Forward Thinking: Understanding 'Thoughtful Work'

December 3, 2018


The future of work has arrived. As low unemployment and other trends make it harder to find talent in the marketing and communications industry, progressive leaders are offering new ideas to their teams.

One idea is something we call “thoughtful working” — a strategy for making our employees happier so they deliver better results. The idea may seem simple, but it requires bravery. Thoughtful working sweeps away many approaches that communications agencies have traditionally followed in running their businesses, or at least turns them on their heads.

We introduced thoughtful working to our business in 2015, when we were the U.S. technology agency Eastwick. Hotwire bought the company the following year, and Eastwick founder Barbara Bates became CEO. In my role as president of the newly expanded North America operation, I also joined the Hotwire global leadership team, and we introduced thoughtful working to all of Hotwire’s international offices.

Results, not restrictions

When making the decision to introduce thoughtful working, Barbara and I were influenced by the 2008 book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution,” by Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson. The authors created a concept they called the “Results-Only Work Environment,” which they had pioneered at retailer Best Buy.

The idea is that employees can do whatever they need to do, when they need to do it — as long as their work gets done and achieves the right results. Rather than being required to arrive in the office at 9 a.m. every day, attend pointless meetings and beg for a few hours off to watch their child’s soccer match or deal with a plumbing emergency at home, employees can make their own decisions about how to manage their time. Devolving responsibility this way makes it easier for employees to strike a work-life balance, which in turn makes them happier and more effective in their work.

We realized that a results-only work environment would give us a competitive edge by better motivating our teams. Mandating that all employees must be present in the office at all times is an outdated concept that hinders companies. In marked contrast, accommodating individual employees’ work preferences provides an optimal environment for productivity and personal well-being. It also reduces the risk of burnout, a problem for our industry.

Happier, more productive employees

In the months after we introduced thoughtful working, we saw the ownership and quality of our people’s work improve. Being able to choose for themselves when and where to work maximized their productivity, and the flexibility made them feel less stressed.

We noticed people were going home to see their families more often. They felt liberated — and encouraged — to find time for things that mattered to them beyond work. And when they were working, they were happier.

All of this matters a great deal, because overstressed and unhealthy employees create miserable workplaces and lead to poor performance. According to the 2017 report “Mind the Workplace” from the nonprofit organization Mental Health America, mental health problems linked to employment result in annual productivity losses of up to $500 billion for U.S. companies. 

Moreover, a Mental Health America survey of more than 17,000 U.S. employees found that nearly three-quarters of them (74 percent) resented working in environments that are “overly focused on trivial activities” or that have “overly bureaucratic company policies.” The antithesis of this oppressive, petty, heavy-handed approach is the liberating concept of thoughtful working.

Better attraction and retention

Implementing thoughtful working at our company did bring some challenges. We went from an environment in which nearly everyone was in the office every day to seeing it half-full on some days. 

With our people spending less time together in the office, we knew we needed to keep them connected. It’s vital that our teams remain cohesive, so we upped our communication and started using collaboration tools such as Slack, along with Zoom video calls. 

Our corporate structure helps support that sense of connection. We have a profit-and-loss mentality that facilitates cooperation between our different office locations and across regions, so there’s no need for tugs of war over budgets, for example. This flexibility dovetails with the ethos of thoughtful working. 

When all’s said and done, what counts is the progress we make toward objectives and what we achieve for clients. Focusing on those goals creates a positive space for our employees and clients, in which getting things done right brings satisfaction. Whether someone is at their desk or not is immaterial. 

Without question, thoughtful working is working for us. In the three years since we started on this path, we’ve seen it give us a competitive advantage in the war for talent, as it’s helped us attract and retain employees.

We’ve also been able to retain valuable employees who for personal reasons have relocated to Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles. They can live where they choose, and we’ve strengthened our business by keeping them aboard.

Hotwire employees are so taken with thoughtful working and our broader culture that they’ve become brand stewards, eager to help us recruit like-minded talent. When hiring, which as a fast-growing company we often do, we’re upfront during job interviews about our results-only culture. We realize that not everyone is comfortable working this way.

But we’re equally aware that many of the brightest and best employees want this freedom and responsibility. With our thoughtful working philosophy, we’ve been able to attract people to our business who might not have known who we are otherwise.  

Communications businesses with stiff corporate cultures will lose out if they don’t keep up with the industry and think about how the future of work affects them. We know employees are watching. When talented professionals discover there’s a better way, they will jump ship — and if they’re right for us, we’ll be eager to talk with them.

If you’re stuck in a company culture that doesn’t support thoughtful working, then don’t passively sit by. Take it upon yourself to challenge traditional ways of working within your organization. You may have more sway than you realize.

Heather Kernahan

Heather Kernahan is president, North America for Hotwire and a member of its global leadership team. She has spent her career immersed in technology and joined Hotwire from Eastwick Communications after its acquisition in 2016.


Jacqueline Carpenter Cavnar, MBA says:

Excellent article. We see similar results in our organization, too. Thank you, Jackie Cavnar, COO, Mental Health America of Middle Tennessee

Dec. 20, 2018

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