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Flexible Working: Parenting

Tom Judd is an animator and co-founder of award-winning animation studio Animade. Set up with his childhood friend James Chambers in 2011, the London based studio make animations for clients of all sizes.

Since the beginning, they have strived to set up a working environment that makes them smile each and every day they walk through the door, says Judd. “Animade is very much a lifestyle business in the sense that we have formed a company very much focused around a culture that we ourselves want to come and work in and be part of". Working with their friendly, close-knit team of 25, they are proud that they have managed to run a successful company whilst never allowing the typical agency work and time lines and overtime to push their work/life balance of track.

“We are very involved in the day to day; even though we work in that world of advertising and tech on a global scale, with time differences to deal with, we’ve managed to control our work/life balance in the company, to fit around the needs of parents, as we have progressed into parenthood ourselves over the last 10 years.”

Animade introduced their flexible working policy 2 years ago, when Judd himself became a parent for the first time and experienced the challenges it brings. Before that the studio had quite a rigid set up, working 9am - 6pm. “We found that was working well in some cases, but we started to notice, certainly when we became parents ourselves, that it was something everyone in the studio was thinking about.” says Judd. It was especially important for him to ensure he was balancing childcare with his wife, and Animade managing director Jennifer Judd. “All the decisions on our policies were built with us being the first to try it – we were the guinea pigs! So this really helped for us as we were the first ones to work flexibly.”

Their youngest is now 2, and Jen has been back at work for a year after taking 12 months maternity leave. “We now split the week, and work 4 days each. I take Wednesdays off and she has Fridays off and we now manage the pick up and drop off split quite evenly which has worked really nicely for us both.”

Building a studio culture that fully supports parents is one thing, but to see company directors prioritising their families in this way is extremely important and should not be underestimated. Animade now run a start time between 8am – 10am, and then accordingly the team can leave anywhere between 4.30pm – 6.30pm. “It’s just made such a difference to everyone, for various reasons whether it’s childcare or simply being able to offset the commute when it’s less busy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly their strict approach to managing their working hours and overtime is in stark contrast to many other ad agencies and studios. “There are studios with similar sized clients and staff numbers who operate at the very opposite end of the spectrum – they have people working all hours, and pushing that old school ad world mentality, and we’ve often questioned if we are doing it wrong.” says Judd. “Maybe we should be busier or maybe we’re just going to fail with this approach, but we are proud that it has worked out so far.”

Placing the wellbeing of their team first and foremost also extends to situations where employees have needed to take sudden compassionate leave. Whilst it is managed on a case by case basis, Judd admits it can be very hard to plan for. “Each job is so different – you just have to be ready to try and fill those gaps and not in a way that causes to much knock-on effect for any of our other employees – and that’s always our priority, to bring in freelance support to fill the gap rather than pushing it onto the place of one of our full timers.” says Judd. “We know from experience that having someone pushing their hours is detrimental to their wellbeing. That’s how we’ve managed to keep the culture rolling – we are very strict and manage the company from the top down; we are careful to manage our own hours and therefore that has a very positive influence on our staff, the fact that we are always out of the door on time means that nobody feels they need to be pushing the hours or working late.”

With a growing number of Animade employees raising young families in recent years, supporting returning parents is high on the agenda, and they take a very empathetic approach. “It’s hugely challenging and requires a lot of thought and consideration, as things do change during the course of year or six months, but I think in all cases it’s incredible how quickly they get back into the flow. I think it’s underrated how much experience you gain being a full time parent for six months.” says Judd. “It makes you ready for anything, it’s a benefit, and should be seen as a strength.”

Embracing a distinct set of values in their studio culture has also brought about a marked change in the ratio of ad agency work to tech work they do, with a natural sway towards tech clients who share a similar ethos. “Working with the big tech companies has led to us attracting more tech work and these types of clients seem to have a much better understanding; a more relatable approach to how that work/life balance should run.” says Judd. “They’ve had to build work cultures to attract more staff as they’ve grown and they are working on a similar set up to us which has helped hugely.”

Whilst many companies wrestle with the idea of flexible working and question if it is right for their team, Judd is proud of how far they have come. “We’re so glad we went for it. It was the sudden realisation that we just needed to trust our employees and be savvy. In the past we have tried to put too much process in place; we would have too many rules and caveats and try and control the potential chaos I suppose, whereas really we needed to keep it simple and say, these are the flexible hours of work; the rest is up to you.” It’s a working practice that he encourages other companies to adopt. “I think giving them that; pushing that autonomy onto the team gives them another sense of progression for everyone in the agency, to make sure everyone feels they have more control over their time.”

Due to the success of their flexible working policy, the directors are now looking to increase opportunities for employees to work from home. “With different roles comes different responsibilities but we know working from home is another way for parents to be near their children and allow things to work easier for people.” says Judd. Both Jen and myself have often taken calls from home to make parenting easier; having the option to do so helps to reduce stress where possible.”

Animade have entered into an extensive period of hiring over the last three months to support the team as they have become busier, and Judd has observed that flexible working is becoming more popular in terms of what prospective employees are asking for. “When we ask questions during an interview a lot of the time work/life balance comes up; the idea of purpose.” Animade have observed a growing lifestyle shift around what truly motivates people in their roles – and it’s not what you might think.

“We employ a lot of people who have been in freelance roles where they’ve been making more money than what they earn as full time employees, but they’re looking for more purpose and fulfilment or flexibility.” says Judd, who argues that open transparency is essential from the start. “I think every employer is used to knowing that each individual has their own needs, and so being transparent from the get go can only help you. There’s nothing worse than getting six months or 12 months in, to find out that this person you hired has been striving for a better work/life balance or more purpose if that hasn’t been declared.”

With a clear structure in place for growth throughout the agency; from creative and production through to accounts, from junior, entry level roles building through to mid level, senior and then management, Animade focus on giving employees the experience and skills they need to progress. Adapting their approach to meet the needs of their team is a long term commitment. “I think the one thing that the last 10 years has taught us is how important HR is and understanding our team and their wants and goals; it’s the key to it all.” concludes Judd. “There’s always a problem to solve or something to tweak. We’ll never be finished when it comes to trying to create the best culture we can have."