What does ‘Freedom Day’ mean for the future of flexible working?

26th July 2021

Liana Dinghile, Partner at Tonic Creative Business Partners, discusses flexibility – is it a good or a bad thing for the future of work?

Most agencies are already embracing a more flexible approach to work and an overwhelming majority of employees would like to see this continue. But as so-called Freedom Day approaches and businesses get to grips with what the future might really look like, it’s worth considering where being less flexible can increase your chances of success.

Counter-intuitive maybe. But some things will need to be inflexible and non-negotiable for a more flexible future to succeed. Let’s explore.

The conundrum

On one hand, remote working has changed the game that needed changing. It’s levelled the playing field by creating access and inclusion for diverse talent and given people the opportunity to better balance their lives. Productivity has increased and priorities have been sharpened. But on the other hand, many argue that creativity, culture and learning have been compromised as a result. The double-edged sword now forcing a hybrid work revolution.

Every business is finding its way through this revolution. Some are leading with new ideas and bold policies they hope will work – from four-day weeks to mandated days and localised work hubs. Others are following and failing to master the transition – criticised for uninspiring or restrictive policies or not properly explaining or setting clear boundaries for people to get creative with.

In all cases, however you move forward, it mustn’t come at the expense of employee trust or compromise the strength of your culture. These two factors are still an agency’s best advantage when looking to win the big briefs and the battle for talent.

The non-negotiables

With boundaries, people are more likely to experiment and make good judgements. When supported, people are more likely to support others and act beyond their own interests. All basic principles, but never more fundamental and at the centre of a new cultural contract that’s separating the best from the average in business and society.

#1 A solid values system. Having a strong belief system at the heart of every action you take, evident in every leadership decision and willingly embraced by every member of your team. Non-negotiable.

#2 A minimum standard of work. Setting parameters for what great looks like for the work. Wherever and however work gets done, having a standard that is universally understood, championed and honoured. Non-negotiable.

#3 Empowered teams and managers. Setting clear objectives at a team and project level to set the boundaries for autonomous action in the interests of the clients they are closer to. Support leaders to manage the complexity and be the simplifiers and role models their teams need. Non-negotiable.

#4 A well-harnessed culture. Creating a culture of wellbeing and psychological safety for people to openly share their needs, concerns and successes as they find their way through a different time. Non-negotiable.

Structured flexibility

With the non-negotiables in place, you’ll have the confidence to find the flexibility level that’s right for you. Here’s three new ERA principles to help get the balance right:

Continue the EXPERIMENT
– Draw on learnings from the last 18 months of experimentation. Ruthlessly reappraise the core work of the agency and what it takes to do it really well. Where has remote working accelerated or challenged your capacity to deliver to this standard?
– It will take time to fine-tune and adapt a future work policy. So be upfront with your teams that this is an experiment and be clear about where you need their help to stress test.
– Whilst its unhelpful to follow blindly because ‘Apple or Twitter tried it’, there’s a lot of experience out there to learn from that may give the benchmarks you need to explain the benefits of your strategy.

– Seriously ask and challenge what an existing office or potential workspace is for. Architects are experimenting with different models from ‘plazas’ to ‘neighbourhoods’. Co-working spaces are seeing a revival and hotels are reinventing themselves as work hubs with benefits. Lots of possibilities, but what will your ‘workspace’ be for – learning, collaboration, contemplation? Be ruthless about whether it measures up.
– Genuinely ask your teams how ready and confident they are to change. Be clear about what their needs really are rather than be forced to change things to retain them later down the line. Create space for people to share concerns about work, welfare or location. What you learn will be the underlying data needed to design a truly equitable workplace culture.

– Create the blueprint for your fully remote or hybrid future and draw from your research to demonstrate how it’s designed to the specific dynamics and workflows of your agency and teams. Put into practice as an experiment and be upfront and clear on how, and how often, you’ll measure success.
– Be ‘all-in’ from the start. Draw on your belief system and rally everyone around the experiment. Recruit their support and feedback to know what’s working and will be right long term. And don’t forget to role-model the changes you want to see in your teams.

Winning agencies will attract and retain a diverse mix of talent based on the strength of culture and thoughtful design of their workplace strategy. They will exceed expectations for productivity and creativity by harnessing the strengths of their teams. And they’ll do so not because of where they come together but how they make it count. Here we see the rise of the interdependent agency – mastering the non-negotiable bonds in order to realise the true power of flexibility.

First appeared in Creative Brief BITE on 15 July 2021.


About Tonic Creative Business Partners

The business consultancy to add clarity, confidence and colour to your ambition.

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