The Focal Point Blog // Business Strategy // Tom O'Neill // October 14, 2022

Modern Work is Changing: Parallax’s Takeaways on Billing the Creative Process, Timesheets, and “Hustle Culture”

By now, you’ve seen plenty of commentary on “quiet quitting” and “hustle culture.” Although most of it is buzzy fluff at best and total b.s. at worst, the reality is this: agencies and software development firms relying on selling peoples’ time must think strategically about retaining employees in 2023 and beyond.

Last month, I had the opportunity to chat candidly with industry leaders Kristen DiCamillo, Partner at HUSH; Lindsay Molsen, Managing Director at Big Spaceship; and Tom Beck, Executive Director at the Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA). We talked about everything from the surprising benefits of timesheets, boundary setting with tough clients, and how to allow creatives the space to focus on what they do best: producing great work.

Our conversation ultimately boiled down to this: one of the main reasons agencies and development studios struggle to break the cycle of too much or too little work is because they haven’t considered how poor people planning leads to confusion, stress, and burnout. Without mastering the resource planning basics, this cycle will continue. (Might we recommend a powerful solution to help? 😉).

Why is this more important than ever? Because times are tough, margins are being compressed, and costs are going up. And there’s a new reckoning in these creative industries where people are the product. This was the foundation of our conversation and our biggest takeaways from our recent panel event, “Hustle Culture is Canceled.”  

Timesheets suck, but they’re an invaluable communication tool

Once upon a time, HUSH operated without timesheets entirely. Though partner Kristen DiCamillo openly shares her disdain for the mundane process (who doesn’t?), her team made the decision to re-introduce timesheets when adopting Parallax. The result? Access to an irreplaceable communication tool and almost no employee uprising!

“Timesheets tell us what we need to know about each person’s workload,” DiCamillo shared with SoDA members in New York. “The data shows who’s burning hot, who’s running light, and what type of work we need to focus on selling.” Reframing the perception of timesheets in this way is a great way to get teams on board. Pro tip: By implementing duration-based pricing, most employees aren’t working on more than a few different projects on any given day, making timesheets far less cumbersome.

“Timesheets show us who’s burning hot, who’s running light, and what type of work we need to focus on selling.”

Kristen DiCamillo

The creative process isn’t an assembly line

For many agencies, streamlining the creative process can feel like a catch-22. Often, their best creatives, those who produce award-winning work to clients and are instrumental in delivering the company’s services, simply can’t replicate output week over week, or even day to day. Sometimes they spark an idea in the shower and crank out 10 hours of billable work in one night. Sometimes life happens and the ideas are slower to come to fruition. Both scenarios are valid and realistic, but from an operational standpoint, how do you plan around them? 🤔

To this question, DiCamillo shared that the answer lies in long-term planning. “It’s crucial to account for the entire creative process when scoping out new projects,” she explained. “By establishing a clear process and setting boundaries ahead of each project, our clients better understand how we can do our best work.

Lindsay Molsen also shared that at Big Spaceship, retainers account for a large portion of their work. Though retainers aren’t a blanket solution, the panel concluded that they can provide teams with the flexibility needed to operate like a human.

Embrace mission-driven culture

I recently discussed why as leaders, it’s our job to get our people invested in and excited about our mission.

Instead of expecting people to spend 50 hours a week on unfulfilling busy work, we must create a culture and a vision that people want to be part of. Because when talented practitioners are enlisted in what the organization is trying to accomplish – and they have a clear sense of how their own contributions and aspirations fit – the ambitions of individuals and the goals of the organization work hand-in-hand.

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that today’s workforce is talented, ambitious, and mobile. And they’re craving opportunities that deliver personal fulfillment as much as they deliver business results. Great leaders will recognize this. Then, they’ll do what they do best: double down on mission, clarify the business opportunity, and seek out great talent to come along for the ride.

Be aware of what pulls you into hustle mode to begin with

Operating a mission-focused agency with space for creative people to thrive was the obvious and only way forward for this SoDA crowd. And I commend these leaders for growing purpose-driven companies that push creative boundaries and nurture talent. Who wouldn’t want this?! 

Most of us who’ve led businesses built on creative talent acknowledge that our people are the product. We aspire to build a business and culture that inspires and engages our people. Unfortunately, it’s easy to justify bad habits that resemble the hustle culture when making payroll is on the line. Uncertainty can cloud our judgment when we lack a strong backlog of work and a rich new-biz pipeline. Lack of confidence often leads us to regress toward the heroics and a get-it-done hustle mentality that worked in the past.

Better planning and forecasting are KEY to getting (and staying) ahead of this reversion. Because once we’re confident in meeting the basic needs of our people and our business, we can focus on the parts that are way more fulfilling: doing great work for awesome clients with a passionate team. And isn’t that why we got into this business to begin with?

Parallax was built by people who’ve run professional services businesses in times of disruption and growth. We know exactly how it feels to face new opportunities head-on and seek out answers that can help you build a roadmap for what’s ahead. Ultimately, our goal is to create the tools we always wished we had and to help digital services companies get more confidence. Reach out to learn more about Parallax’s impact on your company, or sign up for our newsletter for more industry news and best practices.