'Why I trust my staff and treat them as grown-ups, with no job titles and flexible working hours'

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In a global age of work-life balance and flexi working hours, the days of stuffy office protocol are numbered. But even if most of us don't now operate under a Devil Wears Prada mentality of having our every move monitored, placing trust in a team can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Many companies pay lip service to keeping their employees happy, while still promoting policies that are essentially designed to control and restrain - such as holiday forms, a hierarchy based around performance assessments and strictly enforced working hours.

Jenny Biggam (left), co-founder of independent media agency the7stars, is one boss who has broken the mould. Here she explains how ditching the rule book and giving her staff the freedom to work when they want, how they want has led to her company not only becoming hugely profitable (by saving time and money on admin) but also one of the best places to work for in the UK, with perennially happy employees. 

The 7stars - seven ways of treating staff as grown-ups

  1. A democratic profit-sharing bonus which is the same for all staff
  2. Donation days that allow staff to take time off to inspire and lend their skills to charities and other worthy causes
  3. Unlimited paid holiday staff trusted to take as much or little as they need
  4. No job titles staff encouraged to be individuals and contribute their skills to shape the company
  5. Flexible working hours, including work from home options
  6. Hot-desking - staff can choose where in the office they want to work.
  7. “Discovery dosh” scheme for two colleagues to learn something new and unusual which could inspire them in their jobs. This has included still-life drawing, sushi-making and ballroom dancing

"From Netflix to Virgin, treating employees as grown-ups is becoming dangerously fashionable. And yet, whether it’s trusting employees to book holidays or incur expenses without senior level sign-off, it’s sufficiently unusual to generate acres of coverage.  

Businesses like to talk about “valuing staff,” but ask them to dispense with job titles or to tear up holiday forms and they will come up with a million reasons why it’s a bad idea.

How did a workplace culture based essentially on a lack of trust become the norm?

At my company we are short on rules and long on treating our staff as adults. We’re not a grow-your-own co-operative, we are a multimillion pound media planning and buying agency handling clients’ high profile TV, radio, print and digital campaigns. My co-founder Mark Jarvis and I had previously worked for companies with lots of emphasis on rules and not enough on being nice places to work. When we launched the7stars we asked: 'What if we flipped this model and built a great place to work with a lot fewer rules?'

So out went job titles, holiday forms, clocking on and off, time-sheets, fixed working hours, fixed working spaces, micromanagement. In came putting people before processes.

This included trusting staff to know how much time they should spend at their desks versus by the pool, sharing company business plans and profit targets with all team members and flexible working hours.

Adopting this approach as a business owner is easier said than done; it requires taking risks by relinquishing control and sharing sensitive info, being prepared to accommodate different ways of doing things and trusting staff to care as much as you do. And while the learning curve has been steep, the results have been worth it.

One of the first outcomes is that we saved ourselves a ton of time and money. Rules create work. Holiday forms and timesheets require a whole infrastructure behind them, including software and training. Then you need someone to oversee them and make sure the rules are being followed. Job titles require a company structure with hierarchies and job descriptions and someone to make sure it’s all being handled fairly. If you treat staff as grown-ups and dispense with holiday forms and timesheets, you can do away all the admin that goes with them.

Secondly by ditching hierarchies and being prepared to share sensitive commercial information with staff, the7stars has become a community rather than a corporation. People appreciate being trusted and never once in ten years of being in business have they abused it by leaking privileged information.

We’ve also found that by delegating tasks normally managed by HR or office managers such as organising a company-wide training scheme or overseeing our recent office move and refurb to project teams from across the company, people have the chance to develop skills outside their days jobs.

This approach leads to staff really buying into the business, and working together to deliver the best possible work for clients as well as giving back to the community through support for charities such as Art Against Knives. All underpinned by a lively social scene that includes birthday drinks,  football and softball teams and regular bake-offs between team members.

A final outcome is that trusting staff and treating them as grown-ups has been good for business.

This year for the second time in a row we came third in the Sunday Timesbest small companies to work for. Clients increasingly notice and care about awards like these – it was a factor in us winning a big piece of business recently. What I’m most pleased about however is our high staff retention rate – our grads and apprentices stay with us for years."

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Stylist Team