The agency model is broken.
In a nutshell
- Agencies in Australia are known for overworking people and driving burnout.
- TRA Australia is taking an innovative approach to working, reimagining the agency experience to circumvent burnout.
- Culture, flexibility, asynchronous working and digital inclusivity are all key elements of avoiding burnout.
It seems few agencies can make it without overworking their teams.
Hands up who has experienced burnout? Who can feel it now? Why does this have to be the norm? And can we use the pandemic to change the rules of the game?
Since launching TRA in Melbourne in late 2021, we've been growing at a fast pace. It’s exciting.
But, as well as setting up a new office in a new market, there is the context of a global pandemic to consider. The monumental changes brought about by the pandemic have triggered a reassessment of our lives. I'm in the camp that prefers to think of it not as the Great Resignation, but the Great Re-evaluation – and I’m excited to be part of it. Looking at the changing priorities and needs of the workforce, and building from scratch, we’re looking to build an agency experience like no other.
We’ve been given an opportunity to build a team in a deliberate and thoughtful way that aligns with what we see as the future of working. We’re not forming based on cultural norms and industry defaults. This has given more space and inspiration to grow in new and innovative ways.
We’re laying the foundation for how we want to operate going forward – and that includes addressing and circumventing the culture of burnout in agencies.
One of the things I'm conscious of as I expand a successful business into Australia is the burnout culture that exists in agencies here.
It’s personal for me. I have two young kids, and I made a promise to my wife and myself that starting an agency would not compromise our time together as a family.
So, how can we create an agency experience that challenges burnout?
I’ve been inspired by Git Lab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, who shares prolifically on this topic. I believe there is a real opportunity for us at TRA to reimagine the agency experience to circumvent burnout culture and create an agency experience like no other.
Here are some of the ways we’re doing that.
For most businesses that started in a single location office, culture develops organically. Often the culture is implicit, and team members tend to develop their understanding of the culture, and how to align with it behaviourally, via osmosis. Hang out there long enough and you’ll pick it up.
TRA is an impressive agency that has an incredible reputation in New Zealand – both with clients and as an employer brand. And a lot of TRA’s success stems from its strong culture.
Setting up on this side of the Tasman, but with a fully integrated trans-Tasman operating model, I wanted to ensure that we captured and transferred the TRA ‘special sauce’ into the Australian business. And when we are all working remotely, what becomes clear is that the culture needs to be explicit – nothing can be taken for granted.
TRA already has clearly articulated values – collaboration, creativity and clarity – that I see lived authentically by the team every day. Beyond this, we are going through a process of further distinguishing and articulating what makes TRA’s culture so attractive, and so powerful, and what you can expect when you come to work here.
So what has this got to do with burnout? Well, I’ve certainly experienced it before, and I know many others have too. When you are trying to figure out how fit into a culture, it can take a lot of effort and creates a lot of stress. And if you keep going trying to pretend you fit, and you don’t, that’s when burnout really hits.
So focusing on culture is about being clear and transparent about values and expected behaviours across everything we do. And then people can decide if TRA’s culture is a good fit for them before deciding to join us.
What could life be like if work was defined by what you do, and how you do it, and not where you do it? As a fully remote team, supported by the TRA Flex policy, we have removed the need to turn up to an office every day.
Every employer is talking about flexibility, but usually with caveats. It seems pretty common these days to hear businesses say things like: “Yes you can work from home, but we want everyone in the team in the office three days a week”. We're moving beyond that to give genuine agency to team members to make their own decisions about where to work.
This has given us a huge amount of flexibility and granted our team the ability to job craft. We now organise work around life and not the other way around. We’ve been able to spend more time with the people we care about.
We encourage non-linear workdays so that everyone has a chance to build in breaks to support proper rest, work when we feel most productive, and do our job around other life commitments.
Time flexibility means we can cultivate a “rest ethic” through days that flex beyond the traditional rigid 9-5 and give us more space to connect with our families and communities. Supporting this rest ethic is a big part of avoiding burnout.
This doesn’t mean we don’t ever get together, or don’t ever come into the office – it just means we are more purposeful about the time we do spend together as a team to build relationships, have fun, and do those parts of our job best done in person.
Asynchronous working is an extension of flexibility for us.
We’re working in an environment where not only is everyone remote, but we’re a satellite office, so we’re in a different time zone to TRA NZ.
This has given us the chance to reimagine all aspects of working, including how we communicate and collaborate. We now embrace asynchronous working, which removes the stress of constant communication and allows people to move projects forward without constantly having to talk about it.
We no longer have to worry about meeting for hours each day, so there is a significant efficiency gain. Asynchronous communication has meant less Zoom fatigue and more efficient collaboration.
There is also a reduced sense of urgency around responding to messages immediately, which curbs feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. Instead, we respond when best suits our flow and clearly signal if we need something more quickly.
An important part of realising the benefits of true asynchronous working is focusing on collaboration tools and project management platforms that enhance our agility, ability to plan and use resources more effectively, and to get our jobs done without relying on others being available at any particular time.
Some of the predictors of burnout include social rewards, values, community and fairness. Feeling like there is a purpose to your work, that you have a supportive team, can make a valuable contribution, and receive recognition for your efforts are all important. If these factors go unaddressed, people start to hit burnout.
Better digital inclusivity across TRA has meant we can focus on these things, even as a small satellite team.
Maturing digitally as an organisation has meant a renewed focus on innovation. TRA has innovation in its DNA, and we’re now in a position where we can make our innovation efforts even more inclusive. Anyone in TRA – whether AU or NZ – can contribute rather than having our innovation efforts limited to an exclusive group of people.
This gives us a diversity of ideas we can harness through the power of remote and asynchronous working. It also helps to spread a sense of contribution, and recognition, throughout our teams.
We’ve removed the inequality that can arise from hybrid workplaces, where people in person have an advantage. And we’re ensuring that we have inclusive and equal access to what the group has to offer on both sides of the Tasman.
The next Chapter for TRA Australia
I think setting up a new agency business is hugely exciting. Even better, when backed by a strong and innovative brand, culture and business such as TRA. Then throw in a global pandemic, and here in front of us is the opportunity to create an agency experience like no other.
Our team is growing, and we are looking for people who love the idea of being part of something new, of helping a business grow and having space to grow personally at the same time, collaborating with amazing people, delivering influential work for our clients, and doing it all as a side hustle around your life.