Meet the innovative bosses who've ditched office protocol for a happier way of working

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Anna Brech
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Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler was way ahead of his time when he decided to introduce a system of “corporate democracy” to his company Semco back in the 1970s. 

For Semler, employees are not merely colleagues but family: members of a close-knit team trusted to do exactly what they want, right down setting their own work hours and pay levels - with everyone sharing in the profits. 

Not only has his approach paid massive dividends (Semco has grown consistently for the last twenty years), it's also seen him hailed as a management guru and visionary who lectures all over the world. But although many admire Semler's approach, few bosses are bold enough to follow his lead.

As one expert puts it, “The way he works — letting his employees choose what they do, where and when they do it, and even how they get paid — is too upside-down for most managers.”

Not, however, for all. 

With 60% of UK workers unhappy in their jobs, we look at the innovative bosses looking to redress the balance with well-being schemes that cover everything from no job titles to flexi working and Feel Good Friday beauty treatments. 

Get set to embrace a whole new method of working:

“I’m not paying people to be at their desk for eight hours a day. I’m paying them to deliver excellent work”

Alisa Murphy, 31, founded cleantech comms agency Life Size Media (@lifeatlifesize) in March 2010. Over the past few months she's brought in a system of agile working for her team of six, meaning they have no longer have job titles and can work from when and where they choose

“The truth is that all the familiar ways of working give you a lot of comfort as a business leader. The 9-5 drill, statutory holiday allowance and requesting doctor’s notes form a ready-made system that you can just pick up and put onto your business. 

It’s only when I had time to stop and really think about it that I started questioning whether these ways of working make any sense at all.

Because the flip side of strict working arrangements is that you are dis-empowering your team and putting the emphasis on attendance rather than results. Which is just crazy. I’m not paying people to show up and be at their desk for eight hours a day, I’m paying them to deliver excellent work. Does it really matter when or where they produce that work?

There were two factors that really motivated me to explore new ways of working. One was the need to be able to attract and hold on to the very best people as the business grows. The other was thinking about my own future, particularly wanting to start a family and knowing that I would need an incredible amount of flexibility to make that work.

So if I expected to be able to balance work and personal life, why wasn’t I already setting up a system that allowed everyone to do that?

I decided to move towards a more agile way of working, adopting a system that understands the direct link between the business needs and personal wellbeing. It comes down to letting everyone have the freedom and responsibility for delivering their work in the way that works best for them.

This doesn't need to be complicated, especially in smaller organisations. The philosophy is to be at your best, so you can give your best at work. 

On a day-to-day basis, it means that everyone in my team needs to be in the office for meetings but at all other times we’re free to work from home or a cafe, or at unusual times. We also no longer track holiday days and again everyone takes responsibility for taking as much holiday as they need without impacting everyone else.

Slack is an incredibly useful tool that allows us all to stay in touch wherever we are, and we have a dedicated Agile working thread where we post our status e.g. 'I’m WOOing (working out of the office) this morning, will be in at 2pm or NW tomorrow (not working)'. We found it was important not to ask people to give details of where they were or why, because the whole point is that it’s up to you. Whether you’re looking after a sick child or just want to work in a different space to stimulate creativity, it’s about trusting people to make the right choices for themselves and the business. 

And we no longer use job titles. Everyone knows what their role is but we found that labels just weren’t helpful. If you expect people to go above and beyond and be willing to help each other and try new things, a big label saying, 'this is what you do' doesn’t help. I think steps like that are an important signal that you’re challenging conventional modes of working.

The one piece of advice I would give to business leaders thinking about more agile ways of working is to feel the fear and do it anyway.

I’m happy to put my hands up and admit that the biggest obstacle towards introducing agile working at Life Size Media was my fear. I was worried I would feel completely out of control, I was worried people might take liberties, I was worried things would fall through the cracks and end up on my plate.

All of which were completely irrational because I work with a fantastic team of people who are really committed to the company we’re building.

My fears evaporated as soon as we took the first steps and it’s an incredible relief not to waste energy on pointless things, like checking people don’t take too long for lunch.

It’s really helped us all to focus on results and to find the energy and commitment to deliver day in and day out, because we’re able to find better balance with our lives outside work.

I also love that we’ve all worked together to introduce this. It isn’t a case of me dictating how things are going to work. I feel like we’ve only just begun on this journey and I’m really excited to see how it can transform our business.”

“We are a very close-knit team who love what we do - we consider each other friends, not colleagues”

Grace Waller is a senior account executive at LDR CREATIVE, an integrated communications agency based in Soho. Founder MD Louis de Rohan set up the company in 2005, and along with director Edwina Eddleston, has introduced a series of happiness perks for his team of 10, including a monthly bar budget for each team member and Feel Good Friday beauty treatments.  

“We have three values – Brave, Precise, Honest – that we all live by here at LDR.

The team is a small, very close-knit group who truly love what we do and who consider each other friends rather than colleagues. 

What’s refreshing about LDR is its genuine commitment and approach to the individual. Louis, our founder and MD, is a spiritual guy who reminds us every day that being conscious, creative, authentic and happy are the most important attributes that you can bring to the team. 

We are all very different people with varied strengths and experiences (and this individuality is something LDR actively looks for when recruiting) but we all share a passion for personal growth and development - not only in our career, but also in our approach to life and personal relationships.

Since we look after many drinks brands, every member of the team is given a monthly budget to visit the capital's best up-and-coming bars. This not only to ensure we are constantly at the forefront of trends and openings, but so we can get together with one another or our partners socially during the hectic working week.

We have regular team culture sessions run by Louis to revisit our personal connections throughout all levels of the agency. It’s a bit of fun and a reminder that we are all individuals with our own strengths, talents, weaknesses and challenges in life.

The company aims to “never tell, always ask” and we're encouraged to ask powerful questions to help each other find solutions rather than simply be told what to do.

Beyond the team ethos and bar budget, there are many perks that our founder Louis and director, Edwina Eddleston, have introduced on a daily basis to make for a happier, more fulfilled workplace.

These include a 9.30am start to hit the gym once a week (healthy body, healthy mind) and Feel Good Friday beauty and well-being treatments, whereby beauticians come to our offices to give manicures, pedicures and massages.

In recognition of outstanding contribution at work, LDR offers a “Secret Mr & Mrs Smith weekend getaway” with our partners. Everyone feels stressed at work occasionally and this time out strengthens relationships by accepting the challenges that stress can cause.

We believe in the concept of “partner passport” and all team members are encouraged to include our partners in our work and client events, so that they can fully understand our culture and the people we work with each day.

The driving force behind all of this is our MD Louis; he is such an inspirational, creative person and our entire office adores him. He runs a "Happy You Helpline" - every member of our team, irrespective of level in the agency, has access to him for one-to-one personal and performance coaching. 

“The effect was really positive from the start. We saw new conversations happening, new insights and new connections being made”

Dr. Sally Uren is chief executive at London-based NGO Forum for the Future. In 2008, she introduced a system of hot-desking, in order to break down the isolation between different teams, and encourage a more collaborative way of working. She also offers her team flexible working options and Inspiration Space, where staff can take time off to go and do something which they're really passionate about.

“We’re an 80 person organisation here at Forum for the Future, with 50 or so of us based at the office in London. In 2008 we decided to introduce hot-desking.

We really wanted to break down team silos and encourage greater cross-team working, so an important part of implementing the change was involving our staff in the entire transition process.

They helped with all the practical aspects of the change, like designing the desk and office layout, and how exactly we were going to create the new working environment. Each person took a lot of ownership around making it work as a result.

There was some resistance, of course. A few people were wary of the new system - either because they needed regular access to hard copy files (which they normally kept on their own desk) or in a few rare instances, because they just didn’t like the idea of moving around. We humans can be creatures of habit.

In the end we accepted that people who looked after certain areas, such as finance, could stay in the same zone as each other, but not necessarily use the same desk every day. Everyone else moves about; that’s the whole idea.

The effect was really positive from the start. We saw new conversations happening, alongside new insights and new connections being made. It’s worked really well.

There was some concern that hot-desking might stop teams from bonding (the opposite problem to silos), and so now some teams choose to have a “Third Floor Tuesday” or “Second Floor Monday” where they deliberately try and sit together for one day a week.  It seems to work well in terms of touching base and maintaining relationships.

Some people asked us if we were worried about people who didn’t get along having to sit side by side, but that was never a concern. In a way, it was a part of the point.

I would absolutely advise other organisations to try hot-desking and new ways of working. We have a strong flexi-working policy here, where we encourage home working, flexible hours to accommodate outside responsibilities, and we even have Inspiration Space, where staff can take half a day off a month and go do something inspirational.”

“We spend most of our lives at work, so why not make it an enjoyable place to be?”

Georgette Culley, 28, is the editor of press agency Talk to the Press, founded by former national newspaper journalist Natasha Courtenay-Smith in 2008. Based in Clerkenwell, the team of four operate as friends rather than boss and employees, and regularly enjoy boozy lunches or nights out together.

“I would say the way I run my press agency is pretty unconventional.

I'm 28 and started as an intern four years ago, but am now editor and have a team of four. We are a national press agency and work alongside newspapers papers and women’s magazines in the UK.

We all get into the office for around 10am, and usually go for boozy lunches together. Although bosses traditionally aren't meant to be friends with their employees, we're all very close and spend time together outside of work. We’ve even been known to have sleepovers and weekends away together.

They know all about my disastrous love life and even use my phone to set up dates for me on Tinder and Happn.

We work hard and always exceed our targets. Because of that, I believe in leaving work early and going to the pub as it's good for morale.

I don't mind if any of the team or late or need to take time off last minute, because I know that they’ll be working hard when they're here.

We have a massive laugh together and I honestly believe that this approach is much more enjoyable, and far more beneficial, than a scenario where the staff are scared of their boss, and everyone works in a disconnected way.

Obviously, if somebody falls foul then we talk about it.

But we spend most of our lives at work, so why not make it an enjoyable place to be?”

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.