The PR boss living the 20 hour work week and loving it

The PR boss living the 20 hour work week and loving it

If you experience ‘waiting moments’ during your work day and are required to be at your desk regardless, you may well be doing what Renae Smith used to do: creating more work for yourself.

When she ended up working 100 hour weeks, which landed her in hospital suffering a panic attack, she decided it was time to shift the approach.

She made a deliberate move to work smarter, not harder, all while continuing to grow her PR agency, The Atticism. That manifested in senior staff working 20-hour weeks, junior staff working flexible but more standard 38-hour weeks, and the introduction of ‘Code Red’ days for anyone to work from home a couple of days a month when needed.

And although Renea’s the boss, she’s only in the office from Tuesday to Thursday, and takes the time to study German, cook, write and look after her two teenage kids.

I spoke to Renae about her approach to work, following predictions by the Dutch writer and historian Rutger Bregman, published by Fairfax media this week, that shorter work weeks should become the norm by the year 2030.

The prediction came up against plenty of criticism on social media, with some questioning how any company could afford to rely on staff being efficient and profitable with so much flexibility.

I asked Renae how she manages her shorter working week, with a team of seven. “We all know what needs to get done and what goals need to get completed. The key factor is trusting that it will get done,” she tells me.

“The business is growing. We are attracting better clients, because we have better people working with us. We’re also great at getting to the point with the media. There is no fluff, and journalists appreciate that.”

The former executive paralegal created her own PR agency in 2012, before taking six months out to appear as a contestant on Masterchef in 2014, and later ramping up the business.

Her firm found a natural place in promoting restaurants and food, following Renae’s stint on the cooking show. Work picked up. Renae took on more clients and after spending those ‘waiting hours’ adding more items to the-do list – in PR, that’s particularly around waiting for a journalist to respond, clients to approve a strategy or media release – she quickly found herself overworked. She started exploring the 20 hour work week option after being diagnosed with a stress disorder.

She says more than a year later, her staff are now comfortable with the regular, flexible routine. They are able and willing to respond to client needs when required, but that doesn’t mean sitting in an office waiting for such needs to come up – and creating more work for during the downtime.

Senior staff in the agency manage their 20 hour week working 10 to 3pm in the office Tuesday to Thursday – which is the busier period for the agency – and then working the remaining hours remotely according to client requirements.

Junior staff work a more standard 38 hour week, but can be flexible with their hours. Renae says no one is expected to be at their desk by 9am, nor does anyone need to hang around past 3:30 pm if there’s nothing to do.

The Code Red days are for all staff, male or female, but were specifically created to enable women to work from home during their periods. Renae suffers from endometriosis, a condition affecting one in ten women that can result in debilitating pain at certain points of a menstrual cycle.

Renae adds that her team uses a number of project management and collaboration tools to keep track of everything, including Dapulse, Dropbox and Slack.

She also has a strict approach to keeping her inbox under control, aiming to clear anything that can be completed by 3pm each working day. Emails are automatically dragged into client folders, and she avoids putting simple things off. “I actually find I’m more productive if I’m offline for a few hours and don’t look at my inbox. Then I come back and there might be 40 emails sitting there, but I just sit and clear them out.”

A number of staff members say the workplace culture has been a game-changer for them, particularly in being trusted and offered the opportunity to work in a way that suits them and their requirements. One account manager noted that as she suffers depression and anxiety, she struggles to appear constantly ‘on’. “This working schedule allows me to be at my best and focus on my work without feeling like I have to pretend all the time,” she says.

Renae personally has plenty of ways to fill the hours when she’s not working. When we talk she’s preparing to make chocolate cupcakes for her kids. She runs a blog on vegetarian food, takes German lessons and has a regular Monday massage. “It sounds super exotic. But for me it’s actually the fact that during that time you’re focussed. You don’t have your phone. You can’t see the emails coming in.”

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