Everyone at Convosphere works flexibly because flexibility is at the heart of everything the business does.
Convosphere is a multilingual social listening company which was set up in 2015 by its two co-founders, Jackie Cuyvers and Paul Brothers. Their vision, to provide a team of experienced social intelligence professionals across the globe to clients at a moment’s notice, required a unique approach to building a team and business. Providing the required flexibility was crucial to their business model as this was an essential factor in helping their clients achieve success. Offering flexible working is therefore not just a “nice thing to have” to attract and retain staff; it is central to the business model.
Convosphere is a team of social intelligence analysts who use online conversations about brands, products or other relevant topics to answer their clients’ business questions. While this type of market research isn’t new, Convosphere focuses on doing the analysis using native-level speakers of the language in which the conversations or online discussions are written. Conversations online are like those offline, often using irony, sarcasm and local jargon.
While some companies may try and use these online conversations as datasets for market research, they typically do so either in only one language or use automated translation tools to translate languages they aren’t familiar with. However, in doing the true meaning and value can be lost as machine translation tools like Google Translate don’t understand tone, irony, context or the use of the words and frequently miss important cultural references and meanings. “In social listening, you have to understand what people are saying,” says Operations Director Louise Jones. “That requires analysts with native-level language skills.”
Convosphere has grown fairly rapidly and now has 17 employees around the world, with nine in its London office. It also has 145 freelancers on its books to cover languages on which it is less frequently contracted to work. It underwent its most significant growth spurt in 2017/18 when it took on a number of full-time staff and now covers 55 languages. Nearly 90% of the team work part-time and over 90% work remotely.
London-based staff split their time between the UK and elsewhere as they need to keep their language skills up to date. Louise says it is good for the company that the staff are able to travel home for extended periods to renew contact with their countries and update any cultural references while maintaining their English skills. It also means the employees get to see their families. Other members of staff are ‘digital nomads’ and combine travelling and working. “It works for all of us,” says Louise.
Flexible working is led from the top. During the school holidays, the Chief Operating Officer typically works 1-8pm to fit around his childcare arrangements, for instance, and the company’s Head of Insight works from home three days a week so he can pick up his children from school.
Louise adds that flexibility is also necessary because the company needs people to work on projects as soon as they come in and often to a tight deadline. Moreover, as its clients are global with many on the US West Coast or in China, a team working across different time zones is essential.
The company uses a range of communications and time tracking tools to enable flexibility. A good video conferencing service is essential, the current favourite is Zoom, as are web-based project collaboration tools, such as ProofHub, or resource planning software such as Teambook, to help with project planning and team scheduling.
Convosphere’s flexible structure has enabled it to attract top talent and retain it. The company has a 100% retention rate beyond three months of employment. “We are looking for a very specific skillset and the more flexibility we offer, the more chance we have to get that. We want a happy, engaged, dynamic team that is prepared to be flexible. By offering them flexibility we get that, and we hire a high percentage of women, with some working two to three days a week,” says Louise.
The business is 59% female and is led by a female Co-Founder and Chief Executive, unusual in a firm which is tech-driven. Unlike many other tech-based firms, the company has not had to actively recruit for women.
Louise’s job is all about managing the company’s flexible structure, tracking progress and finding out where any gaps are and how they might best be filled. “My job might be easier if it was a 9-5 one, but we would not get the business we do if that were the case. Flexibility is crucial to the business model and we have built structures around that to support it. It is about managing in a different way and ensuring there is always communication,” she says.
Louise sends an email every Friday outlining people’s locations and hours over the following week. This is not set in stone and can be amended on the tracker or via a team WhatsApp group.
“We always know where people are and what hours they are working,” says Louise. At the moment there are desks for everyone who works in the London office and there is one core day – Tuesday – when most of the team come in. “It is not business crucial, but people often want contact with others,” says Louise. There is also a monthly lunch, which is more for social than business reasons, allowing the team time to connect socially, which helps foster team spirit and collaboration.
At the centre of the flexible approach is an openness to different ways of working. “People come up with suggestions on how they can make different patterns work and we are open to suggestions. It is about being good at planning and communications and about trust and respect,” says Louise. An ability to self-manage is crucial and the business is clear to make sure that employees know that they do not have to be constantly on call.
Louise herself has benefited from this approach. She has an eight year old and in her previous job she worked four days a week. She says she found it really scary looking for a similar job on part-time hours. “It is rare to come across a business that is actively recruiting part-time people for senior roles. My job was advertised as three days a week, but with other options considered,” she says.
During the recruitment process, she said she would be happy to stay on four days a week and the business adjusted and added some extra parts to the role. She now works 28 hours a week in term time and then does reduced hours in the holidays.
She states: “Recruitment is about more than writing a job profile. It is about finding the right person to fit it. That way you get a high- performing team. It is a giant jigsaw puzzle. If you do it well enough that is when it all really works.”