Empowering the Freelance Economy

How ‘Workstyle’ is transforming freelancers’ lives, careers and the companies that embrace it

Hoxby Founders Lizzie Penny (left) and Alex Hirst; Photo Source: Hoxby; Photo by Georgie Clarke
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The Freelance Informer speaks to workstyle movement gurus Alex Hirst and Lizzie Penny, the two minds behind Hoxby, a Virtual Consultancy and Agency powered by freelancers.

We get the background story on what drove this inspiring duo one fateful night to pack in their day jobs to create the optimal career and work-life balance opportunity not just for themselves, but for thousands of freelancers across the globe. We also learn of Penny’s biggest challenge yet and how workstyle will make all the difference. By integrating clients such as Unilever, AIA Warner Media and Merck, into their workstyle approach could we see more freelancers and companies join the movement?

Something’s Gotta Give- how Hoxby was born

Like most breakthrough startup ideas in the UK, Hoxby was conceived ‘down the pub’. One fateful night, marketing and creative executives Alex Hirst and Lizzie Penny opened up about the realities and demands of their working lives and just how out of synch they felt about every other aspect of their life because of it. Both successful in their own right, and parents to young children, they struggled for different reasons with the constraints of modern-day work culture and office hours.

“The events that led up to the pub-moment were psychological,” Hirst tells Freelance Informer. “It was at a time when I was doing some of my best work at a creative agency. I felt like I was integral to everything that the business was doing. I enjoyed it. I thrived on the pressure of growing a startup. And it was fun and exciting. I talked about being on fire until I burnt out. It was what happened next – something clicked inside my brain – that my approach to work changed.”

Hirst and his wife thought a week’s family holiday may shake the foreboding feelings he was having, but on their return, he didn’t come back reinvigorated as they had hoped. “I remember saying I don’t feel any different. This hasn’t worked. It was at that moment that I realised that that time wasn’t going to heal this particular problem since it was a mental problem, and I needed to solve it – mentally.”

“I’d lost touch with the emotional feelings of the highs and the lows and became ambivalent to everything that was going on,” says Hirst. “And then I became a shadow of myself going through life.”

Hirst knew something had to give because his mental health depended on it, his family’s future depended on it. It was then that he figured out that by validating his performance against the time he was spending rather than his actual output could radically benefit his approach to work, family life and his health. 

“I said to myself, you’re doing a 50-hour week, you can’t physically do any more than that. If you’re doing that, you must be doing enough. And it got to a point where I’d lost touch with the day to day reality,” says Hirst.

The outcome was a renewed way of thinking about work in terms of time and contribution. “I renegotiated my psychological contract with work,” says Hirst. “The contract would be different because it would be beneficial to my mental health.”

“I said to myself, you’re doing a 50-hour week, you can’t physically do any more than that. If you’re doing that, you must be doing enough. And it got to a point where I’d lost touch with the day to day reality.”

Alex Hirst, Co-Founder Hoxby

Penny, on the other hand, was keen to get back to her business, following the birth of her first child, to be part of those seemingly fun and crucial moments with her team. But those Victorian-era working hours were wreaking havoc on her personal and work lives.

“Everything changed when I had my son,” says Penny. “Basically, my eyes were opened to the inequalities in the world. Before that, I’d always been on an equal footing with my husband, we had equal careers. We were equally ambitious, we worked equally as hard. And then when I had my son, suddenly everyone called me Mum. It starts with the midwives and health visitors, since they call you Mum, rather than use your real name.”

Penny says first those days returning to work after having a child brought on “a bit of an identity crisis.”

“I started to look around and saw other people that were also feeling excluded from the workforce. And I just felt frustrated that in the digital age when I could be working in the evening, when my son was asleep, I was having to be in an office from nine to five and then come home and be at home doing nothing when my baby was asleep. It just didn’t seem to make any sense,” she says.

“Everything changed when I had my son,” says Penny. “Basically, my eyes were opened to the inequalities in the world. Before that, I’d always been on an equal footing with my husband, we had equal careers.”

Lizzie Penny, Co-Founder of Hoxby

Penny says it was this frustration that led her to the conversation in the pub with Alex and the early musings of what workstyle could become to the working world. When Penny and Hirst brainstormed the workstyle concept they decided to change not only their worlds, but those of others that felt either excluded or in conflict with their demands- which could be parenting, mental health, physical challenges, being a carer, or even their location. Their skills and talent were never in question.

Soon after, Penny and Hirst found that people immediately bought into the concept whenever they talked to anyone about it. “Workstyle wasn’t just a term,” says Penny, 2it was a universal insight where everyone would value having their own work style in some way.”

How to commercialise that concept would be the next challenge and how they could prove it worked in practice by pioneering it through a freelance community.

How do the Hoxby hiring and project placement processes work?

Every quarter Hoxby opens its community to new candidates through an application process. What makes a strong candidate comes down to previous experience, an ability to accept the Hoxby workstyle, which means communicating via updated Slack channels rather than email, respecting other Hoxbies’ working schedules, and having a personal story that embraces truly remote working rather than just the pandemic-linked 9-5 work-from-home scenario.

Hoxby takes a brief from a client, some of which are among the largest companies in the world, such as Unilever, AIA, Warner Media and Merck, and behind the scenes, we will break down the tasks. And we will bring together a team of freelancers to deliver that work and anticipated output.

The firm is a community of 1000 freelancers in 43 countries around the world, and everyone is judged on their output rather than where and when they work. Everyone can work in their individual work style, it is up to them. But together that team will commit to delivering that output to the client. And they are transparent with the client about that being the way they deliver. Hoxby explains the delivery as “collective intelligence”. The co-CEOs believe that bringing diverse hobbies and insights together produces better, more refreshing outputs for clients.

Hoxby will charge the client a fee. ‘Hoxbies’ – the team of freelancers – then have different ways to contribute to a project. Each task will have a fixed fee attached to it. That may mean that the task is quite small at times, whereby a freelancer may contribute an opinion, an angle or voice. Ultimately, Hoxby makes a profit and shares 25% of that profit with its community members. Over the past three quarters of 2020, Hoxby distributed out £42,000 in profit share.

Life’s curveballs require new work solutions

What The Freelance Informer did not know at the time of the Hoxby interview was that Penny was recently diagnosed with cancer. What we have learned since is that the co-CEO’s enthusiasm for the ‘workstyle movement and revolution’ she co-created is keeping her focused to get over the trials of treatment so that she and her fellow team of Hoxbies can keep the movement ticking and come out stronger as more clients embrace this inclusive way of working.

Cancer doesn’t care if you are self-employed or a permanent employee. Therefore, the workstyle movement in its varied forms is something worth supporting whether you are a hiring company, a recruitment agency or a CEO. To hear Penny’s inspiring story and message, please check out this Hoxby video where the two CEOs have a heartfelt chat.

To become a Hoxby, you must apply. Applications are open every quarter. General applications are closed for the current quarter – reopening October 1, 2020.

The Hoxby Foundation is an inclusive remote-working movement in partnership with freelancers and hiring companies and organisations

Workstyle: work by your own design

Workstyle means putting ‘life’ first and enabling work to fit around it- a workstyle of your design, in terms of both when and where your work gets done. It is more than just flexible working, it is agile working, and truly remote, rather than work-from-home whereby an employer still dictates when you work. It is about working with local teams, global teams, yet working seamlessly 24/7 because everyone respects each other’s workstyle and time zones. It is about output rather than hours worked. It is smart and inclusive working for those that for any host of reasons cannot commit to an office-based job or a long commute with Victorian era 9-5 hours. Workstyle is essential to achieving true work/life balance and creating a happier and more fulfilled society.

What is Hoxby?

Hoxby is a freelance community of around 1,000 associates, from over 43 different countries. Co-founded in 2015 by marketing and creative executives, Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst, the duo describe the business as a community of self-employed, freelance strategists, creatives, admin whizzes and tech-heads. Writing people, numbers people, thinkers, do-ers, disruptors. All experts in what they do and all led by the same vision of creating a happier, more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias.

What they say: “The way we bring people together to create refreshing work is different. We collaborate across disciplines, countries and time zones, as seamlessly as if they were in the same room. Our strength lies in the diverse and hugely talented community of people we have and that collective intelligence accelerates the ability to solve challenges and deliver refreshing work.”

“We can deliver against almost any professional services brief thanks to the range of skills and experience we have between us. Imagine having access to a marketing agency, a creative agency, an HR consultancy and more, all in one place. Our areas of expertise include: futureproofing (consultancy that helps businesses effectively set up remote working and adapt to freelance working models), innovation, marketing, creative, admin, PR and HR.”

Who is Lizzie Penny?

Penny is a mother, an entrepreneur, and a campaigner for workstyle working and diversity and inclusion at work. After witnessing the limitations for working parents within a traditional work environment, she was driven to co-found Hoxby in 2015 with Alex Hirst, and with it a ‘workstyle’ movement. With a vision to bring equality to the world of work, Hoxby won the #WorkThatWorks Award in recognition of their success in creating new work opportunities.

Who is Alex Hirst?

In 2018, Hoxby was shortlisted for awards by the IoD, Social Enterprise UK and the RSA while Hirst has also been listed by DIMA as one of the top 50 Male advocates for equality in Marketing & Media and the Equality Advocate of the Year award by Women In Marketing. A father of two, he works around his role as a parent, representing the small but growing number of men who are reducing their working hours for the good of their families, and longer-term gender equality.

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