There’s a new type of company nipping at the heels of the nine-to-five, top-to- bottom structure that has dominated the scene for centuries. It’s called the lifestyle business.

This model is designed to suit the schedules, personal needs and lifestyles of its employees; while it may seem counterproductive to many doyens of the suit-and-tie, corner-office business world, more and more companies—large and small—are seeing huge value in offering their workers such flexibility.

Richard Branson is a good example of a lifestyle employer. Some even call him the poster boy for this particular business model. But we don’t have to look all the way across the Atlantic to find examples of lifestyle businesses in action; there are companies much closer to home which are seeing the benefits. 

Different strokes “Some people work best in an office, some in a coffee shop. You may even work best while sitting at home in your underwear,” believes CN&CO’s Carel Nolte.

Carel Nolte, “chief señor” at CN&CO (a Johannesburg-based people and brand consultancy that launched earlier this year), set up the company with a certain structure—or ‘unstructure’, if you prefer—to suit and serve the lifestyles of the people who work there.

For Nolte, lifestyle businesses should be all about people. “In fact, all businesses are about people,” he stresses. “Most companies say that people are their most important asset. That said, it’s important to recognise that people lead different lifestyles and work at their best under different circumstances. Some people are early birds, some are night owls. Some like to work nine to five, while others are more comfortable putting in an 18-hour day. Some people work best in an office, some in a coffee shop. You may even work best while sitting at home in your underwear. Businesses need to adapt their models to best serve their people—and, in return, they will get the best from their people.”

Working and being productive doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at a desk or at a computer. “Reading, talking, travelling and thinking can also contribute to your work,” says Nolte. “It’s vital for lifestyle employers and businesses to create time and space for that. People add value at a particular time in a particular context. Context changes—a person’s and a company’s—and when it does, you move on. You mustn’t be in things for the short term, but you must realise that companies are (and should be) living entities that change and grow. So what they need from workers also changes, and that’s a good thing.”

Venetia LePine-Williams, co-founder of Le Vino Vita, says one of the reasons she left the corporate life behind was because she felt that, as an employee, she was working a lifestyle as opposed to living one.

She and her business partner Etienne Heymans intentionally don’t have an office, as they’ve always felt this would tie them into a space they’d naturally feel duty-bound to fill and work in. “We work from coffee shops, home, trendy bars and restaurants that support and love entrepreneurs,” LePine-Williams explains. “We’ve found that operating out of this space allows us to grow our network, list our products with friends and owners of these establishments, and also to create a space and culture that allows open sharing of ideas and information.”

The eight-hour workday has been firmly in place since the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Most companies in the global north have subsequently adopted that model. Americans currently work an average of 8.7 hours a day. But things are starting to change, as we see with emerging lifestyle business models.

In 2012, Brath, a Swedish company specialising in search-engine optimisation, introduced a six-hour workday. Since then, many other companies in Sweden have followed suit. But why did Brath make this move? Simply: for its employees. The company’s CEO believes that “once you get used to having time for the family, picking up the kids at day care, training for a race or simply just cooking good food at home, you don’t want to lose that again. That we have shorter days is not the main reason people stay with us; they are the symptom of the reason. The reason is that we actually care about our employees—we care enough to prioritise their time with the family, cooking, or doing something else they love doing.”

Which takes us back to Nolte’s point: building a business model around people.

Many other entrepreneurs are opting for a lifestyle business model to better serve their time when it comes to their family. Christo Crafford, founder of Martha’s Mojo, which operates 5-Star Street Chef and Amexicano food trucks, is a committed husband and doting dad to two young boys. “My family was a big catalyst in the decision to create a more flexible work schedule,” he says. “I am able to participate actively in my boys’ schooling, sports and other activities, while maintaining optimal business operations.”

Jolene Roelofse, founder and director of Mum & Baby Affair, is a “momtrepreneur” who, after returning to the corporate world following four months of maternity leave, realised she’d miss out on all of her son’s key milestones. “They grow up so fast, and I felt it was important to be present as much as possible,” she says. “The most important thing for me is that I’m in charge of my time. So if the nanny can’t make it on a particular day, I can easily shuffle things around.”

Crafford notes that everyone wants and appreciates flexibility and work/life balance. “Life happens,” he says. “Your kids get sick, your parents get sick, emergencies pop up all the time; employees shouldn’t have to choose between their employer and their family—the two should happily co-exist.”

Nolte echoes Crafford’s sentiments. “Work equals life equals work; they’re not separate. So picking up the kids, doing exercise, having sex, reading, travelling, playing sport, shopping, going to the doctor and everything in between are all part of the same thing. When people are unstressed and having fun because they feel a link between their values and their place of work’s values, magic happens.”

It’s widely known that Branson’s personal staff can take leave from their jobs when they like, without seeking permission, as long as the timing of their break won’t have a detrimental impact on the business.

Closer to home, CN&CO has a similar approach, while at the same time complying with South Africa’s labour laws, of course. No one in the CN&CO team is required to sit working in the office, clocking hours; they’re free to fire up their laptop while sipping cocktails on the beach, if that’s what tickles their fancy. In fact, employees are encouraged to take time off to travel as much as they can and as much as they want, without having to worry about having enough leave days. “All we ask is that they’re 100% comfortable that they and their team are up to date on their projects, and that their absence won’t have a negative impact on the business,” says Nolte. “Why should an employee’s curiosity and desire to explore the world be hampered by something as banal as insufficient leave?”

The lifestyle employer realises how important and valuable it is to be exposed to different countries, different cultures and different ideas that come with exploring the world. “This not only has tremendous value for the individual’s personal growth but also for the various teams and brands they work with,” explains Nolte. “Travelling provides a fresh perspective and, more often than not, inspires people with new ideas and ways of doing things. And technology allows us to work from any corner of the globe, which means we can easily tap into our networks from wherever we are.”

Setting up and maintaining a healthy lifestyle business requires a major mindset change for traditional managers, and a massive culture change for big corporates. But in time, businesses that can’t make the change won’t attract the best talent. 

Life happens Christo Crafford, founder of Martha’s Mojo, says that when emergencies crop up, employees shouldn’t have to choose between their employer and their family.

It’s all well and good providing employees with a working model that provides them with the freedom and flexibility to be able to come and go as they please, but in order to get the lifestyle employer model right, it’s vital to have the right team on board. “Team members must be mature and responsible enough to warrant the flexibility and responsibility,” says Crafford. “Workers who need constant direction and supervision, and who take advantage of the flexibility, will not last. The rest of the team, and the company, will suffer as a result.”

He points out that while his company is very much a lifestyle business that affords him the flexibility and luxury of planning each day, people in general are under a misconception regarding just how much hard work, time, risk and variable income it entails.

Nolte adds that lifestyle employers should be very clear with themselves and others on the outputs required—and then everyone should just get on with it.

“Micro-managing is for the birds,” he says. “Why keep a dog and bark yourself? If you trust people and empower them, they normally rise to the challenge, delivering great results. Treat people with respect and they will deliver. Expect more and you get more. Give more and you will get more.”

He advocates lifestyle employees holding on “lightly, not tightly” when it comes to employees. “If you try to control people, apart from it being patronising, you don’t get the best from them. All you need to do is support, guide, challenge and influence your team and you’ll get amazing results. Holding on tightly takes more time and effort, and is extremely draining on everyone concerned—not to mention inefficient and generally unsuccessful in the long run.”

With the high level of unemployment in South Africa, the lifestyle business model may be just what we need to encourage more people to head into the business space and start up a small company. It could encourage entrepreneurs to take more risks in getting something off the ground if they don’t have to compromise on their lifestyles.

When employers and employees find a way to integrate work and life seamlessly and effectively, exciting things are bound to happen—starting with a happy team and a healthy bottom line.

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