In March 2020, Abigail McLachlan had just invested £180,000 in East of Eden, the yoga and pilates business she runs in Walthamstow, east London. She was expanding with two shiny new studios, therapy rooms, showers and a cafe.
Then came the first national lockdown in the wake of the Covid pandemic. “When nobody came, nine days after opening, I pivoted my business overnight to a virtual one. I had my full timetable of 80 classes a week from 42 teachers online, teachers teaching from their homes via Zoom,” she says.
For the East of Eden founder, as for countless other small business owners, that rapid and dramatic reinvention was just the start of what would be years of operating flexibly in response to seemingly constant crises. Agility has long been a business buzzword, but the ability to completely shapeshift in response to global and national events has now become a prerequisite for many small businesses.
“Even now, the requirement to be flexible and change what we offer and how we offer it hasn’t gone away,” says McLachlan. “We’ve gone from the pandemic into a cost-of-living crisis, and [the idea of] business as usual is over.” She has had to overhaul what she offers, and her pricing structures, to attract people back to her studio.
So how can small business owners build this new kind of flex into their operations so that they are better positioned to adapt to any future upheavals?
Cheney Hamilton, who set up Find Your Flex five years ago to help companies become more flexible, would describe the new business flex approach “mutable”, and identifies this as a key trend for future success. She explains: “Being mutable is about staying in a constant state of reinvention, so you are always looking at current trends and current research.”
Operating flexibly can mean giving employees the option to choose when and how they work. Bruce Daisley, a business consultant and bestselling author who writes about the intersection of life and work, says: “Increasingly, flexibility is the new pay. Knowing that we can work in a way, at a time and in a place that suits our lives is becoming more important than ever before.”
Flexibility is built into Venetia Archer’s beauty and wellness services platform, Ruuby. It has more than 1,500 mobile beauty therapists who work through its platform. “Core to our business is the fact that we offer self-employed beauty and wellness professionals complete flexibility,” she says. Several of its therapists also have other jobs during the week – for instance, as air stewards – so the platform lets them choose when they want to work.
For added flexibility, Ruuby’s therapists can sign up to use a Zipcar at a business rate. Using the on-demand car-sharing service for business allows them to enjoy the benefits of car ownership without the outlay and expense. “It’s useful for therapists who might not have their own car. Many travel with big kits – massage tables, hundreds of nail polishes – which isn’t something they can take on the tube. Plus, if they carry more kit, they can increase their earnings.”
Amy Butterworth heads up consultancy work with employers at social enterprise Timewise, which helps businesses run flexible teams. She suggests companies keen to roll out flexible working should start with an audit of what people’s working weeks really look like. “A lot of flexible working is given informally, so working out the full picture can take some time. Canvas people for their ideas and opinions – do they feel your flexible working policies work for them? What changes would improve them?”
Annie Auerbach, co-founder of cultural research studio Starling and author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life, says an experimental approach is key. “Now is not the time to nail down a controlled and rigid structure of work that might not be suited either to the needs of a diverse workforce or to the next wave of change. A flexible business culture, at its best, is about anti-fragility – it can adapt and bend without breaking.”
Flexible working needs a different kind of leadership approach: “A more adaptive form of leadership is being comfortable sitting with complexity, rather than having all the answers all of the time,” says Auerbach.
Sometimes being flexible means admitting you’re wrong. Archer expanded Ruuby’s mobile beauty and wellness business too fast and had to retreat from rolling out in Manchester. “If something isn’t going the right way and you’ve made a mistake, just stop and pull back,” she says.
Archer’s business has had to do its own fair share of shapeshifting. “We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride. We’ve had to be incredibly flexible and dynamic in terms of responding to government restrictions during the pandemic. Luckily we are out the other side of that now. Consumer appetite for at-home services has increased, because people are working from home and got used to getting treatments done at their home.” She has also been responsive to demand by expanding from being purely an at-home beauty services provider. “We saw the potential to expand into hotels and now we have a new platform they can use to book in their guests.”
And needless to say, the ability of Ruuby’s therapists to sign up to Zipcar has made it easier for many of them to respond when faced with an expanding client base.
For McLachlan at the East of Eden yoga studio, the physical space was essential to create an experience that couldn’t be replicated at home or on social media. “This meant investing in machine-based exercise, such as reformer pilates, opening a dedicated ballet barre studio, and creating sensory experiences around yoga: early morning candlelit classes with aromatherapy burners to create a more immersive experience,” she says. There is also a new community pricing alternative to the regular class pass, to help people keep coming, while keeping their costs down.
Ultimately, as Auerbach says: “This turbulence has been difficult and unsettling, but it has also given us a once-in-a-generation chance to unpick the tensions we have faced in our relationship to work.”
With more than 3,000 cars and vans available via its app, using Zipcar for your business gives you convenient, on-demand flexible access to vehicles, whenever you need it