How London’s top design studios are finding the right work-life balance for a post-Covid world

With input from some PCL’s best-known super-prime designers, recruitment specialist Jason Bailey looks at how studios are managing the balance of working from home and the return to office life…

With input from some PCL’s best-known super-prime designers, recruitment specialist Jason Bailey looks at how studios are managing the balance of working from home and the return to office life…

With Apple committing to three days back in the office, the FT forecasting a showdown between workers who want flexible work and employers who don’t, and Facebook claiming that remote working “is the future” – it’s fair to say that the transition back to office life comes with mixed views and will be a rocky path for many to navigate.

‘Talking to candidates now, their first question is around work-life balance and the office home split’

Closer to home, the super-prime world is certainly not immune. Witnessing the Apple debate in recent weeks only goes to highlight many of the issues my clients are facing right now.

Employees’ views, their expectations and what they value in an employer has changed irrevocably. Talking to candidates now, their first question is around work-life balance and the office/home split – a question that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago. Renumeration and size of studio once took centre stage, but now work-life balance and the flexibility of set-up is the ultimate pre-requisite of a future employer.

The studios succeeding right now are those offering clarity around their position

The super prime design market has adapted well all things considered; where face-to-face presentations once took precedent, with mood boards, physical samples and materials pored over by designers and clients alike – this industry has adapted to remote online working incredibly well.

That said, with lockdown over and options opening, studios must now commit to their position on the home Vs office work balance moving forward. Understandably there is some reluctance to lay out a new protocol and moreover, include it in employment contracts… However, the studios succeeding right now are those offering clarity around their position when it comes to the home and office balance.

We take a mature approach to work-life balance and don’t want to compromise that by placing hard and fast rules

Ben Johnson, Director, Albion Nord: “There is a mutual trust and respect between management and our team, as a consequence we get their dedication and commitment. We take a mature approach to work-life balance and don’t want to compromise that by placing hard and fast rules, particularly given the evolving nature of this pandemic and the way we want to move forward with new and adaptive ways of working.”

The most popular set-up seems to be three days in the office and two days at home, offering flexible working hours on the office days. This is the minimum candidates are looking for and what my clients are leaning towards in terms of what they are offering.

We have seen such a positive culture shift

Hamish Brown, Partner, 1508 London: “We no longer expect everybody in the office everyday as it’s just not necessary. As a studio we have seen such a positive culture shift, just by allowing staff to split their working week between the home and studio – why go back?”

Having everybody in the office everyday is just not necessary, says Hamish Brown of 1508 London

What’s clear is that there has to be flexibility in the working day now, it can no longer be a rigid day nine-to-five; candidates are used to managing their own time, and piecing that time into a day that suits them.

For example, when at home they can enjoy morning exercise, take a quick shower and be at their desk within ten minutes, with no worry about travel, traffic and tube delays etc. – so effectively, commute time has become their time and, frankly, they are loathed to give that back.

I do think that studios reverting to a five-day office week are going to sacrifice talent in a big way – the best people will demand flexibility. And they will get it.

Studios must be careful not to lose good people

Chris Godfrey, Global Principal, HBA Residential: “Studios must be careful not to lose good people by being too rigid with their working from home policies – this pandemic has really forced us all to adapt and move with the times – I honestly think it’s brought with it so much positive change for our industry.”

Nevertheless, there are risks associated with offering too much flexibility. Some studios have gone the other way and no longer have an office – this in my opinion is too extreme.

There is no denying that less time together, collaborating in teams impacts the company culture and sense of community, and as a consequence you will sacrifice the loyalty of employees. Without these bonds between co-workers and management lines, people lose a sense of belonging and will leave at a moment’s notice.

The time we have together is very precious

Charu Gandhi, Founder, Elicyon: “The last 18 months has made me appreciate the value of socialising and team building even more… the time we have together is very precious, we therefore use it well to create, collaborate and celebrate all the enjoyable aspects of work.”

‘The time we have together is very precious, we therefore use it well to create, collaborate and celebrate all the enjoyable aspects of work’, says Charu Gandhi of Elicyon

Furthermore, facilitating provision of hardware for this mixed working set-up is no mean feat. On the whole I’ve seen studios be incredibly accommodating when it comes to hardware and tech; this will need to continue as candidates regularly ask me “what will my home set up be like?” It’s something that again needs careful consideration and cannot be addressed on an ad hoc basis.

It’s hard to claim with any certainty best practice in these circumstances- we’re in unchartered territories and of course every business is different – however there are a few protocols that seem to be working right now:

1. Commit to your plan and put it in the contract

It’s not enough to have a casual arrangement with new hires regarding your home and office set up – candidates are looking for clarity and also certainty about what’s being offered. If it’s not in the contract it could change in a moment’s notice, they will therefore will chose an employer that has committed it to their terms of employment.

2. Mix flexibility into the framework 

Consider core working hours with flexibility around start and end times, this gives employees a sense of independence and autonomy, but maintains a framework and structure for the business.

3. Don’t turn your back on office life altogether 

It’s tempting to choose a blanket approach, when faced with the intricacies of managing flexibility and the nuances of this balanced approach, however the risks of a complete home working set up are high – culture will be lost with employee trust and loyalty hard to maintain.

4. Commit to face-to-face when it counts

To keep the spark alive and the community thriving don’t get lazy when it comes to team socials and get togethers – face-to-face interaction is more relevant now than it’s ever been before. Also take the time to interview in person – there’s no on-screen substitute for that first impression you get when meeting new candidates.

There is no doubt that this current feeling will be forgotten by many, and in a year’s time we may see ourselves drift back to pre-pandemic behaviours. However, I do think the mindset won’t change, particularly amongst the younger generation, who have been in charge of their own time for too long now to be comfortable going back into a rigid nine-to-five routine.

It’s therefore critical that studios take note and challenge themselves to adapt if they are to remain relevant in a post-Covid world.