Review: Prolific North Champions Award Winners' Roundtable - A Happy Hybrid
A selection of industry leaders from across the North of England came together recently for a roundtable discussion on the future of work.
As winners at the Prolific North Champions Awards - which took place in September - senior figures from those companies united at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum on October 13th to talk about their approaches to hybrid work; staff retention; company culture in the pandemic, and more.
They shared insights on supporting existing staff, debated how to improve retention in a competitive market, and what the last 18 months have meant for their business as a whole.
The event was held in association with Brewin Dolphin, Associate Sponsor at the Champions Awards.
Chaired by David Prior, Editor of Prolific North
Harrison Turner, Wealth Manager, Brewin Dolphin
Charlotte Tattersall, Chartered Financial Planner, Brewin Dolphin
Simon Bollon, MD, Boutique
- Scott Baxter, Co-owner, First Internet Marketing
- Melissa Hermitt, Operations Director, Dept
- Bec Chelin, MD, Manifest
- Daniel Byrne, Head of Strategy, Agent Marketing
- Jim Bridson, Marketing Manager, KCC Live
- James Copson, Creative Director, Anattic
- James Hodson, Head of Sales, Evoluted
Following coffee, breakfast and some networking, the event kicked off with a welcome to David Prior (Prolific North), who said “you arrive as winners”, and thanked the event’s supporters, Brewin Dolphin.
Harrison Turner of Brewin Dolphin introduced himself and colleague Charlotte Tattersall, and explained how the wealth management firm was specialising in developing partnerships with people in creative and digital, due to the sectors’ massive growth.
Prior started the discussion by asking each attendee what their business was doing at the moment in terms of remote and hybrid work.
Scott Baxter (First Internet) said they had everyone back in the office except for one, who was working remotely due to illness. At Anattic, said James Copson, due to their work making ads and online content, everyone works from home apart from when going on shoots together.
Charlotte Tattersall (Brewin Dolphin) said people are coming back into the offices now, though many are still anxious about returning. They’re waiting to see how and where people work best.
Jim Bridson (KCC Live) said he has noticed a split in some people being very up for returning, while others are reluctant to show their faces.
Dan Byrne (Agent Marketing) said they’re completely office-based, having refurbed their Liverpool office and opened a bigger Manchester office, and always having had something of a hybrid model.
Simon Bollon of Boutique explained their system which sees everyone in the office on Tuesdays and then picking another day. Having tried letting people come in when they want, Boutique found people didn’t like it.
James Hodson (Evoluted) said the agency was fully remote normally, with some elements of hybrid.
Having five offices worldwide, said Bec Chelin, Manifest already did some hybrid pre-pandemic. Now they’re fully hybrid with people coming into the office as and when they choose - operating on a basis of trust, autonomy, and doing what's right for them and their team.
Melissa Hermitt (Dept) said the agency has set its office up for hybrid. It’s introduced a limited booking system for desks allowing a maximum of 45 people in at a time - and tasked team leads with getting people in at least 20% of the time. However they don’t want to set strict rules to ensure autonomy and trust.
Harrison (Brewin Dolphin) said that junior members of the team have wanted to come into the office sooner, something echoed by many, due to living in claustrophobic city centre flats, as well as the social and learning aspect enabled by office work.
The difficulties maintaining company culture
Bec (Manifest) said whether you've managed to maintain a culture or not, it's hard. The agency had to put it front of mind, committing to stand-ups at the beginning of the day and allowing people clear areas of the day for headspace and the chance, for example, to get a walk in during daylight hours.
Simon (Boutique) found that initiatives like the 26.2 Challenge worked well, with people all able to do something together. Others included ‘Brew-tique’, having a cup of tea with someone.
What was hard, he said, was the micro-cultures being created. On Slack specifically, some teams were focused on numbers and KPIs while others were chatting and asking questions. To help, the agency focused on sharing fun and interesting things, including their CSR activities. “Mindful management of the process helped us.”
Jim (KCC Live) said the station has a checking-in rule - if someone says they can’t turn up for a slot three times in a row, they make the effort to check in on them.
David (Prolific North) asked if anyone thought the past 18 months were actually exactly what they needed.
James (Anattic) said that they used to be in the office every day as a team then go on shoots, and now reunite every so often on shoots, and don’t have to worry about commuting. It’s now more flexible for them.
Melissa (Dept) said the day after lockdown started she was concerned about getting any work done, and thought productivity utilisation would drop. In fact, it showed the team can work autonomously and well. However it isn’t sustainable before people start to burn out.
People want a return to the social side of agency life and the ability to work alongside their friends. One existing benefit of Dept’s global nature was the whole-company Slack channels where people could discuss their interests, plus introducing physical challenges.
Bec (Manifest) said they’re trying to encourage people’s personal interests as well, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect their team. In terms of work-life balance, you’re welcome to do so if you work best earlier in the morning or later at night, particularly as they have studios overseas in different time zones.
Dan (Agent Marketing) said the longer someone had been at the agency and the more senior they were, the less the shift seemed to affect company culture. For more junior people there was something missing from agency life and experience.
One key motivation for bringing everyone back was the question of how do you introduce and train new starters and junior members of staff properly, while being remote. People were in their bedrooms and working late to justify their salary - not how things should have been.
Bec (Manifest) said remotely, it’s impossible to see from across the room if someone’s struggling. Many juniors suffered with decision paralysis, and said yes to every task while suffering in silence.
Charlotte (Brewin Dolphin) said many graduates had joined recently, and many hadn’t met everyone in the office, so weren’t pulled into the positive culture. They have a buddy process now done virtually, and a new starter pack to introduce people to teams and the office.
How senior leaders get support and guidance
Simon (Boutique) said one trick he thinks the industry missed was engaging with and learning from other agencies. He talked with around eight agency owners about their challenges, but didn’t do it consistently.
“There's more we could have done learning from each other and sharing,” he said.
David (Prolific North) asked what senior leaders needed to know.
Simon (Boutique) said he didn’t have a day off in two years, and realised he’d become a “busy fool” when he finally did. However, COVID and working from home changed his life in a positive way once he had that realisation. He now does the school run twice a week and ends his workday at 3pm on Thursdays and Fridays, enabled through transparency.
Jim (KCC Live) agreed, saying this would never exist years ago. There’s more to life than overworking yourself, and being able to see your children come home from school is brilliant.
James (Evoluted) said the agency has recently changed its core hours from 10am - 4pm to 10am - 3pm, letting people work around those. People can do the school run and more and be accountable at times that suit them.
Bec (Manifest) said it’s just communication. Put your Slack status as Busy, block time in your diary, just let people know when you are and aren’t available.
What can be done about staff retention
For Dept, retention is a struggle, said Melissa. It’s a “double whammy” - not only do people feel less scared to move roles but the growth within the industry is enormous. Salaries are going up and people’s expectations have changed.
In terms of flexible working, competitors offering better terms will also have an effect. If you want to bring everyone back to the office they can always go somewhere else with less stress and more flexibility.
Harrison (Brewin Dolphin) said the firm is now promoting alternatives to simple salary increases - including training courses and programmes or a day’s volunteering which they’ll support. What’s more, business owners have got them in to do financial wellbeing classes with staff - another step in the right direction for creating a good culture.
There’s been more movement in the last 12 months, said James (Evoluted). It’s been different between departments. Being remote, however, has opened up a new pool of talent - now people no longer have to commute daily to Sheffield. At the same time, it’s hard to find the right people. “There's more people to pick out of, but people have found it easier to move on.”
Evoluted also encourages people’s side projects, embodied by their founder Ash Young’s venture setting up a car mat ecommerce site and successfully growing it to £1 million in sales, on the side.
There’s huge competition for some roles, said Bec (Manifest). You've got to look at the general employment package as well as basic salary to compete. They don’t speak of perks but balance, offering things like wellness subscriptions, unlimited holidays, and flexible working policies.
However if you’ve inflated people’s salaries artificially now - to retain or attract them - that sets a path for the rest of their career, and it’s a question of if it’s sustainable at all.
Scott (First Internet) said they’ve retained the majority of their team, and grown over lockdown. It was winning the Champions Award which highlighted to other companies which brands individuals at First Internet had worked with, and they started getting approached.
What’s a greater challenge is getting in developers who can hit the ground running. They’ve found some people are calling themselves developers without having the knowledge.
Dan (Agent Marketing) said that video and development are areas in the jobs market which are very hot at the moment. What’s more, many people are considering going freelance now - they want a change and it affects the salary situation overall.
Discussing furlough, he described how they sat down with everyone and told them they wouldn’t furlough one. They said “don’t be worried” and it helped people feel more comfortable.