Mental health, long hours and short tenures are just some of the issues synonymous with the advertising industry. In Better Workplaces, AdNews takes a look at the ways agencies are changing this through company culture, HR initiatives and office design.
Based in Sydney’s east, AFFINITY is an independent full-service agency founded in 2002 by husband and wife duo Luke Brown and Angela Smith. With an offering spanning data-driven media, CX and digital, and a staff count of more than 30, AFFINITY has made a name for itself. All while fostering a productive and healthy working culture.
Recently refurbishing the office, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Angela Smith says it meant the team could really map out and plan what they wanted to achieve for the new design.
The end goal was to encourage both fluidity and collaboration through the fresh layout, detailing how every space had been concocted with this in mind.
“So to achieve a dynamic work modality, breakout/meeting space to desk space is 1:1. We wanted to create an environment where you still had your place to roost, to make your own, but as much opportunity to pick and move – find a new space to think, or work with others, to suit the task or mood,” she says.
“The second area of focus was to have a mix of skills all in sight of one another. We thought a lot about adjacencies of disciplines and built in just a little bit of friction, like where the kitchen, photocopier and other resources are – necessitating you to mingle with other groups you might not normally work so closely with.”
Referencing a study by Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, Smith says while open plan offices can foster collaboration, they also suppress creativity – something that remained top of mind in the designing process.
For AFFINITY, achieving the right balance of collaboration, creativity and comfort was essential in the new office layout to ensure the entire team felt at home.
“Collaboration is exceptionally important to us, but we’ve also strived to create a place that the team feels has absolutely everything they need to do their stuff, and to feel at home – not like it’s a museum, or cold and precious,” Smith explains.
“We wanted to have a space that’s comfortably professional but also have breakout spaces that you can ensconce yourself away in, be subversive or laugh like a loon in during a creative ideation.”
The physical office is filled with an abundance of natural light, which Smith notes is a proven mood enhancer. No-one is locked away in what she calls “dungeon-y corners”, rather everyone in the team has a window to gaze out of.
In addition to this, almost every surface in the office is writable – again nodding back to the collaboration and creativity AFFINITY strives for.
“We know our team love to visualise their thinking,” Smith says. “So, we have whiteboards and blackboards everywhere!”
Aside from a well-thought out and hyper-productive office design, Smith and Brown have placed a huge emphasis on a positive workplace culture to nurture and retain staff.
Like most agencies, AFFINITY has social gatherings for the team, a PlayStation, yoga classes and beanbags. Smith says the agency also hosts quarterly peer recognition programs and annual staff awards which include trips to events such as SXSW.
But these aren’t the only things on offer at AFFINITY, there are a few other initiatives that set the agency apart. The first of which starts with ensuring everyone works within the 9 to 6 office hours – not outside.
“We do interesting work with no cookie cutter in sight,” Smith says.
“There’s a high cognitive load and to ensure our staff bring their ‘A game’ every day, we staff our business to ensure everyone can start at 9am and leave by 6pm every day. This is something that we live by, irrespective of campaigns or pitches. Tired bodies and minds don’t do great work.”
Knowledge culture plays an integral part of the agency as well. From the extra training provided to the weekly library hour, AFFINITY staff are well equipped with above-par learning tools.
“Our employee value proposition is that everyone will become measurably smarter and more capable during their tenure with AFFINITY. We spend approximately three times the industry average on external training but it’s not just about external training, rather a knowledge culture,” Smith says.
“Our industry moves so quickly, we make sure the entire agency shuts down every week for one hour as a team to provide every single person with time to learn something new in self-directed learning. Phones are diverted and email auto-replies go to our clients.”
Further to this, there is a fortnightly in-house training and knowledge session called The Lab, where talks are given from both internal and external speakers on a variety of topics that add value to both the workplace and team members’ mental health.
Bootcamps are another unique initiative. Smith says these are “money-can’t-buy exclusive training” programs offered.
As a data-led agency, measurement is in every part of the business right down to the culture. Smith says AFFINITY measures its initiatives to ensure they are successful and if not, assesses how they can be improved.
“We’re constantly looking at ways we can build quality and metrics into our processes and assessment of what we do,” she says.
“This helps us to look at outcomes factually to shift the lens on what went wrong rather than who messed up. We’ve found it’s amazing how this mindset can shift a culture for the better.”
To keep morale high and support those who might need some extra attention, Chief Morale Officer Milo – A.K.A. the office dog – is the cherry on top of the A+ culture.
“She’s empathic and always has an extra couple of supportive licks, and will sleep under the feet of those under pressure.”
Flexible working arrangements are slowly becoming the norm across the industry, as more businesses recognise the importance of work-life balance. AFFINITY is no exception.
As a “busy, working mum” herself, Smith understands the juggling act that can be work and family life. To retain those team members who are also parents, AFFINITY has adopted flexible working arrangements for those who need it.
Those heading off on parental leave needn’t feel like they have been forgotten while they’re away either.
“As we’re all about growing ourselves, our philosophy on maternity and paternity leave is to provide knowledge nurturing during any extended leave,” Smith says.
“In order to avoid the social, cultural and cognitive disconnect that can happen, our team are welcomed to stay in the fold and attend our training initiatives while on that leave – babies welcome.”
She also emphasises the importance of diversity, referring to it as part of the agency’s DNA. For AFFINITY, diversity encompasses gender, culture, thinking and age and means pay equality for everyone. All levels of the senior teams have a 50:50 gender split as well.
Moving away from “flashy” and “material” giveaways, the agency focuses on a more wholesome approach to rewarding staff.
“With a direct correlation implicated between engagement and mental wellbeing, we reckon it’s more about baking-in an individualised approach into how our agency functions, to increase employee interest, consultation, self-worth and recognition,” Smith says.
“So, we focus on internal promotion, unprompted salary increases, continuous performance management (rather than annual staff reviews), personalised growth plans, a transparent business health culture, all with one P&L to foster genuine collaboration and engagement between strategy, media, creative, production, tech and data teams.”
Last but certainly not least in the line-up of initiatives on offer at AFFINITY, is the recently introduced Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to support staff and their mental wellbeing.
“Every team member has access to confidential, professional counselling any time they need it. We have trained Mental First Aid officers and regular training on the latest ways to improve our mental health,” Smith explains.
“We’re about making a measurable difference to our clients, ourselves and those around us in all we do. We work our brains hard all day every day, but not our bodies past time.”
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