As part of this year's conference theme Making Change, our National Coordinator Fiona is talking to organisations who are rethinking their approaches to work to improve the health of people and the planet. Sam Drew-Jones and Laura Saxton are from 64 Million Artists, who, in 2022, trialled closing their offices for the month of August. It proved so successful that it’s now a standard part of the year.
Fiona: This sounds fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came about?
Laura: It was actually quite unexpected. I was reading an article by Brene Brown, who had written about her decision to offer her staff four weeks of paid holiday over the summer, in addition to their normal holiday allowance, and I found the piece really impactful. I sent it to Jo Hunter, our CEO, just because I thought she’d find it interesting, and the next day we started talking about if and how we could make it work here.
We recognised the global trauma of the previous years, and it felt like there was a deep need for rest and reflection on what we’d all been through. We knew it would be an experiment , but everyone seemed really open to trying it. There was some nervousness around how clients or funders would react, but they were extremely supportive about us living our values.
Sam: We grow up with long summer holidays as the norm, but when we’re thrust into the adult world that suddenly disappears. There can be guilt around taking annual leave, and it’s not always possible to take it when it’s most needed. Knowing that everyone will be off at the same time is so beneficial; it also means you aren’t coming back to an overflowing inbox, which can defeat the point. We also have members of the team who are neurodiverse, including myself, and can burn out or get overstimulated, so a more extended period of wind down is our way of trying to combat that.
Fiona: Why do you think it’s important to look at alternative models of working?
Laura: I really want to acknowledge first that we are privileged to work in a company that allows for this kind of flexibility, and we understand that not all workplaces are able to do this in the same way – there are very real barriers for frontline and customer-facing organisations for example. In those settings, there might be micro changes to start with that support more people to experience more radical rest.
For us, as well as allowing a deep moment of rest from the treadmill of work and life; it’s about a wider acknowledgment of the opportunity to be present in other areas, including different parts of our creativity. Staff may also have caring responsibilities, children, are managing chronic illness, or want to spend quality time with family and friends. Weekends are great, but quite often they are filled with the invisible or unpaid work of life, which doesn’t always allow enough time for rest or reset. If you have many more responsibilities and identities (e.g. parent or carer) beyond work, our CEO speaks about the freedom of only having to be one of those identities for a while, which can help energetically. Her August, amongst others in the team, might not look typically ‘restful’ but at least there are less things to juggle!
There’s also something in here about ‘rest as rebellion or resistance’ (Tricia Hersey). Rest can be political. Often, capitalism and productivity feed a sense of urgency in work. When you work in social impact, there’s the added feeling that the work is never done. However, if we’re well rested, we can do the best for our communities and be more intentional and present in that.
Sam: It’s true. We’re constantly striving to change and disrupt traditional systems and patterns of thinking; That’s the definition of creativity after all! Four weeks isn’t actually that long, we certainly aren’t going to solve everything in that time, it’s an experiment. I think it’s vital to look at leadership models; we need more examples of leaders thinking outside the box and asking people in organisations what would work for them? Cultures need to be built together. We can only begin to tackle capitalism if we have support from people in positions that enable us to do so. Even pre-Covid, people had been crying out for work-from-home options. We knew it was doable and wouldn’t damage productivity levels, but it took a global pandemic for that exception to become the norm.
Fiona: What do you think are the barriers to the UK looking at alternative working models?
Laura: I think a big one is the general work culture that has become the norm for us. In some other countries, summer breaks are standard, yet the UK works longer hours than most of Europe and it’s not making us more productive.. I think there’s a lot of fear too – The UK has had a lot of turmoil in recent years, the want to keep everything the same is a powerful narrative. For some companies, the interest is there, but the timing may not be right. The movement towards working less is happening, potentially with government support. There is talk of the Four-Day Week amongst different parliamentary parties, which is exciting to see.
Sam: I think people also need the freedom to find a set-up that works for your company’s needs, rather than something universally imposed. We’ve been talking a lot about time and how we value it as a team – you can have all the material things, but if you don’t have any time, you can feel poor.
Fiona: What does it feel like at 64MA knowing the time off is coming?
Laura: There’s a buzz of excitement but also a bit of urgency to get things finished. However, I think knowing that you get that extra time means you’re happy to give a bit more at other times. We’ve done a lot of forward planning to manage the workload - there’s no point in taking a month off if you need to spend the first week recovering!
Sam: Yes, we’re conscious of not just cramming to make up for the time off, and we regularly check in with each other about how we’re feeling leading up to August. I think with anything new, there’s a real sense of learning. We’re doing something new, so we’re reminding ourselves that it’s a constant experiment and the only way we’ll know if it’s working is to keep the communication flowing. It’s impossible to get it right straight away.
Fiona: Finally, what do you have planned over August? What does rest mean to you?
Laura: I’m planning on doing lots of wild swims around London! I recently went to a workshop on Radical Rest, and learnt about the seven different types of rest. It’s made me rethink what rest means to me – yes it could be taking a nap, but it could also be a run, or socialising. It’s important to keep space that’s open – if you cram your diary full of things because you feel you should, it’s just a variation of the work productivity treadmill!
Sam: I live with chronic fatigue so I’ve been practising guilt-free rest, so I’ll be keeping space in my diary too. I’ll be seeing family, but I’m also not planning anything for a whole week,I’ll just decide what I need day-to-day.
Fiona: Is there anything else you want people to take away from this chat?
Sam: I think even if every person could ask themselves the question ‘Do I dare to idle?’ even if for a moment, that’s progress. It’s a political act to rest in a world fuelled by busyness; so taking a moment to daydream can open up those neurons and give us new ways to approach things, that may not have occurred to us before because our brains were too busy.
Laura: I think just reiterating that we understand that it’s a privilege to have the chance to work this way and know that it isn’t available to all right now. We carefully consider our values and check we’re walking our talk, so it’s good to ask if your organisation is walking the talk when it comes to values too. We do this because we care about our team members first and foremost, it isn’t because we want them to be doubly productive when they come back. If you are taking time to rest together, trusting your intuition is key. Rest your way - it’ll soon be clear that each team member’s way of resting or taking a pause is completely different – you’ll get much more enjoyment from it this way!
Fiona: Thanks so much for chatting today. I hope you both have a really restful summer.
More information on Making Change: The CHWA National Conference can be found here
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64 Million Artists is a social enterprise that puts creativity at the heart of positive change in the world. Founded in 2014, they offer training, research, participatory projects and more, and work with schools, universities, institutions and whole cities to experiment with ways of reconnecting people with their innate creativity. They also run their annual flagship programme January Challenge, which has had over 50,000 participants since its inception.