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6 lessons we’ve learnt in the past 3 years after introducing flexible working at Yardstick

Three years ago today, The Yardstick Agency changed forever.

In this week’s blog, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learnt since that pivotal day. Let’s start by winding back to 17 March 2020.

We’d already developed our Coronavirus (as it was called then) battle plan and were holding daily management meetings to deal with the forthcoming challenges. At that time, the direction of travel was clear, we were heading for a lockdown. To get ahead of events we sent our team home on 17 March.

At around 10.30 am, we gathered everyone together and told them to go home to work, stay safe and we’d see them in 2-3 months. A few minutes later, they were gone. No one knew the seismic change it would have on our business.

In the months that followed they responded brilliantly. Including an aborted attempt, in Autumn 2020, to return to the office in bubbles.  As we headed into 2021 it became increasingly clear that remote/flexible working was popular with the team and surprisingly effective. So in mid-2021, after conducting a company-wide survey, we officially introduced remote/flexible working.

During the last three years, we’ve managed the twin challenges of growth and the transition to remote/flexible working. We’ve got many things right, and a lot wrong.  In this week’s blog, we thought we’d share six things we’ve learnt along the way.

If you’re a business owner or manager, hopefully, there’s something that you’ll find useful. If you’re a Yardstick client, it’s an insight into the journey we’ve been on for the last three years.

1. You must trust your team

I was incredibly worried about the enforced move to homeworking and for a long time was in favour of a permanent return to the office.

I was wrong. Remote/flexible working has been very successful.

So when we publicly announced the change, I was surprised that some people on social media decided our team would spend their time watching Netflix instead of working. Those comments were rude, disrespectful, and more importantly, untrue.

The past three years have taught us that if you have the right people on your team, and you trust them, they will work equally as effectively from home as they will in the office.

I completely accept that’s not the case for every business. So, as my friend, Darren Cooke, said in his recent FT Adviser article, “you know what, you do you.”

That means finding out what’s right for your business, team and clients, then implementing the changes and regularly reviewing how you’re doing.

2. Flexible/remote working makes recruitment easier

Before March 2020, our recruitment primarily focused on people who could travel to our Nottingham office every day.

However, by introducing flexible/remote working we opened up the talent pool available to us, because geographical restrictions were removed and we could accept applications from people who wanted to work from home.

The benefits are demonstrated by Katie, one of our copywriters, who joined the team in 2022: “Since I live so far from the office (and I want to work from home), it wouldn’t have been possible to work at Yardstick without that policy, so if it hadn’t been in place, I probably wouldn’t have applied.”

Lucy, another of our copywriters, supports that view when she says: “The biggest benefit I get from the flexible/remote working policy is that I can live anywhere and not be tied to a single location because of work.”

For Chelsea, our head of social media advertising: “It’s having the ability to have my job work around my life, as well as working around my job. It’s the freedom of knowing that I can work from home/anywhere when needed and I’m trusted to do so”.

3. Employers must prioritise their teams’ mental wellbeing

Back in March 2020, we recognised that helping our team manage their mental health was going to be essential. So we cancelled our Perkbox membership (cheap cinema tickets weren’t much use back then!) and replaced it with access to a retained counsellor.

The deal is simple. Any team member, or their partner/spouse, could access our counsellor an unlimited number of times each month. We don’t know who has booked sessions, we simply get a bill at the end of the month.

It means our team get the support they need, when they need it. No being added to an NHS waiting list or pressure to get “fixed” before the State allocated number of sessions runs out.

It’s a system that’s worked brilliantly over the past three years and we’ll never remove it.

Here’s what one team member (who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) said about the initiative: “Debbie (our retained counsellor) is the most obvious example of how good a business Yardstick is, and shows just how much it cares about everyone on the team.”

Another team member spoke about the reassurance they get: “This is such great service to offer, incredibly valuable and it’s also really reassuring to know that it’s available as and when needed, because private therapy can be prohibitively expensive.”

It also has unintended, and positive consequences. For example, the team are now far more open when it comes to discussing their mental health challenges: “Having access to a counsellor has been helpful not only for myself but I know a few others who have found talking to Debbie beneficial. Although it can be confidential if people wish, it’s resulted in a lot of us office workers talking openly about mental health and I find that really healthy.”

4. We need to recognise that working from home isn’t perfect

Home working is popular with a large majority of our team. However, we must acknowledge it isn’t perfect and there can be unintended consequences.

Take the occasion when I removed one of our team members from a Zoom call because I felt the client (who we subsequently parted company with) was bullying them. Fortunately, the team member was in the office, so could be comforted by colleagues. I’m not sure how she’d have coped if she’d been sat at home on her own.

Lucy explains some of the pros and cons of homeworking: “While I miss the casual and spontaneous office banter, I find it far easier to focus on work with fewer distractions. One of the downsides of this is that sometimes fresh ideas may not arise as, even with Slack, conversations tend to become more choreographed and less off the cuff. This can often mean that we may be missing out on the natural results of spontaneous brainstorming.” We explain how we’ve tried to fix this problem in point 5, below.

For Chelsea, it’s the same: “When working from home, I miss the ability to just grab someone for a quick chat. I always feel like I’m disturbing them when I send a Slack message, but if they’re in front of you, you can gauge how busy they are and if it’s not the right time to ask something”.

As an employer, I believe we need to recognise the negatives of home working and, as far as we can, reduce their impact.

5. Tech can help recreate the spontaneity and physical proximity of office working

Pre-pandemic, when most of us were in the office most of the time, communication was easy. As Chelsea said, you wandered over to a colleague’s desk, asked if they had a few minutes and you’d have a chat.

Now the team works remotely, we need to find ways of recreating that proximity and spontaneity.

Zoom is essential while Slack is a godsend. We couldn’t run Yardstick without it. However, it naturally promotes written communication, which isn’t always ideal. One of the things I want team members to work harder at this year is catching up face-to-face, albeit virtually, to discuss problems.

6. Remote working means you have to work harder to create the right culture

Pre-pandemic, we’d generally down tools at 4.00 pm on a Friday and head to one of Nottingham’s fine drinking establishments for some well-earned refreshment. It was there that colleagues got to know each other and friendships developed.

Now the team is spread far and wide, we have to work harder to create meaningful social interaction.

Here are a few of the things we do:

  • Each team has a catch-up online 1-3 times per week
  • We hold monthly online quizzes on a Friday evening
  • The Yardstick Bangers Playlist starts at 2.00 pm every Friday (Click here for last week’s, a list of anthems from the Liverpool and Manchester music scenes) to recreate those moments in the office when the radio was cranked up on a Friday afternoon
  • We get the whole team together in Nottingham (paying their travel and hotel expenses) once every 3-4 months for an afternoon of activities and an evening in the pub.

All of these things take work and you need people in your team to shoulder that responsibility. We’re blessed to have Nick Parkhouse, Kay Thornton and Emma Moore who do this work for us.

We’ve also tried to find interesting ways to appreciate our staff. Last year, we announced that everyone would have their birthday off (in addition to existing holiday entitlement).

In January 2022 we introduced our weekly Kudos prize which sees each team member cast three votes for colleagues they want to appreciate. The winner gets to choose from a list of fabulously diverse prizes and we get to share some lovely feedback. It’s been a massive hit, although for the life of me, I can’t think why no one has chosen the helicopter ride as their prize!

How are we doing?

Not perfect, but we’re getting there.

Our 2021 and 2022 employee surveys showed we had an employee net promoter score of 82 in both years. And we have a 4.9/5 rating on Glassdoor, plus a 98% recommend to a friend rating, both based on 25 reviews.

We’ve also got 110 (unless Google has unilaterally decided to delete any) five-star Google reviews from existing clients.

Now over to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’re a client and there’s something we’ve got wrong, I really want to hear that. If you own a business or run a team and you’re doing different things, again, I’d love to hear more.

Email or call 0115 8965 300.

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