For Nic Neal, head of people and operations at Liverpool and Windsor based brand experience agency Owl Live, the last two years have been a catalyst for change in both her work and home life. Here she explains why it's so important for eventprofs to maintain that balance...
"We should be working towards trying to find the balance between all the magic that can be found from a life and career in events – balancing that out with genuine, authentic, sustainable work life. That to me is the most winning formula for a career journey that I can think of."
When the pandemic hit two years ago, Nic Neal’s first priority was to club together with her fellow senior leaders at Owl Live to make sure they kept the agency alive. At home she had a husband who’d just started a new business and two children of nursery age, and like a lot of people, she found herself under an immense amount of pressure. However, unlike most people, she was able to admit it.
“After the initial surge of responding to the pandemic it all got a bit too much for me”, she says. “I had to have a really difficult conversation with the rest of the team and admit that I'd reached my own personal limit. I was stretched too much and I couldn't carry on.
“Fortunately, I had a fantastic team of people around me who rallied around and found a way for me to take a break so I could focus on being a mum.”
Skip forward two years, and Neal is on stage at an industry event recalling the early days of Covid-19 in front of a packed audience of eventprofs.
“Recalling that story in front of a live audience was actually the first time I'd ever really spoken publicly about accepting that I had reached a limit. The tears came out, it felt very raw. I felt like I was really exposing myself.”
And the experience led Neal to a realisation that the culture of the sector is ripe for change.
“I believe that senior leaders do need to be more vulnerable,” she says. “I think we do need to show a human side. This industry can get to all of us at different points and it's important to embrace that human element.
The ‘always on’ culture within the sector is something that Neal would like to see addressed, for starters.
“It's just not a sustainable way of working”, she says. “The pandemic was this unbelievable catalyst for change in the way it caused all to pause and reflect on what's important to us, our mental health and our physical health. I think the pandemic has actually given us a little bit more permission to be more open and forthcoming with that.”
Neal is seeing the real-world implications of this within Owl Live’s current recruitment drive.
“People are being much more forthcoming,” she says. “They’re asking, what does flexible work look like within your agency? What does your holiday allowance look like? It's about trying to create balance and flexible working.”
The sector’s skewed approach to the work-life balance is something Neal takes issue with.
“Women in the industry have told me that they were quite scared to embark upon starting a family because the nature of this industry can make it very, very difficult for you to feel able to prioritise family life,” she says. “That is heartbreaking for me, I cannot bear the idea of anybody feeling like they couldn't start a family because of the role that they do. There's no reason why people should feel that they're unable to embark upon that journey.”
Owl Live’s senior leadership team contains a number of working parents, meaning that the agency is able to lead by example.
“All of us have children at different stages in their lives, and all of us want a really active role in our kids lives because that adds meaning to our personal lives,” says Neal. “So we're actually finding now that we're moving away from a very strict kind of nine to five working day and giving everybody the trust and empowerment to make their own decisions about what the working day looks like for them.
“The priority for us is you bring your best self to work because that that will that will feed into business performance along the way. So the time of day that you do it has become less important. It's just become important that the job gets done.”
Neal is proud that Owl Live fosters a strong, flexible and remote working culture, with employees based across the country.
“If we don't respond to that challenge, I think we'll find it really hard to recruit anybody,” she says. “The attraction of a freelance way of life will just be will be shining for people much more strongly.
“Agencies that don't rise to this challenge are going to get left behind. The world of work is changing. People are more aware of what it is they want to be able to bring their best selves to work. So it's up to us as agency leaders to stand up to that and make sure that we are creating agency environments that allow people to achieve that.”
M&IT editor Paul Harvey is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience. He began his career in the local press, working for various titles across the north. Since joining M&IT in 2013, he has become a trusted and respected voice in the sector, championing event professionals and reporting on all aspects of the events industry for the brand.