The world’s most successful entrepreneurs are turning to a new business model, by releasing the shackles on their staff and trusting them with unlimited holiday. Rhian Morgan talks to Jenny Biggam, of major media agency the7stars, about how the policy works for them
Now the nights are drawing in, and we’ve reluctantly packed away our summery dresses in the face of biting winds and relentless rain, thoughts turn to escaping the daily commute for warmer climes, where we can bask on beaches. At the very least, we dream of curling up in front of a roaring fire with loved ones and a warming drink rather than heading outside armed with umbrellas against the crowds.
So when Richard Branson, owner of the fabulous Necker Island and purveyor of fantasies, announced he was giving his employees unlimited holidays, directors sweated a bit under the collar at the thought of the new business model while all other workers fantasised about permanent lie-ins or all the money they’d save on childminder fees.
At first glance, it seems hard to think of the benefits to employers. In his book, The Virgin way: Everything I know About Leadership, Branson noted: “It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours a day, a week, or a month off.”
On his blog, he said companies like Netflix, who follow the same business plan, have seen an upward spike in morale, creativity, and productivity.
And another top entrepreneur, Google co-founder Larry Page, recently said: “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is not true.”
Personally speaking, I think if people are freed from the bonds of obligation and allowed to exercise more control over their lives, then it can only enhance loyalty, trust, and a good work ethic.
One such person who agrees is Jenny Biggam, co-founder of the UK’s biggest media planning and buying agency, 7stars, along with business partner Mark Jarvis.
“I set up the company in 2005 with Mark because we wanted to break free from industry networks and corporate ethics – we just wanted to create an agency with great ideas, the delivery of good work, and a nice environment for staff, “ she says.
Giving staff control
“We were voted third in The Sunday Times’ best small companies to work for last year, which shows our unique approach has paid off!
“Right from the word go, Mark and I decided we wanted to give our staff responsibility and have a trusting work culture. We knew the7stars was going to be team-led, meaning we would have an open, transparent system where employees are always encouraged to perform to the best of their abilities, for both their own personal development and for clients. Giving them control over how much time to take off work, and when, was just a natural part of the process. It became one of our official “non-policies” by 2006.
“Mark and I had worked in media for a number of years before considering setting up our own agency. Like many industries, we knew that media was governed by a restrictive, corporate work culture and an immense web of networks. Even though independent agencies were not the done thing, we wanted to free ourselves from these industry hang-ups – and that meant discarding all notions of how we should be operating.
“We try to attract men and women equally as it’s best to have a balance. We are quite focused on younger people, as it’s nice to give opportunities to people straight from school or university. Our training programme and flat structure attracts these people. While older and more experienced people have the skills and experience, and are fed up with corporate structures and looking for a new and different environment. For these people we are a great solution.”
Flat structure and a healthy competitive spirit
However, the7stars’ staff don’t have job titles. Does this still mean employees can be promoted? “Absolutely,” she says. “One former graduate trainee now runs our entire new business programme. Many of our former grads run big clients, with huge budget responsibility. A former temporary receptionist is one of our most experienced digital planners. In fact, very few people here today are doing the job they started off doing. They just don’t need a label to prove it.
“Our team is what makes the7stars and we encourage a really social environment. We welcome spending time together, both inside and outside the office, and regularly run bake-offs, birthday drinks and job swaps. We’ve also had our own bar installed at our Soho headquarters which has become a payday staple. The media industry is traditionally very sociable – when you add this to the fact our team gets on so well, I’m sure you can imagine what our socials are like!
“We are a very competitive team – sport, parties and even baking is competitive. We knew we had taken our competitiveness too far when four people (including me) had a chilli-eating contest at 9am. Ouch.
“Our uniqueness, being ready to break the rules if it means improving the way we and the industry operate, has made the7stars appealing to both the best employees and the most exciting clients. Because of this we have a culture of shared purpose, where all employees and clients are on the same page working towards the same goal, and therefore consistently deliver great results.”
For more information on the7stars, visit www.the7stars.co.uk