Alex Sibille interviews Chris Downs, managing director of Normally – the Shoreditch-based data product and service design studio - who have gained plentiful press coverage for their four-day working week and a salary algorithm to calculate salaries without bias.
In their 4 years of growth, Normally have prioritised their culture which respects the balance between work and personal life, above all else.
Alex Sibille: Tell me a little about the birth of Normally.
Chris Downs: Normally was started in a Google document where we wrote a list of things that were important to us. We wanted to take the best bits of other agencies and take away the worst bits. One of the things on that list was that ‘culture is not a ping-pong table’. Culture is way more fundamental than that, it’s baked into agency DNA and you can’t just throw in a token gesture and expect culture to fall into line. There are aspects that we set out in the document that are non-negotiable and will not change, for example, we would rather shut the studio down than compromise the four-day week. We need to be strict otherwise it would be too tempting to let the week slip when work is high or revenues are down.
AS: People will want to know - does that mean you all end up working crazy long hours on your 4 days?
CD: No, and we don’t do emails or phone calls out of hours so there is no background noise because we respect each other’s time. Work-life balance and the four-day week are key to our culture. Time is precious and we want our team to be efficient with the time that they spend at work, which enables the fifth day to be taken off.
AS: How do clients feel about it?
CD: If we identify that our culture isn’t compatible with a brand, we won’t work with them. Similarly, we work hard to find and maintain cultures that are complementary.
For example, we recently had a call from our client the BBC, saying that they were concerned because they had seen emails from us on Fridays and they wanted to check whether together we were in breach of our cultural code, and that is amazing. It is incredible that they are so respectful of our culture.
AS: Would you say that your culture influences your new business strategy?
CD: Our culture has played a key part in helping us win clients and new work right from the beginning. When we made it onto the BBC digital design roster, the main thing they set out to look for in agencies was culture. A lot of the tasks and questions they asked us to complete were around how we work, what we think and how we treat each other and our clients. Clients no longer just buy a portfolio, they are buying a culture of collaboration. They are buying design as a way of problem solving, rather than just as a production tool.
AS: Have you got any wise words to share with anyone else embarking on the journey of starting an agency?
CD: My advice for everyone starting an agency would be; for god’s sake, take the bias out. Take the bias out of the pay. You don’t need to make an algorithm necessarily but at the very least just take the imbalance out of pay. It’s simple, pay people of different genders and sexual orientations the f****** same. Also, give your team flexible maternity and paternity rights as well as flexible working hour opportunities to let mums and dads come back into the workplace. You can make small differences like that to make you better. Normally has gone to extremes and you don’t have to - small changes make a big difference.
AS: Normally have an algorithm for salaries. Can you explain how that works?
CD: We wanted to remove the gender, management and skill bias in the way people are paid. We think that sex, extroversion and likeability shouldn’t influence salary. We turned all of our salaries into an algorithm that just takes into account the number of years’ experience that you perform at. It is just a straight line on a chart that everyone is on, and each year everyone in the studio steps up by the same amount. It means the team also have full transparency on their future earnings.
AS: Dreaming big - if you were suddenly granted a huge investment of £10million how would you spend it?
CD: I would pocket the £10 million, tell no one, lock the doors and pretend none of this ever existed. If that wasn’t an option, I would spend the money on giving us more people to do more of our own ideas and thinking. It would ease off the revenue burden for a bit, we would build the team out and get more data exploration done. Recruitment would be completely fundamental in our growth to ensure the culture remains consistent. If the question was about how big we want to be, the answer is, we want to be as big as the culture will endure. If the culture broke at 41 people, we would dial it back to 40. Culture is more important to us than scale.
AS: What’s the most important thing you do every day?
CD: I try to check in with the team every day so they know I’m never far if they need my support. But the most important thing I do every day is to leave work on time. If I expect the team to respect their time, then I have to model that by demonstrating that I respect my own.
Alex Sibille, founder, The Future Factory