Flexible Working at GPMD
Stuart Gardner / June 8, 2015
As I sit in glorious sunshine, working from the rooftop of my Airbnb apartment in Vilnius, it’s not lost on me how fortunate I am to be here - particularly as I’m in shorts and t-shirt, whilst over in London it’s currently wet and windy. London being, well, London.
My friends still scratch their heads in bewilderment when I explain that GPMD allows me - no, scrap that - GPMD empowers me, to work remotely. Alongside Vilnius, in 2015 I’ve worked from Paris, Vienna, and Tamraght (a surf town in Morocco), spending on average a month in each place. It has been a wonderful experience allowing me to explore and fulfil my own passion of travelling, whilst holding down a regular job.
This post will dig a little deeper into why we not only allow, but encourage flexible working at GPMD, and look at some of the challenges we have faced making this happen. For those of you who are perhaps more cynical, this isn’t going to be a ‘happy clappy’ post about ‘google-fying’ work, but one that will hopefully shed some light on the practical aspects of flexible working.
What’s all this fuss about flexible working?
And why we do it...
First off, let’s define ‘flexible’. For GPMD, flexible means that we don’t have to work from the office everyday. Some colleagues choose to do this, but we all have the option to split our work location between the office, home, a coffee shop, or another country. It also means that we don’t have to work rigid hours, and have the ability to mould our hours to suit us. As we’ll come onto, this is all tempered with the phrase “within reason, and where practical”.
So why do we offer flexible working? At GPMD, we have similar ambitions to others: we want great clients, smart and interesting colleagues, an inspiring culture, and to ultimately build a profitable and awesome company. At the same time, we’re not driven purely by our bottom line. Yes, we want our team to work hard for GPMD but this doesn’t conflict with our view that LIFE > WORK, and none of us want to be slaves to a wage. We want our team to work in a way that gives them the flexibility and the opportunity to do what is important for them. For me, this is the ability to travel and explore, for Mark and Matt, it’s taking their kids to school each morning, for Leo, it’s running The Coolector. It can also be the little things, like having a lie in and avoiding the commute when you’re tired, or working from home so you can collect your ASOS delivery (*cough, Becki, cough*).
Our belief is that giving your team more control over their work-life balance makes them happier, more appreciative of GPMD, and ultimately more engaged with their work. It also differentiates us from the majority of the agencies we compete with, helping us to attract great talent.
Bye bye, rules?
Well, not exactly...
Not quite… As mentioned, our flexible working comes with the caveat or “within reason , and where practical”. We still have demanding clients with high expectations, and we expect our team to put in the hours and to deliver great work. Flexible working does not allow our team to work fewer hours, but it does give our team more control to manage when they put in their hours.
I won’t claim that we have it all figured out - we don’t - but we seem to be striking a happy balance. We still believe there has to be a structure to your day, and we do want, and often need, visibility over what our team are working on. And for flexible working to be effective, the boundaries need to be set and clearly communicated so that they’re understood by your team.
Structure and Process
How we do it...
People often associated flexible working with a lack of corporate structure. We disagree. It’s really important to us that we do still have a structure and that we have well documented processes. Wherever possible, it’s about minimising surprises, and having great communication and coordination. When your team can all work remotely, you miss out on those ‘watercooler’ moments, or being able to quickly grab someone for a chat, and a structure helps to facilitate these.
Our structure consists of a number of scheduled meetings and tasks that are compulsory for all our team, whether remote or in the office. These include...
Daily stand-ups - every morning we have compulsory daily stand-ups which set the structure for the day, and ensures that each team is on track. If you are working remotely, you have to dial in for the stand up. If you work ‘non-standard’ hours, you still need to dial in. E.g. it’s fine by us if they dial in for stand up at 9am, go for a run 9:15-10am, and start work at 10:30am.
Desk schedule - we have a shared Google Sheet that shows everyone where they will be working, e.g. from the office or remotely. This is filled in at least a week in advance, and allows the team to better plan and coordinate when and how to catch up.
Company meetings - every fortnight we have a more in-depth company-wide meeting. This is compulsory for all, again either in person or via dialing in. This meeting allows us to all catch up with progress, to discuss any important news or issues, and to get everyone pointing in the same direction.
For those of us (like myself, or Dieter) who are more nomadic, we agree a set of rules. For me, I’m allowed to continue my ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle, on the provisos that wherever I work has great internet (Morocco, you let me down...), is within a reasonable timezone to London, and that every 4-6 weeks I come back to work from the office - all perfectly reasonable, and this give and take helps GPMD to thrive.
In fact, it is worth mentioning that when I started with GPMD, I spent a few weeks upfront working from the office before working remotely. This allowed me to build relationships and to get to know the team.
Trust me, I’m a doctor
No wait - I'm actually a remote worker...
When you’re a small business owner, you’re used to knowing every detail about your company. As such, it can be difficult to allow your team to work flexibly. You fear that people may take advantage, won’t work as hard without you peering over their shoulder, and that without being able to see them you won’t know what the rascals are up to.
This is why trust is such an important component of flexible working. You need to trust that your team will deliver their work, and that they will do so on time and to the quality you expect. Without this level of trust, flexible working will not work for your organisation. Now reaching this level of trust is another story - it’s definitely not a simple case of clicking your fingers, and suddenly everyone is a model employee. Our belief is that our colleagues are inherently trustworthy, but at the same time, they have to keep earning and maintaining that trust. And the best way for them to do this is to consistently deliver high-quality work, on time. Related to trust, you also need a particular attitude, maturity, and self-drive to work under your own steam, and this isn’t easy for everyone. It took me a while to find my rhythm, whilst others never quite get there. And some people will, unfortunately, lose your trust completely. And once the trust has gone, it’s difficult to build this back up.
Ground control to Major To...hello?
Hello? Major Tom?
The thread which ties this all together, is communication. When you’re not in the same office, or even the same timezone, having clear, frequent, and open communication is key to making flexible working a success. And whilst technology isn’t the only enabler for this, it has to be given a significant amount of credit. Never has it been so easy to work out of the office whilst still being there “in person”. We use a combination of communication tools such as Slack, FlowDock, and Google Hangout that help us to communicate in ‘real time’ and ‘face-to-face’. And we use a number of products such as Dropbox and Google Drive to share files. We haven’t yet found the optimal setup and still use too many different products and platforms, but in time we’ll figure it out. When we do, I’ll throw a little party and post an update here.
Speaking of timezones, so far my remote working has always been within a couple of hours of the UK. Greater timezone differences can still work and later this year I’m going to have a crack at working from Asia. Flexible working is most effective when you’re working the same hours, even when you’re in different timezones - or at least there must be a fair chunk of overlap. It will mean I’ll need to shift my working day quite a bit, but this is the give-and-take that is required. For example, if I’m in Hong Kong and 8 hours ahead of the UK, I’m likely to start work in the late afternoon, and work till the wee hours. Prior to GPMD, I tried working with colleagues on Australian time, and it was unworkable. Our working days had very little overlap and this significantly slowed down our communication and progress.
And that’s it from me. If your company promotes flexible working, or allows you to work remotely, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you make this work for you.