The Future of Doing — starting a workplace experience movement during the great reset
Now more than ever, creativity is showing the transformative power it can have on how we live and work. The ambidextrous organisations that have incorporated this principle are doing better than most; for years, they have been optimising what they do while simultaneously exploring new ways to disrupt themselves. They have understood the changing nature of creativity and innovation, as well as the right combination of individuals who can perform that work to the highest standards. Not only have they incorporated design thinking and human-centred design into all teams, they have also recognised a parallel need for ‘wolf pack’ creativity; smaller multidisciplinary teams consisting of different variations of advanced designers, technologists, strategists and creatives who can conceive of differentiated ideas together and actually make those ideas work, fast. Ambidextrous organisations have known that upskilling generalists in innovative ways of thinking is important, but they also need autonomous advanced creative-making practitioners to accelerate innovation and avoid multi-year transformations. In a new COVID era of doing a lot more with a lot less, they know that we all need a future of doing, not just talking.
Before the pandemic, there was also a growing understanding amongst contemporary organisations that attracting and retaining great talent was central to their chance of success, and that delivering a great employee experience was the only reliable way to do that. COVID has further emphasised our relationship with the people that pay us and the role that workplaces play in our lives. Some organisations have made it clear that their workers are largely a disposable cost to their business. Other organisations see them as something to retain at all costs. Many people have discovered new ways to monetise their talent and gain independence. We are all questioning who we want to work for and how.
So, while innovation talent continues to be in demand and we expect more from those we work for, what will creative makers expect from the people who want to hire them in future?
The Future of Doing
In late 2019, before the world imploded, I had been discussing my thoughts on EX and innovation with another experienced team leader, Barry Mowszowski. We landed on the same question; why was there no specific employee experience guidance for leaders of creative makers? We could see that this specialised talent was becoming even more sought after and that they were moving out of traditional creative organisations in droves, seeking access to more relevant work where they would be properly valued. Having both led multidisciplinary teams of designers, creatives, technologists and strategists across the world for many years, we knew that meeting their specific needs and priorities required more insight. Most EX guidance appeared to be written by the facilitators of creativity or those with a commerce background; non-practitioners with a solid theoretical knowledge without understanding the diverse behavioural intricacies of being a practitioner. We wanted to test the theory that talented creative makers need something different from their workplaces and to understand how they felt about work today and what they would like to happen in the future.
Barry had graduated with an MBA from the Berlin School of Creative Leadership and has been a course facilitator and I had been a guest lecturer at their Cannes Creative Leadership Programme (CCLP) that year. We felt they would be an exceptional partner in our pursuit to fill the knowledge gap, particularly as the Berlin School has a deep understanding of the challenges creative leaders face and has a respected international footprint. We kicked off a global study over the following months, interviewing and surveying 45 participants from the US, Europe, UK, APAC and Africa. We spoke to designers, creatives, techs and strategists of varied ages, genders, ethnicities, sexualities and cognitive variances. We spoke to entrepreneurs and both permanent and freelance staff at tech giants, global and boutique agencies, startups, micro consultancies and client-side organisations.
As a result, we realised that there are key needs or pillars that creative making EX is influenced by:
- Purpose — Can I believe in my work?
- Value — Am I valued through pay and reward?
- Selling — How is my work sold and to whom?
- Ideas — Can I do great work?
- Environment — Can I feel situated in the environments available to me?
- Collaboration — Can I work well with others?
The key research insights that aligned to each of these pillars were shared in a podcast series with one episode per pillar. So many insights were eye opening. Two that stuck out were that, annecdotally, agencies appeared to be some of the worst perpetrators of exploitative experiences for creative makers, even though they specialise in creative making work, and neurodiversity plays a significant role in creative making but is rarely accomodated or understood. After COVID hit, we went back to many of our participants and our research insights still applied. In fact, they had become even more relevant.
From podcast to open online program
We had a great response to the podcast from a diverse audience. Either people recognised the insights and felt empowered or they discovered something entirely new about creative makers. Most importantly, we uncovered a need from creative leaders to enable a better workplace experience for creative makers. So, we designed a touring workshop that would stop in Singapore, Berlin, London and New York, ready to kick off in April 2020. We started filling spots, which validated the growing desire for change. Then COVID hit.
What we did next verified the effectiveness of the small wolf pack, made up of ourselves and a few colleagues at the Berlin School. We leveraged the expertise of the Director of Strategy and Learning Innovation at the Berlin School, Marília Lobo, which informed our decision to merge certain pillars and redesign the course as asynchronous and synchronous units aligned to each pillar; 4 weeks with insight videos to watch before a live 3 hour teaching and working session. It took a tremendous amount of dedication from a very small group to put all the materials and frameworks together, to market the course and to fill a global classroom, particularly as we were all creating an entirely new program format for the school. The quality also needed to reflect the fact that we were creative makers; great design and layout and beautiful, clear language. We couldn’t cut corners. The team did an exceptional job.
The course kicked off in August 2020 and ran for 4 weeks. Every Friday, participants from around the world got together for 3 hours to reflect on their learnings and discuss their experiences, before generating ideas together. This was not an easy task across so many timezones; some started at the crack of dawn, others finished after midnight. However, their attendance and dedication never dropped.
Each week, participants were asked questions about how the pillars applied to their workplaces today and how those same pillars should be enabled in future when hiring, onboarding, training, sourcing work, assigning work, overseeing work and rewarding creative makers for their great contributions. Some of the ideas from all 4 weeks were converted to multiple storyboards to show how thoughts can start to evolve into experiences.
The ideas were inspiring and feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
Starting a movement
The reality is that many changes are needed to the way creative making talent is treated. A few that stand out is a lack of diversity and transparency, toxic political environments, little quantifiable commercial value being placed on creativity and a lack of understanding of the flexibility required for neurodiverse and creative minds. To make a change, there needs to be groundswell from influential voices, as there will always be business-centric reasons why it is easier to treat employees like a cost instead of an essential investment. Thankfully, COVID is the great reset.
It can feel overwhelming and depressing for those who really do want change and don’t believe it’s possible, due to the extent of the change required. But in the words of the cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” As leaders, we are also the key caretakers of creative makers. By actively improving the workplace experience for creative makers and, as a consequence, creating a better future of doing, we can make a significant difference to the world of creativity and innovation. Being part of a movement means inspiring a groundswell of activity with like-minded doers.
2021 and beyond
This year we are adding to the study. We are currently updating our insights about how 18 months of the pandemic has impacted creative makers, specficifally their sense of purpose, if they feel valued, how they feel about the way their work is sold, if their work is getting less or more creative, whether workplaces are giving them flexibility of time and place and how collaboration has been impacted.
If you’d like to be a part of the new study please take part.