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Written by Julian Stubbs | Stockholm
on March 27, 2014

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Beyond Employment in the Creative Services Industry.

We all recognise the speed of change going on around us. Things seem to be converging more and more as our personal and work lives becoming ever entwined. Today, we think nothing of watching a fun viral video on YouTube at 10am in the morning or answering business e-mails at 10pm at night. This is the picture for some of us today who work in the service industries. For many people traditional employment is fast becoming a thing of the past. The cloud and the digital tools we’ve come to take for granted offer us more independence than ever before. We’re discovering that we can take control of our own lives and futures, as more of us become self employed, which is exciting. But what is driving this?

The aftershocks of the financial crisis are profoundly affecting the way employees are viewed by the governments and corporations that may have provided us with traditional employment. If we have a safety net at all, it has holes that are growing larger all the time. We’re being encouraged to become more independent so that we don’t cost governments so much money. Corporations are shedding us and outsourcing so that they can save money and make more for their shareholders. In this case, we have little choice over whether we become independent or not.

With economic downturns becoming ever deeper and longer lasting and employment patterns shifting dramatically in our flattened global world we need new solutions. We need to find new ways to work. New ways to meet the ever higher productivity needs as well as people’s increasing demand for more balanced lives and no place more so than in the fairly traditional communications consulting sector.

Less commuting more working

I’ve been in the marketing consultancy and advertising business for over twenty years. For most of that time I’ve spent at least three hours a day in a car, commuting around seventy miles a day to and from work. I’d sit in an office with fifty other people, all of whom had made similar journey’s to the office by one mode of transport or another. All had consumed energy in some form, pumped out CO2 and wasted a fair amount of time and effort doing so. In a typical day I’d truly interact with no more than four or five people, some days even less. Then I’d have to face the commute back again, to arrive home late, tired and not particularly happy. Something needed to change personally in my own life.

The digital world we live in has impacted how we all live. We can buy books, music, films, share photographs and get news – all online. It’s impacted how we stay in touch with friends real and virtual and socialise. But so far all of this has had little impact on the traditional world of employment. The majority of people still make the slog into the office to grind out their nine to five. Does that make sense?

We think this is the next big area for change. Change that will sweep away traditional, failing, work norms and structures. We believe something has to replace traditional employment in the advertising, design, market research and media industries.

Going It Alone

So we could just become self-employed. Having been on that side of the fence at one point, it’s a famine to feast environment. We end up typically working around the clock, for larger organisations that use us and then shed us because we’re disposable.

As freelancers having to find work and manage our own businesses we have to have the skill set of a mini CEO managing all aspects of our business lives. Typically this then impacts on our personal lives as all effort goes into maintaining the business. We’re also told the consequences of failing to get work-life balance right can have disastrous effects on our well-being and that of our families. We’re also in danger of becoming isolated and lonely without an office to go to and a water cooler to gather round. Maybe being free doesn’t paint such a great picture.

But we believe there is a third way of working. Not employment, not being freelance but a third way we call E-Ployment.

No Employees, No Offices, Just People.

Look at the major costs of running a creative or strategic services agency. It comes down to two big items: people and offices. When times get tough, as they do in increasingly regular cycles in our business, adjusting these two items is difficult and expensive. Imagine a structure where those two costs are vastly minimised.

Consider the most important element that our clients really value: the people they work with. But people working in a structured and co-ordinated way together, with common systems, tools and standards.

In my own organisation we decided not to have any employees – we have members. As a founder even I’m not an employee. We have a Leadership Team that meets weekly by Skype, eight people from three countries and two continents, who give a weekly business update and take key decisions. Like a traditional bricks and mortar organisations you can’t just join us. Over the past three years we have developed strict recruitment routines, systems and contracts that work for our model. We’re not talking about crowd sourcing either – a long way from it. Crowd sourcing is closer to outsourcing and, in our opinion, just a short sighted way of shedding costs that does not add long term value to the creative industries or even the clients.

Taking responsibility for yourself

So the future we believe is one where individuals will take responsibility for themselves, their lives and their own employment. These community organisations will provide structure, tools and a brand presence. People will work within teams that are globally connected and provide many aspects of the support of traditional employment, with the freedom of being an independent worker. All this is enabled via cloud based productivity tools. People will work within these global communities that will help them win work, and invest in ever more sophisticated tools that improve productivity as well as track admin efficiently. In our own case one of the most important investments we had to make has been a bespoke admin and finance system, to automate tracking of costs and billings for all clients and members. At a quarter of a million dollars to build and implement it didn’t come cheap. But it’s money well spent and invested out of our own cash flow, without a venture capitalist in sight.

The organisation will also manage training and education, a key benefit of traditional employment, as well as events for socialising.

We don’t think we’ll all be sat in offices either. Look at the spaces people choose to work in nowadays. Look in the coffee shops and more sophisticated hotel lobbies. Look at the new style shared work spaces that are springing up everywhere. But at traditional bricks and mortar companies you do get to meet physically. We have found you can’t do away with meeting clients or colleagues at some point. So to answer this need we have developed what we call Creative Spaces. Our own spaces within existing facilities that are shared with other independent creatives. We take a section of these shared facilities and rent these as places our own people can go and work, or meet clients, colleagues, or just hang if you really want to. We have printers, wi-fi, can provide cafe lattés as well as presentation rooms, sofas, and kitchens in these communal facilities. They provide everything we need but only when we need it and at a fraction of the cost of a traditional office. In our case we even encourage everyone in our organisation not to come into the office. It’s non-productive – and a waste.

How does cloud-based agency work?

So what about the practical day to day? How does a cloud based agency work and what’s different and what’s the same? Well the jobs people do are pretty similar to be honest. Where they do them from and the team who works on the job are very different. An account director drives the project and will assemble a team that could be based in Europe, the US and even Asia all working together on one job. The people who will most likely be based closest to the client will be the account team. The creative team could well sit on different sides of the atlantic. The tools they use for project management, communication and backing up files are cloud based. Most are standardised, a few are bespoke. Many projects progress 24/7 and are moved backwards and forwards over time zones as teams work on them. What we have found is that the team need to really know and trust each other and so we bring them together physically as often as we can - even if it’s just to get to know each other well. Some people ask me if I ever feel isolated working this way. Personally I feel constantly surrounded and in touch with our teams and I get to meet colleagues anyway most days at clients or in our Creative Spaces.

In our minds this new revolution in work is a disruptive model we believe will spread rapidly and do for service sector employment what Amazon did to book retailing. It’s a revolution that’s already happening all around us.

We’ve been working this way for more than three years now and we already see other companies working in similar community based organisations. Most domestically, a few internationally. Along the way we’ve discovered many issues and problems that we’ve had to solve but solve them we have. The model also allows for rapid expansion. In our own case we started with just two individuals seeking a new way of balancing their work and life. Today we’re 150 people working under one global brand and organisation. If it works with One hundred, why not five hundred or a thousand?

Will every client want to work this way with their agency? No. Will every person want to work on the inside of a creative or marketing organisation based in the cloud? The answer is no again. But an increasing number do already and that number will grow rapidly. We believe the world of work in the creative service, market research and design industries will change radically to meet today’s changed economic realities. It’s not something to fear but something to embrace. It’s something we can’t wait for.

New book available now

The new book: E-Ployment: Living and Working in the Cloud is available now.

Click the link below to download your free sample or buy the book.

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