The Realities of a Utopian Workplace


Consultancy Divide By Zero is on a mission to improve the workplace, instituting a 30 hour work week amongst a raft of initiatives. But at Advertising Week APAC they shared candidly some of the pitfalls of building a worker’s utopia.

“When people were left to manage their own time, they worked really hard and well beyond the hours,” bemoans Divide By Zero director Stuart Edwards.

How many people in marketing would hear their boss say they are working too hard? But Edwards’ company, a marketing technology consultancy, is pioneering a people-first approach.

It’s not without its challenges, which he and DBZ founder Dana Teahan and operations  manager Georgie Garnham laid out in a warts and all session at Advertising Week APAC titled Adventures in the 30 Hour Work Week.

For Edwards, who helped build the Profero business across APAC before it was sold to MullenLowe Group, and was then chief operating officer for PR powerhouse Edelman in the region, the idea with the approach is to create something for the workers.

He explains: “For a long time I had been helping to build businesses for shareholders and owners for an end event, but not really building value for the people there and then, so this was an opportunity to allow people to live a balanced life. I see that as an opportunity to build greater value for our future as a society.”

The idea was simple. Full-time at DBZ means a 30-hour work week, no obligation to work any particular hours or days and full flexibility to work from wherever there is an internet connection, as well as transparency on business performance.

It sounds like a utopian enclave in an industry where burnout, churn and poor work-life balance are increasingly the norm. However, it has not been without it challenges.

The first problem was people working too hard and going over their 30 hours.

Edwards explains: “The trouble is that’s honorable, but we don’t have bonuses and rewards for people who do because we don’t want people overworking. It has a bad impact on our promise to them.

“We’re building a senior team, they’re accomplished people with complex lives. As soon as work starts spilling out over their allocation it affects their lives.”

To counter this DBZ management put in more controls, monitoring timesheets and new project management processes to try and help staff manage their time better. But this caused a different set of headaches and led to an existential crisis early for the burgeoning business

Edwards explains: “We had a lot of senior talent come to us and say they feel they are being commoditised - measuring time, monitoring timesheets and reporting back to them how billably utilised they are.

“From my point of view I wanted to keep a viable business and stay alive and pay the payroll every month, but we were facing a situation where what we were trying to achieve wasn’t working out. That surprised me as I thought we were doing everything we were for the benefit of the people, and we were just hurting them.

“Immediately we had to change the way we worked.”

They switched to an agile methodology, and changed to doing work based on a client’s available budget, prioritising what is most impactful. As Edwards explains, “when the budget runs out, we stop.”

“Obviously there’s a job to do to explain to clients how they benefit from this, the reality is this will be different from large organisations who will take as much work as they can and deliver as much work as possible,” he expands.

“We’re more interested in getting through work at a good pace, with impact and delivered on time.

“That’s not solved the problem of people overworking, and we are having open dialogues about this at the moment, but we’re abandoning timesheets which is very unusual for a professional services company.”

While a lot is made now about how young people entering the workforce are after more work-life balance, flexibility and freedom, DBZ’s experiences in the past 11 months have proved the opposite is actually true, making it a struggle to hire junior staff.

As operations manager Garnham explains: “Some of the younger talent are really hungry. They are at the beginning of their career journey and they want to work long hours, absorb, learn, be at the coalface.

“They want to be doing 40+ hours, be with people and get the exposure and the experience. So we’re coming up against people saying ‘I don’t know if I want that 30 hour thing and being flexible isn’t going to work for me’.”

Teahan expands on this: “Younger people want to learn, and they don’t want the flexibility ‘til later in their careers.”

Whilst juniors may not yet be coming to the party, clients, according to Teahan, are.

“We don’t tell clients about our structure, but people are starting to find out and they’re fine with it, it hasn’t been an issue,” he says, adding: “I was on the phone to a client earlier and said I was speaking here today, when he asked what it was about I told him about what we do, and his first reaction was ‘can I have a job?’. That’s someone who pays the bills.”

Culture is also an area where communal working must surely have advantages on remote workforces? According to Teahan, that is not the case.

“We hire really good people who come with a level of culture,” he says. “We bring people together regularly, and we have teams who cycle through projects together and they tend to self build.

“And the reality is technology now allows you to build culture. Many of our clients have multiple offices we’re remoting into anyway, so we spend a lot of time on video conferences.”

But Edwards is also realistic about the impact this can have on people entering the workforce: “It’s not all great. We’ve started hiring undergrads, they need a den to go to, and a lot of the time we’re at home or working remotely. We have an office but it’s empty.

“One turned around the other day and said, ‘this is empty, there’s no point in coming here’. So that’s a challenge for us to help enrich their experience.”

So is the utopian dream actually helping existing staff?

Garnham says emphatically yes: “I can be there for my kids before and after school, get involved with the school and have got involved with a couple of charities close to my heart so I’m able to volunteer time and emotional energy and that makes me a fuller person.”

Edwards also says it has allowed him to have more time with his young family, and “find the balance I want”.

But for self-confessed workaholic Teahan, it is a continuous struggle. “I’m trying to practise what I preach,” he admits.

“I’ve relocated to Queensland and do things people would love to do, it’s very hard as like a lot of people that work ethic is ingrained. I’m getting there slowly.”

Less than a year in the team admit they are still working through a lot of the practicalities, but have promised to share what they learn regularly to help other companies do the same.

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