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
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”
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”
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.”