Beyond Growing Pains: Prioritising Wellbeing During our Creative Agency’s Growth Journey

Twelve years ago, three of us started Boulder Group from the spare bedroom of my old flat in Greenwich. Culture and mental health wasn’t even on our radar. At the time, we were just trying to make videos and hopefully pay the rent. The formula was pretty simple. The more hours we worked, the more likely we were to be able to keep the lights on.

But before long we had more work than we could handle, so we needed to start hiring. And with that, came a sudden realisation. We were not, actually, a film and animation company. We were a people company.

We were just trying to make great work, but life started happening. We had never considered that we, or our team, would have to deal with eventualities like miscarriages, period pain, hormonal symptoms, brain fog, menopause, anxiety, asthma, chronic pain, depression, bereavement, migraines, childcare responsibilities, transitioning and infinitely more situations.

We wanted to make sure we were enjoying what we did, but also that we were there for each other during challenging times. So, we did what all small companies do. We went out on the town (a lot!). It was great. It was culturally galvanising. It was also easy. When there’s five or six of you all sitting around one set of desks, culture and wellbeing almost takes care of itself by sheer virtue of proximity. You get to know each other really well. If someone was struggling, you could see it on their faces, and go chat about it at the pub. If you had something you wanted to say, you could just look up and speak to the person you wanted or take them out for a coffee. The process was organic and naturally sustaining as a result of its compact nature.

Fast forward to 2023. We no longer just make videos. We have expanded into a range of other fields, from branding, digital design, web design & development, all the way through to strategy, performance marketing, planning, VR and AR. We now have a full time, London-based UK team of around 30, with freelancers and support staff increasing that number further. We also have international teams dotted across the globe. We have to factor in remote working, flexible hours, and that’s before you get into subjects such as people’s health, wellbeing, or managing our three office dogs. We realised, as we grew, that we could no longer rely on organic culture to support our team and their needs. We needed to get proactive.

Historically companies have had varying responses to the needs of their employees. Ranging from, on one side, telling them they need to work harder and be “less entitled”, to business owners “throwing money at the problem until it goes away”, making their office look fun on the surface, but without understanding the deeper human needs of the people that inhabit that space. Gone are the days when employees get excited about having a table tennis table and a swing in the reception area.

How we operate as a company is more than just making great work. It’s about helping shape people’s lives in a way that positively affects them. This means, giving people meaningful careers that are aligned with their aspirations, producing great work for great clients and being a supportive community that helps everyone thrive personally, as well as professionally.

Culture and wellness are areas that need constant, structured, attention, based around deep human insights. They are not a “fluffy” addition that helps people feel good. When done well, they forge the backbone of an entire company. Producing consistently outstanding work is a byproduct of having incredible talent that is supported, nurtured and encouraged by their environment. One which motivates its staff, helps them stay strong during the tough times and, ultimately, is a force that enables everyone to be proud to say where they work.  

So, we created a framework for our Mental Health and Wellness strategy to sit within. One which is broadly divided into four core areas.

Skills to Thrive

Even though most of us regularly sit at our desks dreaming of a time when we have less on our plates, the truth is that we feel at our best when we are busy, highly motivated and striving towards a goal. We need enough on our plate to feel as though we are working hard, but not so much that we are in danger of burning out – it’s all about the quality of the hours that we put in, not the quantity of those hours.

So how do you build an environment where people can thrive and feel they are doing high-quality work, without getting overwhelmed?

Most important of all is effective leadership. Guiding people, without micro-managing them. Giving them space to take ownership, but without giving them so much space that they feel unsupported. This requires trust from both sides and the ability to let people make mistakes that can be learned from. As Mark Twain famously said, “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.”

Secondly, nurturing ambition. All improvement stems from ambition. This comes from having regular meetings around career progression, having an achievable target to aim for and making sure that the steps needed to get there are clear and measurable. For example, “learn how to give a presentation” is not measurable. “Present an idea to the creative team in response to a live brief” is measurable i.e., it’s easy to assess whether it has been achieved or not.   

Thirdly, training. All of this needs to be underpinned by effective training. Many things can be learned organically by getting stuck into projects. However, training courses that are selected for each individual and based on their unique set of needs, are the best way to turbocharge someone’s learning ability, as well as helping to build confidence.

Space to Recharge

When asked, “balance” is what everyone says that they are looking to achieve from their work and life. But this does not mean moving slowly, repetitively, or at a constant pace. Balance usually means a series of sprints that are punctuated by regular opportunities to catch our breath. Without the ability to recharge, these sprints are not possible. “Recharge”, also does not mean doing nothing – it’s the ability to actively get back to a balanced state.

During and after Covid, we discovered that various things were happening to affect our team’s sense of balance. People were often spending almost their entire day staring at their laptops, in meetings, on Zoom or Teams calls. This meant that people weren’t getting away from their desks, they weren’t resting their eyes, they weren’t exercising, they weren’t getting time to themselves, and they weren’t even able to actually get any work done.

So, we implemented a meeting free time between 12-2pm every day, where, unless there was absolutely no other option, meetings were discouraged from taking place. This meant our team could take an hour for lunch, rather than grabbing something at their desks and turning their laptop camera off so that people wouldn’t see them chucking a sandwich down themselves. They could go out and get some fresh air and some exercise. And, crucially, they could catch up on all the things that they had missed whilst stuck on calls all morning. With one very simple and completely free initiative, our whole team found it easier to achieve a sense of balance each day.

This is a guideline that’s still in place today, with our whole team encouraged to police it.

Financial Fitness

There is a huge misconception around finances that the best way to have more money is to get a pay rise. Whilst pay rises and salary are certainly important, they very rarely suddenly solve all of our financial worries. Proper financial fitness is vital for all of us and there are so many ways to achieve it, but unfortunately, it’s not something which is taught at school. As a result, money is something that causes an immense amount of anxiety for most of us.

My background is in design and animation, and my business partners’ (James and Charlie) expertise is in economics and business studies. Historically, I’m very good at keeping my crayons inside the lines, but I’m very bad with spreadsheets. So, when I was struggling with finances, I went to them for advice. Their thoughts around spending, saving, investing and mortgages were incredibly simple and absolutely invaluable. So, we turned it into a series of talks which included easily actionable next steps, that our whole team could learn from.

Understanding the options that are available to all of us and the actions that can be taken is the key to financial fitness. It’s simply knowledge sharing but with purpose.

Sometimes, however, knowledge is not enough. So, we make sure to also implement other practices that help our team save money wherever possible, such as paying for everyone’s Winter fuel bills last year when the cost of living was skyrocketing.

Ultimately, when people’s anxiety around their finances is reduced, it clears their minds to focus on the more important things, whether that be at work or in their personal lives. Again, whilst this reduction can be a result of having more money, having more knowledge makes a big difference.  

Sustainable Life

Great work, profitability and balance are all important, but not if they come at the cost of your ethics. It is immensely important to the collective conscience of our team that they feel they are working at a company which wants to do right by its people and the planet. The somewhat intangible idea of having faith in the place that you are working for cannot be understated as a key pillar in people’s mental health.

We uphold our ethics through our Sustainable Life commitment, which makes sure that our company consistently tries to make the world a better place. This can be through the credentials of our clients, the sustainable way that we manage our office, or schemes that we implement, such as the salary sacrifice electric car scheme, or giving an extra day off to anyone who drives or takes the train to their holiday location, rather than flying. In essence, we try to live by a guiding set of principles, which is one of the many reasons that we are also currently going through the process of B Corporation certification.

These are just a few examples, but the important thing to understand with all of our principles is that they are a constant work in progress. None of them are ever finished and we are always looking to improve them. The best way to achieve that is by listening to our team and giving them the opportunity to express their opinions, which is also why we do a “company 360” every year, giving our entire team the ability to anonymously say exactly how they feel about the company and how it’s run. Without absolute honesty, there can be no improvement. So, anything that doesn’t come out after a few drinks at our local pub usually gets voiced here.

Above all, when it comes to our company’s mental health and wellbeing, we take it seriously. It’s the right thing to do and it also makes good business sense. There is an incredible amount of inefficiency that happens when people leave, and people do better work when they are less anxious about whatever life is throwing at them.

We, as an agency, are committed to developing an ethos built around wellbeing, trust, ownership, flexibility, kindness and inclusivity. We believe in a personal, proactive, responsible approach to supporting everyone through life’s twists and turns. An approach which looks after the individual, whilst also being considerate to the needs and impact on the wider team and business.  We, as a group, take responsibility for ourselves and the people around us, knowing that they are looking out for us too.

Most of all, we also do this because we want to run a company that we, and our team, can be proud of.

Having fun is a serious job.

800 450 The Boulder Group

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141-145 Curtain Road, Shoreditch, London.