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E220 | Refreshing the World of Work with Hoxby Co-Founders, Alex Hirst & Lizzie Penny

Like most good ideas, the idea for Hoxby, the purpose-led organisation that exists to create a happier, more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias, came to co-founders Alex Hirst and Lizzie Penny, in the pub. 

Fed up with, and burned out from the traditional way of working, they decided it simply wasn’t what they wanted. So they decided to take matters into their own hands. 

Fast forward a decade and Alex and Lizzie not only changed the way they work, but they’ve also changed the way their community works too. A community made up of more than 1,000 handpicked, talented and diverse freelancers who work remotely in 30 countries around the world. 

Alex and Lizzie have recently published a book, Workstyle, about how workstyle is better for wellbeing, improves productivity, and can reshape inclusion for the benefit of society. And in this episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, they share why they’re so passionate about autonomy at work, what Hoxby is, the conditions necessary to foster workstyle, and how to create connections remotely. 

On today’s podcast:

  • What is Hoxby?
  • Wellbeing, productivity & society
  • The three conditions needed to foster workstyle 
  • How to implement Workstyle in your organisation
  • How to create connection remotely


Future-Proofing the World of Work with Workstyle Creators, Alex Hirst & Lizzie Penny

Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst have been leading the workstyle revolution for a decade. Friends, entrepreneurs, inspiring speakers and changemakers, they co-founded social enterprise, Hoxby, in 2014 to prove the concept.  

Through Hoxby they have helped thousands of workstylers around the world to set, project and respect their own workstyles, and are conducting pioneering research into the link between autonomy, productivity and wellbeing. Their business has delivered projects in a workstyle way for some of the biggest brands in the world. 

Alex and Lizzie have also written a book. The book lays out how workstyle is better for wellbeing, improves productivity, and can reshape inclusion for the benefit of society. In particular the book focuses on seven excluded groups, for whom the legacy of Industrial Age working excludes them from equal opportunities to engage in meaningful, fulfilling work and we illustrate how working in a workstyle way is transformational.

Coming up with the concept of Workstyle

“We came up with the concept of workstyle in the pub 8 years ago, so long pre pandemic. We came to that conversation in the pub for different personal reasons. For me it was having my first child. And I’m embarrassed to say that that was really the first time that my eyes were opened to pervasive inequalities at work.”  – Lizzie

“I came to the conversation off the back of burnout.I’d been measuring my performance at work on the basis of how many hours I’ve been putting in, and eventually I just became numb to work, I didn’t enjoy the highs, I didn’t feel emotional about the lows, I was just numb to the whole thing.” – Alex

Having realised their relationship with work was broken, they set up rebuilding it on new terms. Together they came up with the concept of Workstyle, a new word which means the freedom to choose when and where you work, and being judged on your output. 

What is Hoxby?

Hoxby is a community of over 1,000 global freelancers. It draws on members of the community to answer briefs on a case by case basis, which means only the best people, or the right people for a particular project at that particular time, are pulled forward. The quality, therefore, that Hoxby is able to bring into every project team is much higher than any other consultancy.

How can you become a member of Hoxby? You have to apply, says Alex. And what you’re applying for is to become part of a community which has a vision to create a happier, more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias. You’re not applying to be part of a project, you’re applying to change the world collectively. 

Once you’re in, then you can apply to work on a project. 

“And what that means is that we have people who are united by a shared vision. And also it’s a freelance community and freelancers know they’re only as good as their last piece of work, which makes a big difference.” – Alex

Workstyle: wellbeing, productivity & society

The benefits of workstyle, say Lizzie, fall into three areas: wellbeing, productivity and society. While the catalyst for starting this way of working was because technology had reached a point where it could support it, the other reason was that we have a changing demographic. We have an ageing population, and already we’re experiencing a labour shortage where there simply aren’t enough people to fill the empty jobs. 

Which means the benefits of workstyle for both the organisation, the individual and society as a whole are innumerable. Plus, says Lizzie, it also reshapes work to include people who otherwise are currently fundamentally excluded from work if they can’t work, nine to five, five days a week.

“That’s the biggie, really, diversity and inclusion. Our ability to work this way, giving everybody the autonomy to decide when and where they work for themselves, removes the barriers to work of time and place that prohibit many people from being able to access work in the first place.” – Alex

What does that mean for Hoxby’s clients, which include the likes of Merck, AWS, Divine Chocolate, and Unilever? It means they get more diverse teams, which means more diverse thinking for problem solving.

The three conditions needed to foster workstyle 

There are three conditions that are needed in order to foster work style, says Alex. The first is working asynchronously, e.g. not everyone on the team has to be working at the same time. This can easily be achieved with the many tech tools available. 

The second is adopting a digital first mentality e.g. you don’t need to be in an office to work, as long as you can communicate, you can work from anywhere. 

And then thirdly, having a trust-based culture. Every member of the team has to trust that every other person will play their part in order to deliver the whole project.

“Places like Hoxby are actually increasing in number in terms of the operating model and are also a safe space for people to make the transition from traditional employment into freelancing with the support of a community around them.” – Lizzie

How to implement Workstyle in your organisation

The one key thing when implementing workstyle, says Alex, is to enable autonomy as far as possible. That’s because autonomy has long been proven to increase productivity. There’s lots of research that supports the more autonomy you can give to people, the more productive they are. And workstyle is at the extreme end of autonomy. 

“For organisations that are looking at how to move in this direction, then it has to be with a focus on autonomy and genuine autonomy, not just on a piece of paper autonomy. This has to be about enabling people to actually choose when and where they work for themselves. And that’s where workstyle comes in.” – Alex

And good workstyle begins with good leadership

“We were privileged to start Hoxby working in a workstyle way. And we recognise that it’s a privilege to be able to start a company working in this way, curating teams, joining a community, whereas in other organisations, autonomy is often something that’s written into a policy, but not enacted by every line manager.” Lizzie

How to create connection remotely

Simply being in the office surrounded by people does not equate to connection, says Alex. Meaningful connection needs to be purposefully built. When Alex and Lizzie started Hoxby, they knew that Slack was going to be their office environment, and so wanted to create a digital destination that was easy to navigate, and set up what you might expect in an office. 

“We created a channel called ‘the boardroom’ for our big announcements, a channel called ‘the watercooler’ where we have pictures of dogs, cats, babies, lots of gifts, that kind of stuff. We have gone out of our way to make sure that people can connect beyond work, even though it’s a digital environment.” – Lizzie

The reality for Hoxby, says Lizzie, is that within Hoxby is a community, and each member has an opportunity to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, they need to feel that and believe that, and that’s partly down to the leadership, helping bring everyone together. 

“Not only are we at this inflection point where things could change, but I think for organisations, things must change, because otherwise we’re going to have a perpetuating labour market crisis. I think that could be the thing that moves things forward, more quickly.”

Book recommendations

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diversity – Matthew Syed

Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus

How The Future Works – Brian Elliott

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