How Sunhouse Creative made remote working work

Their remote working strategy  |  Effect on the team  |  Impact on Agency Management  |  Their future plans for remote working

Sunhouse Creative
Sunhouse office

Utilisation grew solidly at Sunhouse Creative during lockdown's enforced remote working. How did they continue to work, and what's the plan now a proposed return to the office is in sight? 

Established in 2007, Sunhouse Creative are a specialist strategic, brand and packaging design agency based in Bath. Their varied client list includes: Magnum Ice Cream, Danone, PG tips, Dove and the BBC.

More about Sunhouse

Being a creative, collaborative and time-driven industry, remote working has been a colossal challenge for some agencies.

Sunhouse Creative have proudly, but humbly, enjoyed their best year yet, with sales and utilisation both up by double digits.

We caught-up with their Operations Director, Andrew Smith to discuss how they’ve achieved this.

Andrew joined Sunhouse in 2015 when there were 16 employees and he’s seen them through its growth to 37 'Sunhousers'.

He is a big advocate for technology and runs a tight ship process-wise, which afforded Sunhouse a seamless transition to remote working - something Andrew is a big believer in. Far from the panic endured by many of us, Sunhouse closed the office ahead of Government advice and the team were working from home, issue-free, the next morning.

Sunhouse team

Andrew cites optimised processes, Google Workspace, Slack and Synergist as the key drivers in their seamless move to 100% remote working. 

We asked Andrew…

How do you use these tools to book work and increase team visibility on what to work on?

“For me, the most important commodity within a company is transparency, not only for financial and operational aspects but also your people. I want everyone to know as much as possible about what’s going on every single day. That way, you just find efficiencies, and you discover where the problems are so much quicker. So when I started at Sunhouse, my number one priority was bringing visibility to all areas of Sunhouse through the best tools, processes and structured communications.”

“In 2015 the client services and studio teams were using an Excel spreadsheet to book in projects against designers and artworkers. This was awkward, unclear and definitely not a trusted source of information, never mind that the XLS sheet was prone to corruption if two people opened it at the same time! I discovered that Synergist (a new app to me) had an amazing job and timesheet linked, visual resource booking facility. So I immediately tested it in the studio, found it just worked, so quickly transitioned our workflow onto it.”

“It really opens up visibility on what’s going on and how our pipeline is looking. Now we have collaborative bi-weekly workflow meetings around a table [virtually at the moment] with the booking calendar displayed on a big screen. We get our creative and artwork leads involved and can now boast a really nailed down, transparent process that is open, accurate, easy to understand and in real time."

"The first step into using Synergist’s booking system was a massive time saver for the Studio, and also opened the door to other features in the following months, allowing better quoting, financial reporting, client project tracking and timesheet data collection.”

“Soon after moving to Synergist we also introduced Slack to allow an open ‘workflow-booking’ channel and used Synergist’s granular permissions to limit booking edits to only the workflow manager. All new requests or changes now come in via the Slack channel.

At first people would joke ‘oh I’ll send it on Slack rather than walking over to speak to you.’ However the problem was, well intentioned ‘horse trading’ conversations about bookings were completely invisible to anyone else, the data in workflow would become inaccurate, the creatives would not know what job to log their time against and the workflow managers ‘bigger picture’ knowledge was not being utilised.”

“Slack opened this communication channel, and provided another window for people to see what was going on in Sunhouse. Now if a job gets cancelled or pushed back, it’s up on Slack and people are straight in saying ‘I can use Alice for that job.”

Sunhouse glass office

What, if anything, changed once the team decamped from the office?

“From a studio process point of view, not very much at Sunhouse. I think a lot of companies weren’t set up for it, so they literally couldn’t produce any meaningful work. We went from working in the studio on Thursday, to working from home the next day, and have been running comfortably above pre-lockdown productivity levels ever since. The volume, and more importantly quality, of our work never dipped – in fact we saw it increase.

“As I like to know what’s going on everywhere; what everyone is doing, where all the hours are going, who’s logging in and what they’re creating, you need the right tools and processes in place. We’d already established and implemented what we needed to achieve this before Covid, so when lockdown hit, our tools [Google Workspace, Synergist and Slack], meant we realised ‘actually it doesn’t matter where we are to do this.’"

“Socially we miss each other massively, but at least we’re all able to work together. The creatives actually log into their computer in the studio using remote desktop. As the files we create and use are gigantic, with lots of linked dependencies, the Remote Desktop model means they don’t need a particularly fast internet connection to do their work as easily as being in the studio. So that was another key thing, the creatives could just carry on working, virtually sat at their studio desks."

"We won two pitches in lockdown, and from what we heard via the DBA (Design Business Association), some agencies were having to upload files to WeTransfer, which their creatives downloaded at home, worked on, then re-uploaded via WeTransfer, all very time consuming and detrimental to the amount of time actually spent on the creative process."

And from a human interaction point of view?

“Right at the beginning we started a virtual studio. We have an all-day meeting, every day in Google - the team all log in so we can see each other, and we have a bit of a chat. Some don’t like it, some do, but we made clear the whole point is not there to check they’re working, it’s about keeping a social connection alive as best we can in the circumstances.”

“We also have a #random-ramblings slack channel where people can just share daft or interesting stuff. The ‘pun chains’ that can spark from a comment are my personal favourite and amazingly funny and creative. The bit you miss the most is the social side, we’re actively trying to keep it alive but it’s not perfect.”

"I think enabling fluid and transparent communication has been key to Sunhouse’s remote working success."

Sunhouse work for client

Client work by Sunhouse

What about the overall agency management? 

“From a financial point of view, we’ve been doing more and more with Synergist. People weren’t logging their timesheets at first, so we resolved that and now it’s done daily by everyone.

The timesheet data we’ve got now on our projects is invaluable. It enables us to really see into what’s been going on and what’s coming with every client and team."

“We run monthly reports in Synergist, using a wide range of data which gives us utilisation, profit and return on individual clients, which is something we can’t see in our Xero accounts."

“We also have weekly meetings with our ‘brand teams’ (client services teams). We use a shared Google Sheet in our weekly reviews, which leverages Synergist data. We all get together and discuss time booked, time used and profit returns on every single job, we use data from Synergist all over the company.”

“And on transparency, we share our net profit with all our client services teams in the weekly brand meetings, they all see the full data for every job and every client they’re working on. Some Agencies hide this information from their people. However, if you’re expecting them to do a great job for you and make solid profit, how can they really deliver on this if you decide to partially blindfold them?”

Sunhouse report using Synergist data

Report by Sunhouse based on Synergist data

Being a time-based business, with people being out of the office...

Were you ever concerned about wasted hours?

“Yes! But how do you know where, why or what is being wasted? We use Synergist to collect the numbers so we can actually see what’s happening, pretty much real time, this has proven much more reliable than going off a gut feel.”

“I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have delivered the work we’ve done in 2020 if the team weren’t working from home. Synergist shows our utilisation increased by double digits during lockdown."

"But quality has definitely not suffered, we’ve done a huge amount of really creative work for existing clients and also won a couple of new ones. It’s all about getting workflow running efficiently."

"Which also means getting our estimates as accurate as possible. Synergist has been the hub for us achieving this, allowing us to clearly see the workings of Sunhouse, and which parts might need a squirt of oil!”

“I’d also like to put the increased utilisation into our cultural context, as a company we don’t want to overwork our people, and we are actively against the ‘work late’, culture which I think is counter productive. We have always stuck to regular office hours with a proper lunch. This is something we actively police, much more so in lockdown.”

“Myself and the founders are of the mind, ‘if people are working late, something’s gone wrong.’"

"All jobs should have the correct time planned and scheduled into Synergist.

So for us it’s ‘why’s it run over, and why is someone in the studio having to work late to cover a problem from elsewhere?’ It is really down to showing respect for one another and being accountable to the results of your actions. Where problems do arise, we aim to quickly find and address the core issue using our ‘continuous improvement’ feedback model.”

“Our culture is centred on a mutual respect for everyone, giving your best, working hard whilst also respecting others people's personal lives. You hear a lot of talk about work life balance in HR circles, but it is something Sunhouse actively practices and jealously guards.”

But does it work?

When you look at our numbers against the DBA annual agency survey, we’re in the top 5% of Agencies in the UK. We’re out performing pretty-much 90-95% of them on most metrics, when you look at things like utilisation, productively, net profit, billing and profit per head, we’re really punchy across the board.”

“And I’m certain that’s because we're NOT actively chasing those numbers.

"We’re only making a great net profit if our people are happy, our tech. and processes are smoothing sharp edges and everyone is trusted to do their jobs. The great numbers are just passengers, which also mean we can have brilliant Christmas and Summer Parties (we’re really missing them during lockdown).”

Remote working has been very fruitful for Sunhouse Creative. Do you have any...

Concerns about the transition back to the office?

I think we’ll continue to utilise work from home but I’d imagine maybe a hybrid or rota system. So maybe people are in the studio, two, three, four days a week, depending on what they want and what their role requires. 

"The creatives and artworkers found it slightly easier working at home because they can (mostly) peacefully sit down in front of their computer and create.

"Client services have definitely had a harder time, having to adjust to lots of client and internal online meetings which are very draining."

"Overall, as this situation has dragged on (we’ve been running regular staff polls) everyone’s missing the social aspects of studio life, so I don’t think being permanently remote is healthy or sustainable in the longer term.”

“The hard part will be when ‘everything goes back to normal’. I’m not sure that working life will ever fully return to its pre-covid shape. Lots of people have realised they don’t have to get on the train for two hours every day. For us, I think we really need to bring back and maintain our studio as a brilliant, communal, creative place to be. Somewhere it’s great to meet with your colleagues in real life and build special bonds.”

Sunhouse work for client

Client work by Sunhouse

Do you think you'll be the only ones...

Pushing back against the traditional office-based model?

“As you can see in the industry press, the big corporates definitely see working from home as a permanent, larger part of their business going forward. They’ve been playing around with it a little prior to Covid, but nobody had been brave enough to just do it. And there’s often been this ‘management’ suspicion that people aren’t going to work as hard as in the office. Sunhouse have always had some work from home, so knew it could work.”

“From my experience, I think if you’ve got the right systems and processes in place, and you’ve built a workplace underpinned with mutual trust, you’ll get more work, from less of your people's time, and in return they will have a better work life balance. I can’t think of a better example of win, win.“

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