They're a small team with a big personality — here's how a well-judged company culture gets results.
“Keeping warm in the winter in an old lace mill with original sash windows is always a challenge,” says Lauren Swarbrick, account director at digital agency Abstrakt. “We keep a plenitude of woolly cardigans on standby, drink endless cups of tea and have the occasional hot water bottle.”
As a chilly winter takes hold, we’re stepping into Abstrakt’s world — a world powered by a small team of people who absolutely love what they do, even if they need a hot water bottle to get through the day without shivering their bums off.
Being a digital agency, this lovely bunch work on all sorts of modern business needs from branding and design to development. They’ve worked on a lot of websites since launching in 2006, including quite a few of their own — I’ve counted at least six in creative director Marc Swarbrick’s trawl through their evolution. How can a company get through so many websites?! There’s an inherent need to keep things fresh, sure, but also an ever-evolving shift in the relationship between agency and client.
When clients become friends
Lauren tells us how it all began: “Marc and I had previously worked on opposite sides of the fence — agency and client side respectively. Having seen the relationship between client and agency from both angles, we were convinced there was a better way to do things.”
So, how do they do things better?
“We set out to build an agency for businesses who wanted a partner who cared about their business as much as they did.”
“A partner who was open, honest and transparent with them and who always went the extra mile. The values that we started with still hold true for us today, and we’re just as passionate about living up to them now as we were back then.”
So you could say it’s more of a friendship than a faceless service.
“Lots of our clients we have worked with for many, many years and we count them as friends. We have a studio party twice a year for our clients, associates, peers and friends to mix and mingle — we’re a very open book and firmly believe in open collaboration and the sharing of ideas. And food. And wine.”
Brick, metal and... a Tie Fighter?
Pop along to Abstrakt’s studio in Nottingham and you’ll be greeted by a space that certainly ticks the ‘quirky’ box. Occupying the third floor of a former lace mill in Nottingham’s Lace Market (a protected heritage area, no less), the industrial innards of the building sit alongside additions the team have made.
Lauren says she and the team are “exceptionally lucky to have an office which really is a home from home".
"We all spend a lot of time here and it’s really important to Marc and me that everyone is happy and comfortable."
“You can see lots of brick and wood, exposed metal pipework and pillars. The windows are huge, the ceilings are high and spaces are big and open. A lot of old features remain, such as the original gated lift which adds a huge amount of character.”
Sounds like an intriguing place indeed. Have they added any modern touches?
“Every new member of the team is given £50 to buy anything they want for the studio to make them feel at home and to let them know that the space is as much theirs as it is ours."
"We’ve got everything from a Harry Potter ‘Diagon Alley’ sign to an acoustic guitar, a giant handmade A (for Abstrakt) and a set of vintage step ladders. The latest addition is a Star Wars Tie Fighter desk lamp!”
Everywhere's better with dogs
It’s clear there’s a good team vibe going here, and an open-minded culture that embraces people’s individuality. What do they do to keep things healthy?
“One of the guys bought a net that turns our conference table into a ping-pong table. This gets used during breaks and for fierce end-of-week tournaments. We also make the time to play games like Make it Pop, socialise together, take part in our own Great British Bake Off contest and run around with our two agency dogs.”
Hang on, THEY’VE GOT DOGS! We must see them immediately.
Moving on to more serious matters, what makes Abstrakt stand out from the crowd?
“We pride ourselves on not simply being “yes men” and really getting to grips and understanding a business and its goals and objectives. It’s incredibly important to us to make a difference and exceed expectations. We’re very analytical and spend a lot of time researching new trends, so that we can ensure any work we do for our clients performs, meets their objectives and keeps them (and us!) ahead of the game.”
“We can only work the way we do because of our incredible team and the culture we have all fostered together."
"Marc and I hugely advocate individual accountability and responsibility and run a non-hierarchical structure when it comes to day-to-day project deliverables. Everyone has their own area of expertise and remit and our respect for their knowledge, experience and individual approach is huge.”
On the back of their success, the Abstrakt team has grown from two to seven to keep up with all the work that needs doing. This growth brought some challenges, however, particularly with tracking who was off from one day to the next.
Bigger ambitions, bigger admin
Before signing up for Timetastic, holiday requests were done over email or Slack and logged in a shared calendar. “This worked when we were small,” Lauren says, “but as we grew and more work came into the studio, it became trickier to juggle”.
"At one point I bought a holiday wall planner. This not only looked hideous but it was impractical for visibility, both within teams and across the business as a whole. Needless to say, it didn’t last long."
After moving studios and ramping up their capacity for clients, the hunt was on for a solution to these leave-planning woes. “The move brought bigger responsibilities, and the need to ensure we had solid processes in place for planning out work and the people involved, so time-off management became vital.”
Time for Timetastic!
But can it still make a difference for what is still a relatively small team?
“Absolutely,” says Lauren. “It’s a relief to know time-off management is handled, without me really having to think about it. It’s also great to know that the team can book their much-deserved holidays off easily and without clashes, and can enjoy their break safe in the knowledge that the rest of the team have them covered.”
Well that’s just lovely. Is there anything else Lauren is fond of?
“I love the integration with Slack. Getting notifications and being able to action them directly in my Slack workspace is super-handy, and allows me to be responsive to team requests.”
“Being warned about clashes when requests are submitted is a really great feature, too. We’re a small, fast-paced agency and we can’t have multiple people within a department off at the same time.”
It makes life easier for the team, too.
“They really like it because it’s super easy to use and see when everyone else in the agency is off, so it makes it a lot easier for them to plan their time off and get quick responses.”
We’re left feeling all warm and fuzzy after learning about the Abstrakt way of life. Which is just as well, as we’ve run out of tea and our hot water bottle is now lukewarm at best.
You know a company cares about its staff when it gives newcomers £50 to add their own dash of character to their shared working space. Bringing in Timetastic to make sure their time off is easily looked after just seals the deal.
So, Lauren, would you recommend it?
“Go for it. It will make managing team holidays so much easier for you and your team will love it too.”