It’s a common misconception that successful entrepreneurs have to work insanely long hours, forego sleep and abandon a sensible work-life balance to achieve their ambitions.
Today’s agile entrepreneurs are moving away from this narrow, traditional view and finding ways to run their businesses more flexibly, adopting more fluid work cultures.
Increasingly, entrepreneurial businesses are rejecting the notion of having a fixed place of work and rigid working times.
Instead, they’re making use of shared work spaces and allowing staff to work from home or other out-of-office locations, and offering a more collaborative and inclusive environment that benefits both the business and employees.
Flexibility opens doors
Opting to work a four-day week since launch has been a decisive factor for Chris Downs, Managing Director of digital design studio Normally. “We’ve flipped the idea that success depends on working long hours every day and found that a shorter working week makes us all more productive.”
Chris and his team don’t work extra-long days or spend a fifth day working at home – it’s a genuine four-day week and strictly observed. Employees have flexibility in choosing their day off based around a combination of client and personal commitments, with some selecting regular days to be with family.
“We’re improving efficiency because our key driver is getting the job done, not how much time we spend on it,” says Chris. “We always deliver both in terms of quality and deadlines, and so far we have a 100% retention rate, a major cost-factor in our industry. Clients are surprisingly receptive and supportive of the idea.”
Having employees working from a variety of locations, such as coffee shops, shared work spaces or from home has also proved effective for online reservation specialist Booking Live, according to Sales and Marketing director Sam Johnstone.
“We know people like to work in different ways,” he says. “We’ve instituted a regular ‘rhythm’ of meetings to generate some structure but we empower people to choose their own style of working. We give them the autonomy they need to drive things forward, as if they’re running their own small business, with key performance indicators in place.”
Define your culture
Achieving a successful flexible working environment means establishing the right business culture and structure from the outset and communicating exactly what it means to the people who work for you.
The desire for a reasonable balance between work and family life motivated experienced entrepreneur Emily Kent to embed that culture from the outset when she co-founded start-up technology solutions company, One Big Circle in 2017.
Having sold a successful sports tech business last year, and as a mother of four young children, she and her partner wanted to build a flexible new business around their family rather than allow work to shape their family life.
“Discussing the culture is a first positive step and you need to ingrain it within your company and let it grow. We wanted the new business to involve flexibility, stimulation and some degree of fun, but the key thing is we’ve defined who we wanted to be first and then built work around it. Our definition of good culture is a place where people learn, develop and grow and don’t want to leave.”
To Jane Ginnever, founder of organisational change adviser, Shift Consultancy, this approach is essential.
“I advise business leaders to think about the principles on which they wish to operate, how they want people in the business to feel, what they want it to look like, then ensure this is made explicit, and provide guidelines for people. However, you should also be aware that culture is difficult to control and, ultimately, you’ll never completely own it.”
Chris Downs agrees, arguing that while business leaders should model the behaviour they want people to follow, it’s more realistic and productive to control outcomes than to try and control people directly.
Sam Johnstone adds: “You might put a flag in the ground saying this is what we believe and these are our values but your people will inevitably add to your culture, hopefully positively. So it makes sense to give them some autonomy and take them on the journey with you.”
Space to think
While entrepreneurs who champion flexible working still tend to work intensively, they also recognise they need down-time from the business to help them resolve work-related challenges more effectively.
Sam Johnstone is happy to work hard but recognises he sometimes slips into what he calls 'robot mode’. “I’m essentially a problem-solver but after a long period of hard work I know I’m getting mind block. One of my down-time activities is walking my dog, and doing that really improves my thinking when I return to the challenge. I also have an absolute rule never to take my mobile into my bedroom.”
Emily Kent’s integrated business and family life model undeniably helps reduce life-stress, but she says she still needs personal space. “I’ve stopped all my work calls diverting to my mobile and I get to switch off from all this by running with no electronic equipment such as phones or headphones. Then I can just mull things over because there are literally no other distractions.”
“It’s a myth that we’re only working when we’re at work” says Chris Downs. “I keep myself occupied with mountain biking and rock climbing and away from emails, phones, pads and laptops. I find I’m still problem-solving, just in a different way, with a lot more space and time.”