How to look after your employees, with the founders of Fiasco Design, Ragged Edge and Too Gallus
The sign of a happy workplace isn’t always immediately obvious, nor can it necessarily be quantified. From finances to flexible work-life balances, we were keen to find out what measures studio founders take to account for the well-being of their employees. Going beyond ping pong tables, free beers or taco Tuesdays, we asked Fiasco Design’s Ben Steers, Ragged Edge’s Max Ottignon and Too Gallus’ Barrington Reeves how they approach the culture, pay and well-being of their respective teams.
Whilst the phrase ‘we’re like a family here’ sets off the alarm bells and then some, we know it’s important for all employees to feel welcome, safe and included at their workplace. What kind of studio environment or ‘culture’ does a studio aim to have? For the studio founders we spoke to, fostering a collaborative, open and welcoming environment is essential.
When Ben Steers and Jason Smith first founded Fiasco Design back in 2010, they ensured a solid foundation was in place for the Bristol-based studio from the outset. “Starting from scratch meant that we were able to build a studio culture in our own image, based on a central philosophy and a set of values,” Steers explains, highlighting “openness, honesty, integrity, togetherness and respect.” As the team and company have grown, these values have remained core pillars throughout every decision they’ve made. “Our aim is to nurture an open and inclusive culture that supports and encourages creativity. Where no matter your place in the team, you’re treated as equal.”
Ensuring a welcoming and inclusive environment through onboarding is something that Ragged Edge are proud to take pretty seriously. “When someone new joins, we want them to feel included and valued from the get-go,” Co-founder Max Ottignon tells us. Every new hire gets assigned a buddy, which he explains is “often someone in a completely different role to help them build relationships beyond their immediate team.” The London-based agency aim to put people at the heart of every decision they make, and define their processes to systemise that. “A big part of that was hiring Lisa as our Head of People & Culture,” Ottignon notes – a role that ensures the studio leaders are continuously being proactive about how they look after the team.
For smaller and less-established studios, there might not be the budget available to invest in developing specific programmes or systems though; especially in the beginning. Still in their early days, having started out in 2020, Glasgow-based studio Too Gallus have their own approach to fostering a happy environment. “The most important thing in our studio culture is fun,” Founder Barrington Reeves reveals, “to me, the mark of a successful culture is waking up every day and wanting to go to work.” This is realised in two ways; their approach to projects and their approach to working life. “When we’re working on projects we want the process to be collaborative and creative,” he elaborates. With a small and tightly-knit team, working hard is best enjoyed with company that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “The work we do is incredibly challenging and there can be a lot of pressure so I think making sure that that process continues to be enjoyable and fun is crucial,” he adds.
Of course, a happy environment doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. With rising living costs to consider, from the perspective of both companies and employees, we were keen to find out our respondents’ policies towards bonuses and incentives for their teams. Were they approached on an individual basis or for the company as a whole?
When it comes to individual progression and achievement, Ottignon explains, “we certainly want to recognise each person individually, and avoid any situation where one person’s progression is limited by factors outside of their control.” Fiasco Design opt out of paying bonuses, while Ragged Edge’s approach to bonuses aims to reward people working towards a common goal. For the former, this may be in the form of social and cultural events, annual team trips and more. “We’re currently in the process of setting up an equity scheme, which means we’ll be able to give some of the business away to the people who work here,” Steers adds, “this will also allow us to reward those individuals financially.” The turbulent economic era is also a factor that Fiasco have considered carefully, and have adjusted salaries for everyone to cover inflation and the rising cost of living.
Ragged Edge’s approach follows a similar route, ensuring that incentives encourage a collaborative mindset. “This is first and foremost a team sport,” Ottignon tells us, “and everything we achieve – whether it’s winning a new client, or being awarded a D&AD pencil – is a result of a team of talented people working brilliantly together.”
A small tight-knit team ensures that for Too Gallus, everything is approached as a whole company. According to Reeves, everybody’s wins are celebrated, conjuring a feeling like “a win for one department is a win for every department.” In contrast to our other respondents, Too Gallus opts to pay bonuses. “The team enjoy a sizable Christmas bonus every year,” he explains further, “it’s a celebration of us all and the work we’ve completed that year.” Throughout the year, Reeves also rewards his team outside of the studio, taking them to a nice lunch in a restaurant every Friday, for example. As he tells us, “they’re small gestures but I hope they keep everyone across the board feeling valued and respected.”
Respect for employees comes in many forms, with pay and gestures just a couple of factors to consider. In addition, respect for their time is also invaluable. In an era of work more flexible than ever, how do studios approach working hours? What works best for the health and productivity of the team? “In our industry, great work all too often comes at the expense of the wellbeing of the team,” Ottignon points out. “High standards go hand in hand with late nights and relentless pressure. I don’t believe we should accept that compromise.” For Ragged Edge, the team works at its best – both culturally and creatively – when they’re together in their London office. With this in mind, 100% remote work was never an option for them. However, as the pandemic years have taught us, flexibility is key. “We’ve tried to combine the best of both worlds, introducing a range of principles, and empowering team members to be accountable for where they spend their time.”
Concurring with a flexible approach, Steers emphasises that Fiasco employees “can flex their hours to fit around their lives, rather than the other way round” and overtime is very rarely asked for. Taking this approach a step further, the studio also operate ‘summer hours,’ moving the whole studio to a 4-day working week over summer with no change to salary. “This is intended to help free up some extra time when the days are long and the sun is shining, to help the team recharge and pursue other interests.”
Following the second birthday of his studio, Reeves tells us that the work hours and well-being of his Glasgow-based team are in a good place. “We now work 10am – 6pm every day, we pretty much never work late nights and I would never dream of asking the team to work at the weekend.” However, Reeves openly explains that starting a new studio can bring a demanding workload.
“Our first year was really chaotic I can't lie, we were pulling 12-14 hours days sometimes in order to facilitate the growth we were experiencing, but no one was forced to do it – we all very much understood that we were in a pretty radically transitional phase and that if we could put the time in we would reap the benefits, and we have.” With the hard work paying off, Reeves is eager to keep the momentum going in a way that prioritises the health and happiness of everyone. “The well-being of my team means more to me than any amount of money and I think they can only be at their peak in work when they are enjoying their lives outside work most, and that can only come with us not encroaching on that time.”