Small business: Flexible working - David Atkins

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David Atkins, managing director and shareholder of Image Centre Group

Image Centre Group's David Atkins.
Image Centre Group's David Atkins.

Image Centre is a multi-channel communications solutions group made up of eight specialist brands that help New Zealand businesses engage their clients by crafting and delivering integrated commercial stories and practical solutions. It publishes Idealog, NZ Marketing, Dish, Good and NZ Rugby World as well as doing contract publishing and content agency work across online and video.

Why offer a flexible working environment?

Culture is our only long-term differentiator and each brand has its own unique aspects to its culture that aligns to the market it serves.

We have more than 200 staff with a wide breadth of skills and backgrounds. With teams covering creative, editorial, video production, programming, design, printing, shopfitters, graphics installers and warehouse, we really are a diverse bunch. There is no one size fits all, so flexibility is key.

You have quite a lot of senior people working in the business. Are they and their staff working flexibly?

We run 24/7 across the wider business with differing levels of flexibility depending on the role someone plays on the team. Typically production workers are on shift and work fairly regular shifts, although those patterns range from three 12-hour days to traditional five eight-hour days depending on market demand. Team members in more cognitive roles tend to enjoy greater flexibility, again depending on role and timelines. An editor curating a bi-monthly magazine is obviously going to enjoy far greater flexibility than a printer running an on-demand print device.

What is your personal and business philosophy on flexible working?

Personally, I like the concept of flexibility and personal responsibility. It's crucial that we attain the appropriate outcome and it's also important that there is focus and structured discipline while being flexible. It works for some people and not for others.

Do you see flexible working commonly in the publishing industry?

I see it working in all industries. Not so much in the non-cognitive production-type roles but I think for all knowledge workers, it's crucial.

Do you also have a number of contract staff?

Yes, we work with a tonne of contractors across the business. it would be hard to put a number on it but certainly in the hundreds. On a lot of projects, we almost run a Hollywood-type model, where we bring in the talent required to meet a specific brief that we could simply not have on the team permanently, either because they are too expensive or we don't have sustainable demand for their specific talent.

What sorts of requests do you get from staff regarding flexible working?

To be honest I think the "requests" stopped years ago and it's now largely assumed. But typically team members will work remotely from time to time, regularly change start and finish times and often will work weekends and take days in lieu. The main thing is we meet client expectation on time and on budget. How a person does that does not really matter so much. It's important people get into flow. Sometimes you just can't and it can't really be forced, so it's vital we are flexible in approach.

What do you think having a positive attitude towards working hours does for productivity at Image Centre?

I can't really say as we don't measure it but I could not see it working any other way really. It's kind of the norm now so I'd have to say it's positive or we probably would have stopped it years ago.

I think without flexibility we suffer from Parkinson's Law - "work expands to fill time".

With flexibility the team gets on and does what they need to in a time and manner that suits them.

I'm huge on workflow engineering and continuous improvement. I'm a very systematic thinker but I think everything is about attitudes and behaviour and at the heart of the organisation, it's crucial to have appropriate performance dialogue. Dialogue is absolutely the most important factor in performance. It's now and it's ongoing all the time.

What is your staff retention like?

It varies across the group given the diverse nature of the business but overall I'd say it's appropriate. We are 23 years old. I joined 18 years ago and was the 23rd employee. Of the other 22, eight are still here with five working through to retirement. Three others set up their own businesses, which are either suppliers or contractors to us. Other areas see significant churn. I'd say our core, though, is very stable.

What do you think staff need to thrive in a workplace?

Basically an understanding of alignment of their action or role to the business purpose. Again strong communication - dialogue is at the heart of it. So all the good things like vision and values but living in conversation and not on some dorky plaque in reception.

We really promote curiosity because I think learning is our only sustainable advantage. I love the quote: "Life is change, growth is optional, choose wisely," by W. Somerset Maugham.

We've seen a lot of very rapid change in our business through technology, with massive shifts in the market so we really are up against an adaptive challenge. It's crucial we work as teams and get involved in making the best decisions we can collectively. So I promote managing by decision rather than by result. If we look only at results there is often just too much change to see it in appropriate perspective.

- NZ Herald

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