“We forgot what a five-day week was like”: how design studios are taking on flexible work

From recharge days to Fridays off and flexible hours, we speak to studios about how they are rethinking the working week.

In June, Brighton-based studio Baxter & Bailey gave its team of nine designers the Friday off. The Recharge Day, as it was termed, was an acknowledgement of the “different and challenging circumstances” the studio had been through for the past year, explains creative director Matt Baxter. “We understood from discussions that the team had found [the past year] draining at times,” Baxter adds. “And we just wanted to do something – a small gesture to say thanks.”

Clients were informed, while deadlines and out-of-office notices were arranged accordingly. “You can shut the doors for the day and nothing disastrous happens,” Baxter says. The idea originated from a Slack group set up for agency founders early on in the first lockdown last year, he explains. Ideas around managing stress and burnout were discussed openly between studios. While there are no plans to make the Recharge Day a permanent fixture, Baxter & Bailey has made efforts to implement different types of working throughout the pandemic – a practice Baxter believes will continue.

There will be flexible working hours and a mix of in-studio and at-home work, for example. Baxter & Bailey also runs ‘180 days’ where employees take half a day off on Fridays on a rotating basis (180 is the total number of minutes the designers take off from the week). They’re encouraged to do something they wouldn’t usually do in the daytime – visit an exhibition, go to to the cinema or hike through the countryside.

The only requirement is that they tell everyone what they did in the following week. “With this flexible approach, the underpinning element that needs to be present is trust,” Baxter says. When you’re working with a range of designers and experience levels, it’s also key to communicate when and where people will be working. “We all need to trust that we all will get on with what we need to get on with – it’s a really good test of studio culture,” Baxter adds.

The need for a mental and physical break

Courtesy of Baxter & Bailey

Ideas around flexible work have not been created by the pandemic, but the past year has given studios an opportunity to rethink. The desire to change is widespread. According to a Design Week poll of over 150 designers, 86% say that their studios have implemented flexible working over the past year, while 74% of people believe their consultancies could be doing more to support such measures.

London-based DixonBaxi has adapted since lockdown – it now works to a four-and-a-half-day week. Every Friday, from 1pm, the studio stops regular work. Co-founder Simon Dixon says that it was prompted by the lockdown at the end of last year. “When it was dark in winter and people weren’t getting enough sunlight, there was a mental and physical need to get out,” he adds. The idea of starting and finishing work in the dark prompted the senior team to consider working hours for the team of around 35 designers.

It’s up to team members how they use their time – whether it’s to socialise or go to a museum. The studio has also been careful to ensure that designers do not work longer other days of the week to make up for the Friday afternoon off. Some people do use the time for research and development (R&D), Dixon explains, while others might approach a “gnarly bit of a project”.

This sense of balance is to be expected when it comes to implementing big changes. “With the Euros on, the idea that you can take the Friday afternoon and get down to a beer garden and watch football is very compelling,” Dixon adds. “But maybe when the football isn’t on, you might do something else.” Some senior members of staff have used the time to look into mentoring, while junior designers have taken the opportunity to try learning different techniques.

“You have to spot where you might be burning out”

DixonBaxi’s Astrid D’hont and Karun Agimal painting for a project

Decisions like this do not happen overnight. Dixon explains that the topic was discussed among a senior team, which considered the financial and time commitments. All staff are still paid for five full days of work, for example. But would there be too much stress on the workflow? And would the same number of projects be completed? “If we weren’t as productive, and if people didn’t like it, we would have stopped it,” Dixon says. “We’re in the creative industry – and of all the industries in the world – we’re one who could try things.”

A shorter working week increases productivity, Dixon believes. “When you come back to work, you’re sharper and more productive,” he says. “Rather than it being about the number of hours, it’s about how much work you can get done in a period.” Some 82% of responses to our poll said that a reduced working week would be beneficial to productivity as well. The creative industries, where deadlines and long working days are commonplace, may be especially in need of such initiatives. “You have to spot where you might be burning out,” Dixon warns.

He explains that the Friday afternoon initiative has also helped the overall creative process. “We’ve looked at where projects might veer or drift because we get a little bit lost in the process,” he says. “It’s helped us sharpen the rhythm of how projects work.” Though he’s keen not to over calibrate, Dixon believes other changes could be in store for the future.

The studio is looking at taking the entire Friday off to try out experimental work or further test R&D projects. The past year – and in particular the successful shift to working from home – has emboldened the studio. “It’s taken the pressure off me to worry – we’ve done the hardest thing we’ll probably ever have to do as a company,” Dixon says, adding that flexibility has long been a focus thanks to the studio’s mostly international client base.

“You see better efficiencies and better responses from people”

Courtesy of Baxter & Bailey

Bulletproof chief creative officer Nick Rees explains that one of the stranger parts of lockdown has been the concept of time. “Everyone is sat at home and locked up but time is what people are lacking for themselves,” he says. Commutes may have been gone, but holidays were also impossible and time at home had an extra “intensity”, Rees says.

The leadership team decided to give studio employees – 170 people in the London office – the last Friday of each month off. The idea was to have a rejuvenating long weekend once a month. Though it was conceived as a temporary measure, Rees explains that the feedback was so beneficial that it was made permanent in the second lockdown.

Now the twelve extra days off every year are locked into people’s contracts. Like DixonBaxi, all designers are still paid the same. Rees echoes Dixon’s comment about increased productivity. “You see better efficiency and better responses from people,” he says. In the four-day weeks, there’s a “real excitement” at work, according to Rees. He adds: “In Easter, with the bank holidays, we almost forgot what a five-day week was like.”

The significance of the extra day off has shifted over time, according to the designer. “Before it was about headspace and mental health and burnout,” he says. “However, as we’re transitioning into normal life, it’s much more beneficial for an extended weekend.” It means that Bulletproof designers can get away to places when they aren’t crowded, for example. Rees adds: “We hope that inspires people creatively.”

“Minor adjustments allow for big changes”

Rees does say that the transition wasn’t “completely smooth”. The main challenges were for the creative services department, which handles the office’s work flow. “There’s a never ending jigsaw of projects and resources and timings, and we have to make sure they have full support to spread the work,” he says. “It’s minor adjustments that allow for big changes.” Both Dixon and Rees also explain that there will likely be exceptions for the designated time off – aligning with international clients or late-stage pitch work, for example.

When it comes to future of the office, all the designers interviewed believe that studio work is essential for the creative process. They also all agree that flexible working was useful for designers at different stages of their life – while parents with unpredictable schedules are likely to benefit, being in the studio is essential for younger designers learning on the job.

After Bulletproof’s return to the studio planned for later this year, Rees believes the most likely working situation will be in-studio time on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with the start and end of the week working from home. Other pandemic-era interventions – such as fifty-minute meetings which allow for a ten-minute break – will be protected, according to the designer, though all new initiatives are subject to change. “We’re fast tracking,” Rees says. “We want to be at the forefront of this.”

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  • Carl St. James June 23, 2021 at 8:28 am

    I don’t think it needs to even be a day off. Most companies, even non-design ones could make a certain day of the week a project day. Seal off email comms, down the phones and let customers work on their own projects. This could be coding, painting or even running a sports tournament with other local businesses.

  • Martyn Garrod June 23, 2021 at 10:05 pm

    When a design industry’s normal hours are 9:30 – 6:00. This means that people are working an extra 30 minutes a day than other ‘normal’ desk jobs This might seem small but it works out 2.5 hours extra a week, which equates to 15 days in a working year.

    So the odd Friday off as a recharge day, the 180 minutes stolen per week to report their activities or the ‘extra’ 12 days off a year ARE NOT benefits. The design industry needs a strong hard look at itself and learn it can’t keep bleeding their designers dry because people will get burnt out.

    Dixon Baxi are the ones taken this seriously (although hours are 9:15 – 6:00?).

    At Studio Unbound we ourselves have opted for a 4 day week (35 hours). Time the industry changes and stop glorifying the overworking.

  • Dom Bailey June 24, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Martyn. The intent of the Recharge Day was not as a benefit in the contractual sense. It was simply to say thank you and acknowledge a difficult year collectively as an entire team. Doing this as a whole team had a significance much more valuable to us all than how you have dismissed it above.

    All of our team work with an optional two hours flexibility at either end of the day and not everyone is full time. Full timers work a 37.5 hour week over 5 days. The majority start early but the flexibility is there for everyone to make best use of this on an individual basis.

    Our culture supports good communication across the team and discipline around working hours. This ensures that when people are in work-mode they are focused and productive.

    Congratulations to Unbound for adopting a four day week. It would be great if you could share some positive comments about this to inspire others to consider the same. It’s something we’ve looked into and continue to learn about from others who have implemented it. To suggest DixonBaxi are the only ones taking this seriously is a little odd. What about yourselves?

  • Martyn Garrod June 25, 2021 at 5:48 pm

    My comment was very much directed at the industry as a whole. A recharge day does not make up for some of the horrific stories that are way too common in this industry. Designers working til midnight or even sleeping under their desks. It is not okay and goes without being spoken about.

    This blog post doesn’t talk about your flexible hours and I don’t know what your personal working culture is like. The point is the industry needs to change when too many designers suffering from burn out and deep depression because of being overworked in this industry. Yes this blog post talks about some of the ‘benefits’, but it does not highlight the wrongs.

    You’re right in saying that I should have been more positive and trying to inspire others around the four day week. But we also need to shine a light on what is going on in the industry without trying to sugar coat everything.

    We have only just started our journey as being a very young agency it allows us to be flexible and structure the business as we see fit. I’m glad to hear that you have put in practice flexible working hours and hope you too are trying to make sure people aren’t overworking. We do a similar thing which is based around the core working hours of 11:00am to 2:00pm. So your 8 hours in total a day (-1 hour for lunch) is up to you how to fit in your day. The four day week allows the time for people to be inspired by other things really feeding the creative output.

  • Neil Littman June 27, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    I think there are so many answers to the issue of working hours and time management the creative industry and Baxter & Bailey are to be congratulated for looking at it but the design industry is notorious for work practices that would not be tolerated in some other spheres of work. Am not sure if there is a right answer. Even back in the 70’s I worked in studios where we had fixed hours and sometimes were paid overtime and never worked weekends but as the demands of the business were ramped up (mainly by client expectations) and agencies became more and more competitive especially with pitching (unknown to me when I first started) it became a race to see who worked hardest and longest. Yes, the results could be spectacular but at what cost? The 80’s for me were long hours, working weekends, eating late, good money but constant migraines. My migraines didn’t stop until I went freelance. I did work crazy hours to start with until I had a heart attack and now I structure my day by starting early and not going beyond 6-7pm and having a good break at some point or going for a walk. The last year however did blur the boundaries for me between a five-day week based on Monday to Friday and I realised that it was better to work any five days out of seven. Sometimes I do that bit extra but that is because I instinctively know the project needs that something to make it special. Because I am my own boss it doesn’t make me resent it and I get time off elsewhere. Worth also reading the article in the Guardian Saturday June 26th about bullying in the creative industry which is not a subject much discussed but an issue I have seen first hand in one agency though fortunately was not a target myself.

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