When I set up Bridge + Tunnel Productions in 1998 I wanted to ensure that while we expected a lot of our employees (filmmaking is challenging), we would also ensure that our staff received one of the best work situations possible.
I always knew we would only be as good as our staff. This is why we introduced a system based on flexible working, trust and self-determination in our work place. No one is a “boss” and we try to make as many decisions as a collective as possible. There are no managers watching you clock in. It’s certainly been a learning curve. Most of the people who joined us have thrived in such an environment. Others, curiously, found they needed a more structured environment to work. But that is another story for another day.
As a company we have continued to flourish. This year marks our 20th anniversary – and during this time we have continued to make films in the North East of England which is akin to being an Inuit trying to grow crops on the tundra. And, no, it hasn’t been easy… we have had almost zero industry support. So, what is our secret?
We run a work culture that doesn’t fetishise work. We work 9-5pm and avoid long hours or punishing schedules. We have a strict no-bullsh*t and no assh*le policy (this is an actual policy); ensuring there is minimal admin and bureaucracy. This has been borne out of necessity. We have had to develop communication and sharing tools because we are often not in the same place or even the same continent as each other.
I once read that if you’re a captain, you don’t teach people to love hammering and nailing… You ask them to imagine what it would be like to feel the wind through their hair.
Putting this theory into practice means that we expect people to achieve their best. In fact, we challenge everyone to be better and push themselves. We ask for excellence and offer great flexibility and self determination in return. We have survived by having incredibly motivated and committed staff who have challenged themselves to work on the most high-aiming projects and difficult of projects. And they have brought in deliverables despite the seemingly impossible nature of the challenges.
Those who have worked with us have been part of all the success we have achieved. I like to think that the culture of the workplace has enabled our longevity and level of success. When you look at our outcomes over the income we have had, you would be astonished. As a “teaching hospital” we also ensure people are always learning. Often people leave us when there isn’t anything new for them to learn.
When it comes to childcare and childrearing, there really wasn’t any reason we should do anything differently. We knew that happy employees make loyal and hardworking team members. I am always surprised when I’m thanked for this, as this strategy is entirely self-interested. We can do more with employees who feel valued and appreciated. Work is important. However, having children is also a wonderful aspect of life… so why not ensure this folds in well to the strategy we have. Why can’t a baby come into work? In the months that our one employee did this, nothing seemed to change.
If anything, it brought the team closer together. Why not allow an employee to work on a Saturday morning? Why can’t a woman breastfeed in the office? Or work from home? As long as the work gets done. Sometimes it seems that employers have structures just for the sake of it. And they expect employees to fit into them. But what happens when the structure is designed to fit the needs of the core workers? And why not?! We also have one employee who has gone on one year of leave while she completes a PhD. Again, we had to do some planning but it can be made to work. And it is surprisingly easy when staff feel they have control and are respected. When you implement an employee-focused approach, you find the work gets done and miraculously done well.
This is why 20 years later we are here. And thriving. Being employee focused means that our work is best served. Being family and parental focused is just one part of our overall offer to employees. We ask “why should women be taken out of the team just because they have children?” It should be their choice and we should try and make it work. Believing in the power of your team really makes sense. We, at Bridge + Tunnel, are living proof of that.
Here is a word from Beatriz Clemente, our previous Company Manager, who is the most recent working mother in our team:
When I had my first child, Tina was very supportive and flexible. She offered me statutory maternity pay, even though my contract was on a freelance basis. She also allowed me to work in a really flexible way – for example, I could work few hours in the morning and bring my baby with me, which was amazing and rather unusual for a company environment. Also, she supported me with my childcare costs by letting me work during the weekend so my husband could look after our son while I was working. I felt that having a baby and working was acceptable and manageable. I was given the chance to come back to my normal work hours progressively and in a timely manner.
Being family-friendly as a company has been easy; and the goodwill and loyalty it inspires pays back in spades.
If I had it to do it all over again, I might have set up the company as a cooperative or a partnership (like John Lewis)… But I prefer to look to the future rather than the past. I have a new housing cooperative project for later life artists setting up in Italy and I plan to carry the lessons of the past 20 years forward into that! I have learnt a lot about cooperation and managing people and large projects. My next 20 years are going to be awesome with that learning!
If anyone wants to find out more from Bridge + Tunnel’s process, they are welcome to get in touch. It’s not a secret I plan need to keep to myself and can help other companies find means to shortcut their relationships with their team! Thank you Raising Films for asking me to write about this topic… It has been a pleasure to reflect and think through our process, what we have built and where we are going!