Agency life: working long hours
"If you make widgets and gauge the success of your day by how many widgets you cranked out, then yes, more hours = more productivity. But that’s not how creative professionals work, that’s not what we get paid for. We get paid for our ideas, our strategy, our designs, and our guidance. No agency gets hired because the client hears they’re known for working really long hours" (Disenthrall blog post, disenthrall.co)
Long hours and agency life go together like peanut butter and jelly. It's a sticky pairing that has been around for eons.
A standard agency employment contract will read something similar to this: "hours of work are 8:30am to 5:30pm, Monday to Friday. In busy times the employee will be expected to work in excess of the hours stated." What your contract doesn't tell you is that "busy times" can be another way of saying "most of the time".
Is it fair/acceptable/right that you be required to regularly work long hours when your contract clearly states you have a 40-hour-per-week job, and that you receive no additional remuneration for the extra hours? It's a question that always hovers in the background, but is usually relegated to the "too hard basket" sitting under your agency manager's desk.
Expectations and realities
Why might you be expected to work such long hours?
- It's the industry standard.
- It's your agency's expectation.
- Your clients may want you to be available at any time.
- The type of work you do (e.g. social media community management) is an "always-on" job.
- You have clients or suppliers based in other time zones.
- You have an under-staffed team.
- You have a large workload.
- You are driven by deadlines.
Why might you willingly agree to work these long hours?
- It's an unspoken expectation of management and staff.
- You are concerned you may lose your job if you don't.
- Everyone else in your team is working late.
- If you leave on time you feel "guilty".
- If your creatives work late you feel like you have to as well.
- You consider long hours as a badge of honour.
- You'll do whatever it takes to stay working in the industry.
- You think working long hours is your ticket to a promotion.
- You think working long hours means you are working hard.
- You have deadlines to meet.
- You care about your clients and you don't want to let them down.
- Your workmates are also your friends, so you may as well socialise at work.
- You've got nothing better to do at home.
AgencyLand is deadline-driven. Deadlines are always present and 100% necessary for the successful delivery of projects and campaigns. Deadlines are also loaded with expectations and consequences ("if you do this, by this time, then this will/won't happen"). In order to ensure that deadlines are met and clients are kept happy, it is inevitable that you (as a dedicated account manager) will likely "do whatever it takes" to meet your deadlines - which includes working long hours.
If long hours are an acknowledged component of working in AgencyLand, it can be argued that if you choose account management as your career then you should accept long hours as something you knowingly signed up for. The question then becomes, should you be expected to work long hours every day or just occasionally?
Before you sign a contract
When you interview for an agency job, a good question to ask is: "What type of hours does the account management team typically work?" Your aim is to find out if the agency has a work-hard-play-hard ethos (a common euphemism for "long hours") or is more family-friendly (a common euphemism for "getting to see your children before they go to bed").
What about work-life balance?
It is unlikely that agencies will ever promise their staff a great work-life balance (though some agencies are better at this than others). Therefore, what can you do to ensure you keep your health, sanity and family life intact?
- Negotiate special hours into your employment contract (e.g. start early/finish early; or start late/finish late; or 9am to 2pm school hours). If your colleagues and clients know you work fixed hours the pressure comes off automatically.
- Have a very open discussion with your line manager to establish their expectation for your regular working hours. You may find that while you assume you need to work late to be appreciated, your manager would prefer you went home and had a life outside of work.
- Exercise regularly and eat well.
- Get as much sleep as possible.
- Leave on time on all the days you can, and when the pressure is on make sure you are seen to be happily supporting your team and getting work across the line.
- Change careers (hey, it's an option).
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