Having run with a flexible working approach at Fountain since we hired our first employee ten years ago, I’ve recently been asked to share how we have made it work for us. And because it’s one of those things (like so many!) that we got wrong before we got right, I’m definitely happy to share our approach and what we learned along the way.

Why flexible working?

Our original policy came about because we had team members with commitments outside of work, like caring or sports, and also because the four founders had an instinct against forcing people to sit in rush-hour traffic. We have team members who travel by train and bus, and the idea that timetables means they would have to arrive early and leave late so that they can be present 9-5 seems madness. 

As a digital marketing agency, the only aspect of our work that can’t be done remotely is the collaborative side – so while full-on remote working isn’t our ideal, there’s nothing to say that we need people all to be at their desks at the same time.

Why not flexi-time?

Once we grew past 4-5 employees, we felt than an informal system was too messy, so we implemented a flexi-time system. Over time, however, we realised it wasn’t right for us. 

Clocking in and clocking off, while potentially right for some businesses, actually caused more issues than it solved for us. It felt pernickety and petty – as though we’d be asking people to “make up” 12 minutes here, or they’d “take back” 7 minutes there. With a team of passionate people, it felt like we were reigning in their commitment. The people who naturally want to work until a job is done still did – and the people who naturally want to leave as soon as humanly possible still did. It was an added layer of admin, and the only interaction we had with it felt like checking up on people.

So what DID work?

The breakthrough for us came hand-in-hand with our move to non-hierarchy, which put an emphasis on autonomy amongst our team members. And don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to change your organisational structure just to implement flexible working – but removing a centralised “oversight” on working hours and making the trust implicit in our culture was definitely a helpful factor.

The other factor for success was time-sheeting. Because we allocate time across the agency for our clients, and record it, we are able to see how people are getting through their allocated workload. A simple check of average hours time-sheeted will give us a much better sense of how people are working than knowing what time they walked through the door in the morning. 

One piece of advice I have is to clearly define what flexible working means. For example, at Fountain the assumption is that everyone will work 9-5 – and if they’re deviating from that norm, the responsibility is theirs to let their colleagues know when they will or won’t be available. We have people who regularly work 8-4, others who leave early some days to pick kids up from school and then work in the evening after their kids’ bedtime. These things will work for some people and not others, so we just keep an open dialogue about it. 

Our current policy is to not agree for people to regularly work from home one full day a week – it would make internal meetings really hard, and is one of those things that wouldn’t work if everyone does it. But if people need to work from home on ad hoc basis – whether because they want to complete a task uninterrupted, or have to wait in for the boiler man, that’s fine by us. It’s their responsibility to make sure that works with their work commitments.

We ask people to communicate clearly about when they’ll be around – our company WhatsApp group usually starts the day with a few “I’ll be WFH until 12”, “be in at 9.30”, and “only around until 2pm today, shout before then if you need me” messages.

And in general, this approach of autonomy, trust and the back-up of time-sheeting, works brilliantly. 

Does it always work?

We do still have less-smooth moments. People who start at 8am can easily get caught up in agency-life issues that means they’re suddenly working longer days – and that’s not what we want. We have more conversations checking in with people who are time-sheeting more hours than expected, than those time-sheeting fewer – some of those people have too much on, others actively choose to take pressure off themselves by working slightly longer; the only way to approach it is on a case-by-case basis, with open and honest communication.

We also have had issues of perception among team members – that someone is always leaving early, when people don’t see them arrive at the crack of dawn. Or people not seeming available when they’re working from home. These are easily solved with a few open conversations. 

Most importantly, we have never had concerns from clients. External meetings are obviously kept as sacred, and I would assume that most of our clients don’t know that we operate in this way.

The secret sauce to successful flexible working

Our commitment to flexible working is like many things at Fountain: we’ll make this work as long as it works, but if it starts to cause issues, we’ll have to review it. That puts the onus of making it work on the team members who benefit from it. And truthfully, that’s probably the most important aspect of it. If we were policing every arrival and departure, I’m sure it could lead to a culture of trying to “game” the system – but by making it the responsibility of the people who benefit from it to make it work, everyone is pulling in the same direction.

To re-cap, flexible working works at Fountain because of:

  • Trust and autonomy
  • Open communication
  • Workload allocation / time-sheeting
  • Shared responsibility for making it work

I wouldn’t ever claim that flexible working is right for everyone or for every business. We love it at Fountain – it meets the needs of our team members, supports them in their lives beyond work and means that we can offer a flipside to those “all-hands-on-deck” moments that are common in agency life.