A different way of working at Big Wave Digital

26 Apr 2017 |

Keiran Hathorn, Director of Big Wave Digital.

Keiran Hathorn, Director of digital, data and technology recruitment company, Big Wave Digital, talks about how a flexible approach to work can increase productivity and drive better outcomes for staff and clients.

with Keiran Hathorn from Big Wave Digital:

A lot of people say they are flexible; however what does that really mean? I think it’s a really important point that ‘flexibility’ means different things to different people and different companies.

We are a niche digital, data and technology recruitment business. That’s our focus and we deal with organisations of varying sizes. From large enterprise companies and companies with 50 to 100 people, through to start-ups with ten to twenty people.

We see a lot of different environments and different ways of working. Small and efficient has always been my mantra.

Although it wasn’t an intentional selection, everyone who works here are parents, and we all have youngish children. As a parent, you have to live and that costs money, sure, but the thing you really value is time and flexibility. It makes me sad when I hear about people who are locked in to do X amount of hours and can’t be there to see their child run or swim or get an award, because those things are really important to me, and I imagine, to those parents too.

My father, who was a school principal, was a big influence on how I think about lifestyle. He managed 60 staff and teachers, but he’d be home every afternoon e to play cricket with me. He was very good at his job; he was very efficient with his time and in his communication. I try to be ruthless with my time and I encourage that in my staff.

Outcome basis

At Big Wave Digital we focus on productivity and outcomes. Time does have to come into it, because work has to be done, but how my people structure that time is up to them. We have monthly targets that determine our KPIs, but how the people get there is up to them.

This is quite a different approach to other recruitment companies. I don’t scrutinise how many calls and emails my team are making, and how many appointments they make. We don’t have numbers on boards in the office, and while we all know exactly what numbers we need to make to be viable, the numbers are not discussed.

We are all very experienced and at the top of our game. I’m lucky to have the team I do and that they appreciate the environment we have at Big Wave.

For example, the company started in 2010 and Dayna Stewart joined within a month or two. She was my first employee and she’s been with me ever since. Dayna is amazing at what she does on all levels. She works remotely from her home on the South Coast and comes up to Sydney twice a week, arriving about 9.30am, and leaving at about 3.00pm. Dayna has consistenly billed sensational results month to month for 7 years so the model works.

The model I have is not for someone who is starting out in recruitment, this is designed around people who are highly experienced and used to managing their own day and want to have that autonomy and freedom around what they do and how they do it, as opposed to being told how to do their job at each step of the way.

I am also flexible with how I structure work arrangements, and it largely depends on how my people want to work. I have some staff on the traditional payroll and some who are engaged as contractors.

Flexible hours, remote working, flexible basis of employment

Technology is an enabler, and it’s been a game-changer. In recruitment you do need to visit your clients and you need to meet with candidates, but that can also be done using technology like Skype if you need to.

On the outside we look like a traditional operating business, but on the inside there is a lot of flexibility and trust. There is also accountability, and it doesn’t just come from me.It comes from people who are self-driven and could be absolutely running their own business if they preferred. For now at least, they are looking for the team environment, and the energy and collegiality that comes with that.

Sales and recruitment thrive in an energised environment, but you don’t have to be in that environment for fifty hours a week. I think it fosters a high performance environment that we aren’t in each other’s pockets all the time.

The support is there when we need it; I think the team aspect is really important, to be able to troubleshoot problems and to share wins.

Flexibility can ease the little frictions that otherwise can build up even between team members who get along well. Our flexible approach definitely expands the talent pool we can draw from.

So much of this comes back to the different interpretations of what flexibility means. To some flexibility might mean being able to leave at 4.00 pm once a month. To me flexibility almost means, “You work it out,” so if you want to leave at 2.00pm on Tuesdays so you can go for a surf, that’s fine, as long as you get your work done.

As long as we all know we are working towards the same target – and let’s be honest, that is a dollar target, because that’s what all businesses have to work towards – then how you get there is up to you. You have total freedom.

Some people will freak out in that situation because they want more guidance and structure. Someone like that, and I’ve tried it, doesn’t work well in the environment we have at Big Wave. You have to know your people and what they’re capable of and what they’re comfortable with.

Recruitment Challenges

It has been our experience that employees are increasingly demanding flexibility in their roles and employers who can offer this can differentiate themselves from the competition to secure the best talent.

We don’t do drinks on Friday night, we all have young families and life outside of work, so we don’t do what some other companies do. We get better in different ways. A couple of staff might run together at lunch and discuss a challenge . Maybe it’s an unusual view on what work should be but to me it’s about sustainability. Working in a field like recruitment it’s quite competitive and demanding and having that flexibility to not have to be constantly present is a pressure-valve.

A rare offering

I get the sense that the environment we have here is still rare and I would say that many of the companies around are slower to embrace it. I suspect it may be a trust thing, but more, it’s companies holding on to an antiquated idea of what work is. I remember working with people who were doing 60 or 70 hour weeks in the office and achieving this sort of hero status and they were gloating about that. I just thought, ‘You’re an idiot. What are you actually doing?’.

I always have been focused on doing what I needed to do, the real bulk of the work, by 3.30 each day. So what’s the point of sticking around in an office until 5.30 or 6.00 just because that’s what society wants you to do? It’s meaningless. It isn’t efficient and it doesn’t create a happy employee.

If you’ve done what you need to do, then go home. Having said that, it’s not like we go home at lunchtime every day. We work hard, for instance starting at 7.00 in the morning or even 6.30, depending on what’s on. We take calls after hours , on weekends and when dealing with overseas time zones. But there is give and take, and that’s what’s important.

I’ve employed 120 people over my career in various businesses and it’s quite rare to get what I’ve got now. I appreciate what I’ve got. It’s hard to recruit the right people – if it was easy companies like Big Wave wouldn’t exist.

It’s interesting though, that some of the companies who will say how much trouble they have recruiting won’t put things like flexibility on the table. They are fixated on the skills and experience they want, but they don’t think about what they are offering in return.

How can you help yourself when you’re recruiting?

Recruitment and employment markets go through cycles, and as a result of that, expectations need to be managed. For example, in our area of data and technology the demand side of things right now is very high – everyone wants a front end developer. But this means you’ve got to be able to concede something. Maybe you want a front end developer who loves sport, but you’re not going to get exactly that unless you’ve got something amazing to offer.

Flexibility is one. Salary is another. You can’t avoid meeting salary; the market is what the market is. If you’re going to try to underpay salary and say we’ll give you flexibility or we’ll give you equity, in my experience, it’s not going to work. You have to pay the salary, there’s no way around that. You can offer concessions; someone could take a small cut in salary if there are sufficient benefits to compensate, but there’s not as much leeway as people think. People have to earn enough to live, so where your company is based can be a major factor in salary negotiations for good people.

I think there’s a lot of energy misplaced by companies with the emphasis they place on their mission statement and vision and so on. Often what a candidate is interested in comes down to what’s in it for them. What are the advantages of working for a certain business?

It’s a good idea to be able to articulate why someone would be better off working for your company. It could be salary, flexibility, equity, training and development opportunities; but whatever it is, different attributes will be a positive or a negative for different people. For instance a role that offers opportunities to travel; this may be an incentive for someone young and single but not as attractive to a working parent.

Look at what some of the big companies are doing, like Google. They are really good at PR and advertising what it is they offer to employees. A business needs to think about where they want to place themselves in the employment market.

Ask who you are trying to attract and what you need to offer

People are smart, and they see through smoke and mirrors. It’s no use going on about the company values if when the employee asks ‘What does that mean?’ you don’t have an answer; it was just something the company did, going through the motions like filling out a blank on a form. Spell out the tangible benefits you offer to anyone who works for you.

I love my work, I love my business. The people here are really genuine and I love working with them. I believe I have a special environment and I value what we have. I look for people who value it too. We have a happy and positive space. Environment is important to me, and we have our office space in a beautiful converted loft in Paddington, where we can look out over a garden. It’s a good place to work, and a different way of working.

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