benefit.

Employ a flexible, wellbeing-focused mindset, and the outcomes will benefit both sides of the coin – a well-looked-after workforce is an effective one.

If you’d like to join future debates, email me: sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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