An agency culture is much more than the sum of its policies

Caireen Wackett, MD of Portas on agency culture for The Drum.

Women now represent half of the workforce – from politics to retail – but it’s men who dominate the positions of power. In fact, three-quarters of UK boardrooms are made up by men and – coincidentally or not – three-quarters of conversations held in the average UK meeting are carried out by men too.

That has to change. And that is why Portas’ founder, Mary Portas, wrote Work Like a Woman, her manifesto for change.

If Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie’s alter ego, Work Like a Woman is ours. Behind closed doors we like to call it Pop (‘People of Portas’) culture. It’s the beating heart from which everything else is formed and although our agency has been around for 21 years, Pop culture is only five years in the making.

Five years ago we realised we were, as many are, stuck in a model of alpha culture. We were structured in a linear, hierarchical way; we measured our success on profit and growth and quite frankly, it wasn’t making us happy. It was at this point that Mary focused her time on working out which values she held dear, particularly as a woman.

We decided to restructure our agency around these values and prove that there could be a different way of working.

We scrapped alpha culture altogether and created a new kind that rooted the more ‘feminine’ values of collaboration, with kindness and understanding at the heart of our business. The Portas manifesto is included in the Work Like a Woman book and while it isn’t a blueprint for cultural change, it is a helpful and honest account of how we got to where we are today.

We’re still a profitable business, not any less ambitious, but we’re a much happier place to work.

Setting policies is one thing but making sure they are actually happening is how real change happens. Take childcare. You can have the greatest childcare policy in the world, but if the culture encourages employees to laugh and mock the dad who’s chosen to take three months off to be with his newborn child, then other dads won’t do it. Last year only 3% of men used their shared parental leave, despite 50% saying they’d like to. That’s depressing.

Policies should be used by us, not against us, and ensuring policies are accepted in your culture doesn’t happen by luck. You have to make fundamental shifts in how you run your business. When we rebuilt our agency to ‘work like a woman’ we structured it around competency, not hierarchy. This means we don’t care where you’re from or how long you’ve been doing what you do. We just care that you enjoy it and can do it well.

We also placed collaboration and diversity at the core of our business. For us this meant a number of things had to happen. We decided to invest in our offices because we know how important it is to creativity and the general mood of an agency to be welcomed into a space that’s been constructed with love and understanding. We also made it fully open-plan and scrapped meeting rooms, so all conversations are open and fluid.

Ensuring everybody has a voice is also key. I now hold a weekly meeting called ‘MD for a day’ where I sit with three different Pops each week and ask them to honestly tell me what they’d do if they were in my shoes for the day. A number of new policies have happily come out of these meetings.

Working like a woman also means bringing your whole self to work and not pretending that you don’t have a life outside of work. The best asset in any business is its people so it’s imperative for businesses to be more flexible and ultimately, more human. Your home life can be totally unpredictable and while it’s good to have a routine and structure in your working day, you can’t expect staff to fit that exact structure week in week out.

When you encourage your working life to be more real or adopt the mindset to ‘work like a woman’ you accept that emotions are not the enemy. Used well in business they can be your greatest tool.

If there was more emotion in politics, do you think we’d be living in the state we’re in currently? And that’s the thing – history taught us that businesses should be devoid of emotion. “It’s business, don’t take it personally”. How many times have you heard that?

Of course, businesses shouldn’t be filled with daily tears and dramatics. But it’s perfectly reasonable to run a business that not only allows but welcomes employees to say: ‘I’m not OK’; to show they’re human and not make them feel like they’re in an episode of The Apprentice.

I’d know, because I run a business exactly like that.