Naeem Alvi-Assinder on the key to a good work life balance

Written by
Naeem Alvi-Assinder
Illustration by
Hollie Fuller

Every month we invite creative professionals to share their thoughts on a topic they care about from the creative world of work. This month, we're hearing from Naeem Alvi-Assinder, Managing Director & Founder of branding and advertising studio Notepad on the real key to a good work life balance.

Last week was two years since the UK went into lockdown. Safe to say, since that time most people’s mental health has taken at least one solid trip into the toilet. And while things like yoga sessions, beanbags in the studio, and a Headspace subscription are nice to have, the real keys to a good work life balance at work run much deeper.

Since starting Notepad in 2017, my primary motivation has been to build an agency that has a sustainable studio culture– focusing on work-life balance. Our vision is literally to “Build a home for the UK’s best creative talent”. Having previously worked for agencies across the UK I know what the good, the bad, and the very ugly of our industry looks like (I’ve experienced burnout twice myself in the past). When you throw in the pressures of the past two years, it forces you to work even harder to make sure your people feel valued, empowered and trusted. While we’re by no means perfect, I believe any agency is only as good as its people, and ultimately if your people feel great, the work will be exceptional, and the agency will succeed. Sounds simple right?

Pre-pandemic, people would be shocked that we were encouraging people to work from wherever they work best and feel most productive, but nowadays it’s simply expected and people have the option to literally work for any agency in the world. The power is now very much in the hands of the employee and it’s been amazing to watch agencies chuck a load of meaningless benefits into their job ads to try and stand out. When I started out my career in ‘AgencyLand’, I used to think having a slide in the office, or a bottle of Jägermeister on your desk on day one, was the ultimate sign of a great place to work. Nowadays perks like those are being replaced by things that sound great on paper, but often don’t really do any good. Things like…

“We offer free yoga classes once a week. They’re at 4pm on a Friday so you definitely won’t make it home before 6pm.”

“Forget chairs, we prefer bean bags. They’re comfy for about 10 minutes and then you’ll wreck your back.”

“Here’s a Headspace subscription. Use it outside of work to try and blank out the PTSD of your day.”

I believe that perks and benefits shouldn’t be offered just for the sake of it. I’m not saying that our work culture and benefit scheme are perfect as there are always ways to improve, but I’m proud that we’ve managed to retain our amazing crew through the pandemic, and continue to attract more and more brilliant people to join us. While I’m all for team yoga (we’ve done this once) and pizza lunches (we’ve done this loads), there are much bigger drivers to consider when building a great working culture in a creative business. In no particular order, here’s what I think actually matters most…

Trust should go both ways. Hire great people, give them what they need to do their job, and get out of their way. It’ll take some people time to get used to not working in a culture of fear, but ultimately people thrive when they know you trust them to get the job done (even if they do fail and learn along the way), and similarly they trust you to give them the support they need.

Pay your people enough. Energy bills are ridiculously high, fuel is the new gold, National Insurance is going up, and inflation is exploding. If your team is worrying about bills all the time, they won’t feel free to be creative. We’ve just increased our whole team’s salaries by 5% and I’m proud to say we always pay above market salaries.

Keep the culture flat, but have decision makers. Encourage everyone to speak up and give them a platform to do so. The best ideas in the room can come from anywhere so let people be themselves and express different views. And, if the shit does hit the fan, have more experienced people who can make the decision based on what’s been shared, and what will work.

Have a clear vision and make sure everyone enjoys the ride. We spend a third of our lives at work. People need to know what they are working towards. Paint a picture of the future you want to create, and make sure you celebrate the wins along the way.

Recognise that people might be struggling. Just because you’re feeling great, doesn’t mean your team will be. If people are stressed, lean in and work out what’s really going on. And even if there isn’t a reason, just recognise that humans are messy emotional creatures and sometimes we just need to be grumpy. Give people free mental health days and ultimately, make sure you carve out time to just have fun as a team. It’s not all about the grind.

Respect that people have a life outside of work. I’ve always thought remote and flexible working practices were the way forward. We still do two days a week from our beautiful studio in Birmingham but the other days are optional. And if people do need to pop out for an appointment or do the school run, just have faith that they will make that time up when they get back.

There are more I could add, but ultimately a great culture needs high employee trust, the tools to do the job brilliantly, and freedom from fear of failure. Before you launch weekly mindfulness sessions, focus on trusting your people, respecting their time, and creating a space where it’s okay to make mistakes.

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