An interview with our Co-Founder, Lizzie Penny
9th January 2018
The Hoxby Collective is a virtual community of freelancers. Its co-founder Lizzie Penny is on a mission to destigmatise flexible working, and give modern talent greater choice to work whenever and from wherever they want.
We spoke to Lizzie to learn more about her model of remote working which, she is convinced, will one day be the blueprint for 95% of all office jobs in the world.
Children ask a lot of questions, and most often they ask “Why?”. And for most parents, this can be infuriating (“Because I told you so!”), enriching (“Let’s look it up!”) or philosophically challenging (“I don’t know why there is infinity, Timmy…”).
As adults, we often stop asking the Why questions. We accept many norms and habits out of convenience. Sometimes, we adopt them as our own. And even if we don’t believe in them, we don’t want to rock the boat. So we adapt to the circumstances.
Lizzie Penny has not stopped asking the Why questions.
At least not in the field that is closest to her heart: Presenteeism – the overt or implicit pressure to be physically present at the workplace in a certain time window. Or, as many would call it: Almost all jobs out there.
Presence predicts quality?
Lizzie asks: Why should someone’s presence at work be indicative of the quality of work they will deliver? In the days of Skype and Slack and many other ways to stay connected, isn’t the daily commute an anachronism? Why shouldn’t someone be able to work on a Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning, if that is their preference?
Lizzie Penny’s first long-term job was as a brand manager at Diageo. “As much as I loved the work and people, there was still something missing that left me unfulfilled”, she says. She then started Futureproof, a “traditional marketing agency”, as she describes it: Office, employees, clients – the usual bits.
“But running the agency exposed the inadequacies of that type of office work. It also made me realise that exceptional talent is being excluded from the workforce because of outdated practices. There was no platform for them to do their best work.”
The problem lay in the expectation that everyone needs to be physically at work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.
“With presenteeism, you don’t get the best person for the job.”
This model, Lizzie says, besides not being family-friendly or even right for everyone (what if you like sleeping in?), is also suboptimal for the client. It’s very unlikely that you get the best talent when the available pool excludes:
A. People who live outside of a, say, 30 mile radius of the office
B. People whose life circumstances don’t allow them to work from an office for 40 hours a week
C. People who are so good at what they do that they can afford to dictate the terms of engagement.
The feeling that something wasn’t right only got worse when she had her son.
Shirking from home?
Lizzie says that, even before having a baby, she noticed that people who left work early to be with their children (and who then work later, past bedtime), or people who worked part-time, were considered as not adding as much value as those who worked long hours in the office. “There’s a lot of negative connotations around the concept of a part-timer. People assume you’re less dedicated to your career – when in fact you have to be more dedicated to make it work”, Lizzie says.
This is the bias Lizzie is fighting – the unfounded assumption that only because you don’t adhere to the rigid model of presenteeism that you’re not adding enough value to the team and aren’t willing or ready to lead.
“As a mum, you’re outside of the inner circle of full time workers.”
On top of that, there’s limited advancement opportunities because you don’t participate in the social grooming that clears the path to corner office. “As a mum in a traditional organisation, you’re often outside of the inner circle of full time workers”, Lizzie says.
And it’s not just parents: There’s semi-retired people, those with disabilities or mental health problems, and people for whom the commute would be really long and arduous. Do all of them, by default, add less value or exhibit less leadership potential?
Enter Hoxby Collective!
Lizzie’s friend Alex Hirst had another challenge. He absolutely hated his long commute to work. And so the two friends sat down and thought about how to redesign a work environment that would not be dependent on physical presence. Huckleberry Partners was born, and renamed Hoxby Collective later on.
Hoxby offers (free) membership to freelancers. The selection process is rigorous, but once you’re in, it feels like a family, Lizzie says. Many join because they hope to get work, but demand for membership has been strong, and with 400 “associates” (= Hoxby members, aka Hoxbies) in 29 countries, only 25-50% of them are doing work through Hoxby in any given month.
But the Collective’s main purpose is more about the community anyway: Fostering camaraderie and a sense of belonging, all the while prioritising the individual’s personal working preferences (what Hoxby refers to as ‘#workstyle’) and campaigning for this movement.
Hoxby doesn’t only provide an online social network (based on Slack), but also helps organise monthly meetups (Hoxby Homes) around the world to facilitate the necessary human contact “because working for yourself can be quite isolating”, as Lizzie says.
Another perk Hoxby provides is 14-day payment terms, even if the client pays later.
Isn’t this very niche?
This obviously can’t work for the majority of the economy, can it? This is and will remain a niche model for a handful or freelancers, right?
Not at all, Lizzie says.
“95% of all office jobs can be hoxbified, i.e. designed as remote.”
Outside of location-dependent jobs in retail, manufacturing, infrastructure etc., there is no reason that 95% of office-based work couldn’t be “Hoxbified”. “Clearly there are some jobs that need to be done in person. But as a society we don’t question enough whether it makes sense for every job to require physical presence”, says Lizzie. “Pick any random office job you can think of and tell me what about this job requires 40 hours physical presence in the office.”
Fair point. But what about the value of in-person meetings that not even the best video conferencing software can replace?
Isn’t in-person interaction more efficient?
Isn’t productivity stifled when you can’t just tap a colleague on the shoulder to ask something? Lizzie points to research showing that remote workers are more productive than office-dwellers. And while sometimes remoteness can indeed be a drawback, are we really factoring all the upsides of remote working into the equation when weighing the pros and cons? How about happier workers and a far wider talent pool, all of which will benefit the output? Why for example not have a 4-days-from-home, Fridays-at-the office type of work model? “So many organisations could work this way if they were committed to making flexible working a reality”, says Lizzie.
“50% of an office workday is wasted.”
Add on top all the inefficiency of dressing up, commuting, office politics, and unnecessary meetings, and the drawbacks start piling up. Hoxby has recently released the results from its first annual presenteeism survey. Among other stats, it claims that 50% of an office workday is wasted, and 80% of flexible workers say they are happier and more productive.
Can an organisation be led remotely?
Maybe this works for discrete tasks by individual contributors. But company leadership? Leading a large organisation, motivating a big workforce and inspiring them to be their best – doesn’t that require in-person interaction? “Well, does it?” asks Lizzie who we interviewed on the phone. “I don’t think so! Look at us here, we’re talking remotely and I can clearly tell you’re buying into at least some of my arguments, aren’t you? You sound like you’re feeling inspired? What is that, if not leadership?”
“Our current 9-5 model is based on a job concept from 200 years ago.”
Working on a presenteeism-by-default model means you’re excluding anyone who’s not there at that given moment. Whereas, if you, from the very start, design your communication with remote workers in mind (live streams, easily accessible recordings etc), you’re much more likely to actually reach almost everyone.
Definitely, remote working has its challenges. But this cannot mean that we should give up exploring and refining it, according to Lizzie. “Our current 9-5 model was conceived of 200 years ago, as a great improvement on the 15 hour working days of the Industrial Revolution”, she says, “But in the last 10 years incredible tools have emerged that make remote working a viable alternative. There’s a lot of potential.”A fascinating side effect of remote working is that it helps reduce the bias at work Lizzie and Hoxby are primarily campaigning against – ethnic, gender, or racial stereotypes.
Bias – gone
A fascinating side effect of remote working is that it not only helps reduce the type of bias Lizzie is primarily campaigning against – the prejudice against remote workers not pulling their weight – but it also helps to counter the more traditional notion of bias: Ethnic, gender, or racial stereotypes.
Lizzie says: “I don’t know most of the Hoxbies. I don’t know their ethnicity, their religion, their gender or sexual preferences. And I don’t care. What matters to me is not the colour of their skin, but the output of their work. I don’t think you could say the same about any office-based work environment.”
Is this the ultimate unbiased meritocracy?
What’s next for Hoxby?
In the early days, Lizzie and co-founder Alex were quite laissez-faire with the collective and wanted to let a thousand flowers bloom. But soon they learned that, especially when delivering a project through Hoxby, they needed some rules and norms: Clear deliverables in specific time frames, for example. So it’s a constant learning process.
“A happier, more fulfilled society is our vision.”
Lizzie wants to lead by example and prove to the world that a remote working model is possible. She encounters many sceptics. But instead of arguing, she wants to prove them wrong. And for that, there’s nothing like doing the hard work of clearing the path, even if it means making mistakes along the way. “A happier, more fulfilled society is our vision”, says Lizzie. “And we build it by creating a new world of work without bias through the Hoxby Collective, a place where everyone can love what they do.”
And by asking the sometimes infuriating, often enriching, and always challenging Why questions.
Bonus: How to be remote friendly
What can companies do to renounce presenteeism and welcome remote workers? Lizzie has two tips to get started:
Beware of a two-class culture
This is especially dangerous in cases where there’s a big group working on-site and smaller remote groups. You have to actively work against the local team being the default center of gravity. You have to be disciplined and make sure that everything gets communicated on all channels, that technology works incredibly well and that dialling into a video conference is as painless as possible, Lizzie advises.
Which tool for video conferencing is Hoxby’s choice? Lizzie recommends Google Meet. “It’s simple, fast and almost never drops. We’re very happy with it.”
Know what to translate and what to reinvent
Some traditional leadership concepts can be translated 1-1 into the virtual world. For example, being visible. “An open door policy in a busy office can be translated into an online presence whereby you are actually available and responsive on chat”, says Lizzie.
Other ideas cannot be easily translated but need to be reengineered. For example the topic of values. Many companies have values phrased as single words. For remote workers who don’t get the opportunity as often to see leaders embodying those values, it’s necessary that they be more clearly defined and enriched with explicit behavioural examples.
Bonus 2: A lesson for career design and execution
Lizzie’s career trajectory is also interesting from the viewpoint of designing one’s career. Each station of hers got her closer to her most authentic self: In Diageo, she enjoyed the work, but she didn’t own the business nor was she able to be master of her time. At Futureproof, one step closer to the ideal, she owned the business but due to the nature of the agency, she and her team had to be there in person. Hoxby, while it may not the be-all end-all of Lizzie’s career (she’s in her mid-thirties), is one step further up the Maslow hierarchy of needs: Ownership AND a flexible schedule but, more importantly, fulfilment that she derives from campaigning for something she so strongly believes in.
The lesson is: Incrementality is a good approach to career change. With Futureproof, Lizzie didn’t do a wholesale change of lifestyle from being a normal employee to running a virtual agency. Lizzie solved one problem at a time and gradually got herself to a place where she wants to be.