Achieving a healthy work-life balance at a digital agency

How Builtvisible embraces shared values and resource modelling to buck the trend

The agency world has traditionally been terrible for work-life balance.

From the Mad Men-esque “good old days” to today’s always-on culture there is a widely accepted norm that agency life is one of long working hours, unrealistic deadlines and counting down the days, months and years until that dream in-house role presents itself.

Yes, the odd long lunch here and night out there take the edge off, but even these don’t lighten the workload – quite the opposite in fact – and they can hardly be seen as payoff for consistent 14-hour days.

At best, an organisation failing to proactively manage work-life balance is irresponsible, and at worst it is downright damaging to everyone involved. The Mental Health foundation states that work-related stress costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year. Literally no-one wins.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is at the heart of how we operate at Builtvisible, and this article serves to outline our approach, inspire other organisations to adopt a similar level of focus, and lift the lid on one of the core factors that makes this agency an incredible choice for our people and our clients alike.

What does work-life balance actually mean?

Before we dive in to how to manage work-life balance it is important to define what we mean by the term work-life balance.

A lazy Wikipedia search produces

“the term used to describe the balance that an individual needs between time allocated for work and other aspects of life.”

While this serves as a starting point, it is very easy to gloss over the most important point in this statement – that of the individual.

For me, the key to beginning to understand work-life balance is to acknowledge the fact that the notion itself is completely different from person to person. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and it takes an investment in time to unearth what it means to everyone individually in your organisation.

Not only is it very personal, but it is fluid. The idea of balance changes as both our careers and personal lives progress. What someone considers balanced at the beginning of their career certainly isn’t the same at the middle or the end, and anything can happen in life to change its definition from one week to the next.

Clearly, to scale this as a management team requires buckets of empathy and complete alignment on priorities. We’ll dig in to what good looks like after we’ve run through a few key benefits.

How does a healthy work-life balance benefit the agency environment?

Living the cultural ideal of a healthy work-life balance begins and ends with the most important asset you have as an agency – your people.

Balance keeps morale high, it means people stick around and it genuinely makes for more rounded individuals – an essential trait in what is usually a fast-paced, diverse and challenging environment. I genuinely believe our focus on delivering this for our staff is one of the key contributors to our low turnover rate and average tenure of ~5 years. The longer people stick around, the better relationships they build and in turn the more balance this provides.

But the benefits extend beyond your team.

Your clients get the best of your people. They work with energised, switched-on individuals that understand that while work is important, it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Not only that, confidence that an account team is going to be consistent over many years is something about which few agencies are able to boast – an area I deem critical in supplier selection.

Finally, the work clients receive is all the better for it – the result of an appropriate investment in time, clear thinking and enthusiasm for the task at hand.

So, what can you do? Here three of the initiatives we have solidified at Builtvisible to buck the trend in agency work-life balance.

Define what you stand for and bake it in

Establishing a clear set of specific, tangible values to which the agency holds itself accountable is an essential part of building the foundations for success. Going through this process in conjunction with our front-line agency staff was one of the most useful exercises we have been through as a business to help guide how we operate.

We avoided buzzwords and vagaries, and instead focused on personal, direct feedback from our team about what working at Builtvisible meant to them. Part of what emerged was demonstrable evidence that balance was an important part of why the guys enjoy their time here so much, so we baked it in to one of the five core company values that relate to our people.

“Builtvisible gives us the balance we need to become better human beings”

This statement allows us to not only make sure we aren’t working all hours under the sun but has inspired new initiatives such as volunteering during working hours and physical and mental wellness support – two brilliant schemes that highlight perfectly the idea that balance doesn’t just mean going home on time.

It also caters to those who want to constantly push themselves, those that don’t, and those that fluctuate between the two as life priorities shift.

As a management team we are completely accountable to the idea of balance, and it is abundantly clear when we have to act, whether that means hiring to increase our resource, redistributing work, or dialling down someone’s allocation.

Invest in a resourcing model that works for everyone

Re-engineering how we resource the agency has been one of the largest and most complex projects we have undertaken in our 10-year history. Simultaneously it is also one of the most effective – with top line delivered revenue rocketing almost overnight and workloads beginning a long decline to more manageable levels.

The former meant we could reinvest more back in to our staff (thus further improving balance) and the latter remains an on-going challenge to find the perfect balance. It still isn’t perfect and we have to iron out a few kinks, but clear guiding principles have kept us focused on what we wanted to achieve.

Obviously, the aim is that we are able to successfully deliver the work we sell to our clients at the quality they have come to expect, but with our own people at the core of our thinking, we were always able to focus our attention on what was really important and look after them before anything else.

As such, the system we built has a couple of key components that facilitate a healthy work-life balance:

Built-in tolerances: We aim to resource the agency at 80% of capacity. This means we have 20% of our time left over for unexpected client priorities, personal development of the team or internal tasks such as marketing. Again, this is an ideal, and it does fluctuate month to month, but this our entry point to ensuring resourcing works for our team.

It also removes the idea of presenteeism as tolerance means the vast majority of people can leave at a reasonable hour – making late nights and weekends the exception, not the norm.

Control through detail: Our resourcing system is complex. It has been built predominantly by our Financial Director in collaboration with Client Services and departmental heads. The business outcome is a hugely nuanced, bespoke system that generates invaluable data on how we are performing as an agency.

The outcome for our staff and their work-life balance is a system that is so much more than human Tetris. It understands individual competencies, provides early warning systems for managers and makes sure we don’t over-promise and under-deliver – one of the most common crimes of agency leadership.

Don’t be greedy

Over-selling is a consistent problem in agency world.

When you think about it, the only winner is the sales team in the form of commission or bonus. Everyone else loses.

Your front-line staff lose on a personal level as their evenings and weekends disappear for six months. The work they are doing gets worse because they are tired, deadlines are impossible and they don’t have the time they need to do a good job.

Morale starts to dip as a consequence, and you start to experience that classic agency churn in terms of both fed up staff and clients that no longer trust you to deliver.

My good friend Luca at Genie Goals always talks his belief that if all agencies were better, there would be more trust in the model and there would be more business to go around – “All ships rise with the tide”. Overselling is a very easy way for clients to lose trust in agencies in general through awful experiences.

If you truly value your staff and your resourcing model tells you that you can’t deliver it, manage the client on timelines or scope. It is as simple as that.

In summary

Genuinely achieving work-life balance in agency world is difficult. It is an idea that needs buy-in across the company – from trust within the front-lines to accountability among the management.

Bake it in to your values and be held accountable. Otherwise you are just paying lip service to an idea that few have cracked over the years. It is difficult, and there is always more that can be done, but it will keep you focused on being better.

Use these values to inspire your operations. Don’t be like everyone else and over-commit to work. Instead create the most accurate view on your resourcing you can and use it to control what comes in and what goes out. Without either of these your commitment is baseless.

We have witnessed first-hand that focusing on these processes has resulted in tangible outcomes for Builtvisible such as better staff retention, more efficient hiring, cultural alignment with the right types of clients and a more enjoyable day-to-day experience for everyone involved.

I could not recommend a similar approach more.

Join the Inner Circle

Industry leading insights direct to your inbox every month.