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Why the Future of the Workplace is No Workplace at All

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 1.15.03 AM Lately, I have been sifting through an endless stream of posts about the things that influence workplace happiness and theories about what employees really want. From the perks of good coffee to the merits of standing desks to the endless debate about whether open offices are amazing or awful (I tend to be in the latter camp on that one), there are a lot of studies and a lot of opinions floating around.

Niceties are nice, but at the core, I think this entire conversation is spiraling and sidestepping a much larger reality. We're standing on the edge of a huge and inevitable cultural shift; a shift I believe will have at least as large an impact on American culture as women forgoing stay-at-home motherhood in favor of entering the workforce.

Quality of life is no longer limited to a simple matter of income. For years we've been told to strive for a work/life balance, but people are finally waking up. They're realizing that balance is bullshit, and life shouldn't take a backseat to their jobs. The result?  A slow and steady  workplace evolution is taking place to match the shifting priorities of the talent companies are looking to hire and keep.

The single value that's driving it all? Autonomy.

This is the part where I tell you I'm clearly biased on this topic. I work for an agency that grants me the ability to work remotely from 500 miles away. They put their full trust in me -- and I do my best to show my gratitude by working hard and doing everything I can to make sure I never give them a reason to doubt our arrangement. (But I'll save the lessons and learnings on remote employment for  another post.)

Over the last couple years of remote employment, I have learned it's a topic that currently gives a lot of people (primarily people in leadership positions) serious indigestion. How does that work? How do they know you're doing what you're supposed to be doing? And while there are many parts and pieces to the logistics (from Skype meetings to workflow systems), the crux of those polite inquiries really boils down to this: How can I have a 100% guarantee that a remote employee is doing what they're supposed to be doing? 

The bad news is: you can't. The good news? That reality is nothing new or different.

From a recent post on Quartz:

“We have this factory model, and we think someone’s working if they show up in the morning and they’re not drunk, they don’t sleep at their desks, they leave at the right time. But that has so little to do with what you create. And we all know people who create a lot without fitting into those norms.”

Research indicates employees greatly value autonomy. This is part of what’s driving millennials to leave traditional offices and go out on their own. “It’s a cultural phenomenon,” says Alex Abelin, co-founder of Liquid Talent.“Everything is pointing in that direction. We care more about mobility and independence.”

As my dear friend Heather Whaling once said, if you can't trust people to work without you standing over their shoulder, you've hired the wrong people. That's a people problem, not a process problem. So, that nervous feeling you're getting in your gut as you read this? In the wise words of a tundra princess, let it go. That thing you're fighting against is already happening and it's happening fast. You've only got two choices: embrace it and thrive or push back and find yourself way behind the curve five years down the road. (Remember all those people who once claimed the internet was just a fad and email would never catch on? Yeah, nobody wants to be those guys. And nobody wants to work for that company.)

Don't worry. I'm not going to leave you feeling exposed in the harsh light of a new dawn. I've put together a few thoughts on why this is all really a good thing for business:

Remote allows you to tap into a bigger, better bucket of talent. Hiring is hard. Finding that perfect person who is a great cultural fit with the just-right skill set is hard, hard, hard. When you do find that person, the chances they'll live locally are rather slim, which leaves you with a couple options. You can try to woo them and pay for relocation expenses or you can settle for whoever you can find locally.

In many instances, embracing job relocation isn't as simple as saying "yes" to a great offer. The reality of spouses, children and home ownership all factor into the equation for job candidates. And rightfully so, these things often take precedence over a new job.

I do not believe geography should be the determining factor when it comes to new hires. If I'm a client, I don't care where my designer or copywriter sits -- I care about the creative talent they bring to the table. Whether they are bringing it from Baltimore, Bakersfield or Bangladesh makes no difference to me.

By offering employees a more flexible working arrangement -- the ability to work from anywhere -- you open yourself up to welcoming new and stronger talent onto your team. Instead of just hiring people who can get to your office, you're suddenly able to hire people who get you and want to be a part of what you're doing.  You're building a better, stronger company, not just a "based-in-wherever" company.

Early adopters will become the winningest brands. Times are changing -- fast. The companies currently getting cultural and technological infrastructure in place to support the forthcoming era of the "mobile workplace" will have first dibs at the best talent. I predict the autonomy offered by the mobile workplace will be a part of the culture of all brands on the Top 100 list within the next few years. Why? Because it's a perk that is going to appeal to top talent. And top talent is what drives the creativity and innovation behind top brands.

More people in more places means more new business opportunities. Your employees are some of your best ambassadors. They're a living, walking, breathing extension of your brand. Whether they're volunteering in the community, chitchatting on a cross-country flight, attending a gallery opening or striking up conversation in the grocery store line, they carrying your brand's message out into the world every day.

Local has become a big thing -- even beyond the riveting land of local kale. Many brands are now placing a high priority on partnering with agencies who have people in their local community. That becomes a problem when all your people are located in one city -- and your client is across the country. A remote workforce expands the number of locations where the message spreads simply by increasing the number of pinpoints your people dot on a map. When you've got team members embedded in Houston, Omaha, Bismarck, Columbus, Portland and Charlotte, you can cover a heck of a lot more local ground. More people in more places = more opportunities to start the local conversations that lead to new business opportunities.

Remote teams reduce overhead costs. The thought of centralized offices going extinct is a big pill for many to swallow. But in reality, as the workforce decentralizes, the expense of retaining and maintaining space for exclusive use is going to make less and less sense. Energy costs will likely continue to climb, and leases in desirable areas will keep rising. With the advent of technologies that allow incoming calls to be seamlessly forwarded to mobile lines, even ease of communication is no longer a compelling argument in defense of a permanent office.

Having said that, the need for employees to gather and meet as a team (or with clients) will endure. If I had a big chunk of change to invest, I go all in with coworking spaces in creative communities. Not only do these spaces provide affordable place to gather and groove, they offer the ability to collaborate and connect with people beyond your team. Win-win-win.

What are your thoughts? When it comes to the remote workplace are you eager to adopt or hesitant to embrace? If you're a remote employee, what do you like about it? If you're an employer, what are the pros and cons in your mind? 

Herding Agency Unicorns: Why Creatives Need Boundaries to Do Their Best Work

gapingvoid creativity rushed If I asked you to describe a “typical creative,” what would you say? Quirky? Unstructured? Eccentric? Challenging? Artistic? Dramatic? Wacky? ADD? The responses are widely varied based on who you ask, but at the core creatives are just people. They’re not magical unicorns or prize possessions to be paraded around for show. They’re people who bring a highly visible, highly valuable set of talents to their team.

Realizing this, I often find myself wondering why we, as an industry, tend to hold creatives to a very different set of standards than the other members of a team. I am a creative and I'm guilty of it, too. The art of the creative has become so befuddling and esoteric, in fact, we now have websites devoted to advising others how to coexist with the mystical creative beast.

Somewhere along the way it seems a strange  perception has become widely accepted about what defines the nature of a creative. If you work in the industry, you know what I’m talking about. The world, for reasons I’m not even sure it understands, bends to creative people, bowing to the perceived mystical genius. When creatives miss a deadline, excuses are made on their behalf. When they’re late to a meeting, everyone shakes their head and laughs it off as a side effect of that rascally creative DNA. The more people accept the stereotype of the creative as irresponsible, obstinate  wild cards, the more the creative individual (and the true potential of their talent) becomes lost behind a human shield.

But is this really how creative genius evolves into great work? I say no. Much like laissez-faire  parenting does little more than produce spoiled children, lack of clearly outlined expectations, lack of structure and lack of consequence is a system that fails everyone. The client. The agency. The team. The work. The creative themselves.

I read an awesome post by author Augusten Burroughs yesterday, and in true Augusten Burroughs-style, he put it oh-so-well:

Oh, how we hate limits. Limits hold you back. They confine you. They prevent you from doing what you want to do. Limits stop you from living a life without limits. Of course, this is only an illusion. What limits really do is give you an acceptable excuse to avoid doing something.

Limits are actually opportunities. The truth about not having everything you need, not being fully equipped, qualified, or allowed is that these limits are the nebula of creative genius. It requires a measure of innovation to accomplish something when there are limits blocking the way: a lack of skill, a lack of knowledge, a lack of funds, a limited set of tools. To circumvent the limits, you must create a novel solution or find an alternate route.

Limits force you to make the best of things. And “making the best” of something is a creative act.

Limits force improvisation. Improvisation creates new things.

When you have total freedom--no limits at all--you stop trying to make the best of things. This is the problem with “having it all": there is nothing left to want.

So to all of you out there reading this post as you desperately try to figure out How to Work With Creative People, take it from someone on the inside. We know how to meet deadlines. Hold us to them. If we're late for a meeting once, forgive us. If it happens again, pull us aside. Three times? Time for a little good ol' fashioned public shaming. If one of us tries to tell you "creativity can't be scheduled" (or if we try to feed you any other array of bullshit-y, excuse making lines), feel free to remind us that creativity may not work on a timeline, but our clients do.

The work will be better for it. And so will we.

We Could All Use a Little More Pixie Dust

When I was little, I had a lot of fantastical ideas. I was convinced my stuffed animals came to life at night to protect the house from burglars lurking in the shadows. I tried to make a deal with the Tooth Fairy to keep her spare change and leave me a unicorn. Once I even pilfered an egg from the fridge and squirreled it away in my room, tucked snuggly in a knitted hat. Convinced that the egg would hatch within days, I hadn’t really thought through how I would explain a new pet chick to my parents, but I was sure they wouldn’t be able to cast him away once they saw his little fluffy face. (Note: My master plan did not result in a pet chick. It did, however, give me valuable insight into why we refrigerate dairy products.) Childhood is a time of imagination, magic and vast possibility. According to psychology researchers at Lancaster University in England, bringing magical content—everything from the Tooth Fairy to the witches and wizards that rule Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—into the classroom boosts student imagination and creativity.

The Study 52 children between the ages of four and six were divided into two groups. The first group viewed scenes from Harry Potter that included characters wielding their wands, using magic and talking to animals. The second group watched clips where no magic is used. At the conclusion of the viewing, both groups of students were asked to come up with alternative uses for a cup and create “drawings of impossible items.” The researchers found students who had watched the magical clips significantly outscored the other group on creativity tests. They concluded that exposure to magical thinking— which they defined as “ways of acting and reasoning about the physical world that violate known physical principles”—enables children to “create fantastic imaginary worlds.” That in turn increases student’s ability to “view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives.”

Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” It seems there may be more truth to that statement than anyone realized. In the pursuit to find creative and innovative solutions for our clients, we must surround ourselves with magical props, people and possibilities.

On my desk you’ll find an adopted monster, a creativity voodoo doll and a tiny jar of pixie dust. Visitors often ask about them in passing. Truth be told, the monster isn’t that scary, I suspect the voodoo doll is defective and the pixie dust has probably passed its expiration date. These objects in and of themselves don’t make me any more mighty. They don’t give me superpowers. The do, however, serve as little reminders to take a few moments each day to let my head to float up into the clouds. They remind me of a rare and precious time in life when fairies made fair trades, stuffed animals were the best kind of home security system and a dozen peeping pet chicks were just a couple days in a warm hat away. Even a few brief moments a day in that magical memory makes me happy. And when I am happy, I am undeniably a better writer.

Last week I was taking a stroll through the BOF blog archives, and I came across a post from Greg Cordell inspired by his daughter, Kylie. Having known the Cordells for some time now, I am fully convinced that if you examined them under a microscope, you’d find pixie dust twinkling in the double helix of their DNA.

I was reminded of the power of super-sized dreams when I got home last night. As I walked into the house, I noticed Kylie, my nine-year-old daughter, sitting on a blanket in the middle of the backyard, talking to herself. I asked my wife what Kylie doing out there. She told me that our daughter had explained that she was gong outside to pray and she was going to need “lots of space.”

When Kylie came in I gave her a big hug and, of course, I asked what she was doing on the blanket in the middle of the yard. She told me she was praying. “What were you praying for?” I asked. At first she didn’t want to tell me. She said it was a secret. But, as big dreams often do, her prayer bubbled to the surface and she shared that she was praying for a pet dragon. That’s right, a pet dragon. Fully expecting her prayer to be answered, Kylie needed lots of space for the dragon to land, explaining the reason she was praying outside. I asked what she would do if she had a pet dragon. She told me the dragon would make popcorn for her. “Yes,” I said. “That would be very cool.”

During tough economic times, dreams and dreamers can take a beating. Dreams gets pushed aside and we just try to get through the day faster and cheaper. Rather than super-sizing, we can get caught up in “right sizing” and before you know it, we aren’t really dreaming at all. But maybe during tough times is when dreams need to be the biggest. Call me irresponsible or idealistic if you want, but I doubt I’ll ever see any magic in ordinary microwave popcorn again. Not when I can have a dragon in the backyard that will make it for me.

Wishing you a magical Wednesday.


Read more on the study here

Airport Conversations and the Secret of Success

Every once in awhile someone will ask me what I do for a living. These conversations usually occur in the kinds of places where strangers feel compelled to carry on polite chitchat. In line at the grocery store. Doctor’s office waiting rooms. Airplanes waiting to be cleared for take-off. When I tell people I am a writer, they often respond in the same way I imagine I would respond if someone told me they traveled with the circus or roadied for Def Leppard in the 80s. An incredulous mix of shock and awe, with undertones of questioning my sanity. "That's...brave," they say. What they mean to say is, "How do creative people sleep at night knowing they could be one dry-spell away from the unemployment line?" I don't have an answer for that question. If you asked a thousand different creatives, you'd get a thousand different answers. I just know this is what I was meant to do.

I was born with an innate love for language – and all the power that came with it. My childhood scrapbook, a chronicle of tidbits from my early years stealthily pilfered and loving preserved by my mother’s hand, can attest to this.

As so often tends to be the case with keepsakes, many of these artifacts are truly terrible. In many instances, what once seemed like an staggering work of genius, now seems more like the literary equivalent of those coconut monkeys souvenirs people pick on on vacation in Cabo. Given a few decades to marinate (and fester) my early works now leave me awash in a nostalgic sea of horror and delight, reveling in the absurdity and purity of first love-inspired poems, drama-laden high school notes and even the occasional elementary school valentine.

Among the written wreckage, you will find classic hits such as: a third grade essay I wrote about my teacher’s best quality (her red fingernails), as well as a pillow-side plea asking “Molly” (the tooth fairy) to keep the pocket change and leave me a unicorn. There are cleverly written scripts starring my sister and I. Staged in the living room, those performances were a relentless negotiation (with an occasional musical number thrown in for good measure) as we tried to persuade our parents to get us puppies, ponies and, when we aimed our sights slightly lower, pizza.

Perhaps my favorite relic, however, is the neatly folded copy of a letter I sent to former Ohio governor George V. Voinovich. In the letter, I implore the governor to help me save the environment (and future of the world) by becoming a partner in my third grade fight against the formidable styrofoam lunch trays used in my elementary school cafeteria. Apparently Governor George was busy with other things, because he never did stop by to rally against lunch trays and the certain doom they would bring upon the world. He did, however, send me an autographed headshot and a letter encouraging me to “keep it up”. The day I received that piece of mail was one of the most thrilling afternoons of my young life.

When I was in high school, a college admissions counselor asked me what I wanted to do. “Write,” I said. She looked at me, laughed and said, “Write? You might as well go into philosophy. Writing is a useless degree.” I spent much of my early college experience fighting what I really wanted to do – and what I was good at – as a result of that single conversation.

While on delay in Charlotte over Christmas, I had one of the airport conversations I mentioned in the beginning of this post. I took a seat next to an older gentleman. In a sea of earbuds, laptops and ipads, he was the last of a dying breed, perusing the newspaper with a quiet sort of page-flipping dignity. We exchanged the usual pleasantries of strangers who are temporarily forced, more by inadequate airport seating than by choice, into each other’s lives and personal space. After a a few minutes of smalltalk, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a writer, expecting the usual reaction.

Instead, he looked at me, smiled and said: “A writer is who you are. Writing is what you do. Never confuse the two.”

Brain Pickings recently featured a letter sent to a 16-year old Jackson Pollock by his father in 1928. In the excerpt, Pollock’s father writes, “[The secret to success is] to be fully awake to everything about you.”

It's a tidbit of wisdom that holds true for all of us. Whether a brand or an entrepreneur, a leader or a wandering soul. Whether a marketer trying to create powerful change for a client or a non-profit trying to powerful change in the world, a retiree closing one chapter or a college applicant just about to open a new one…it is by becoming fully awake to who we are that we are able to become courageous in what we do.

Go Ahead and Play: The Link Between Playfulness and GREAT Work

Yesterday I stumbled across a really, really amazing Ted Talk by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. If you don’t have 30 minutes to watch the video (which I HIGHLY recommend) – today’s blog post is a synopsis of his talk about the connection between playfulness and creativity. THE VERY BRIEF RECAP

Playfulness is directly linked to creativity. Creative thinkers and creative workers need time, space and permission to play in order to do their jobs well. Why? Because playfulness helps us get to more creative solutions. It helps us do our jobs better. And it makes us feel better when we do them.


Experiments in playfulness.

Brown opens his talk referencing an exercise developed by creativity researcher Bob McKim. Adults were asked to quickly sketch a picture of the person sitting next to them. Upon completion, the impromptu artists were asked to show their drawing to the person they had sketched. Their typical reaction? Nervous laughter, embarrassment – even a few apologies. Run the same exercise with children, however, and there is no embarrassment. They happily show off their masterpiece to whoever wants to look at it.

So why the difference? Brown suggests the variation in responses between children and adults is evidence that we fear judgment by our peers in adulthood. We may have a wild (and perhaps even genius) idea floating around in our head, but we’re afraid to share it with those around us due to our fear of judgment. And this fear is what causes adults to become conservative in our thinking. As children grow older, they become more sensitive to the opinions of others, and the freedom to be playful and creative is replaced with self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment.

Brown later returns to the “sketch your neighbor” experiment – this time setting it up with a different spin. Same game, new rules. This time imagine yourself in a bar. The person who has the worst drawing buys the next round of drinks. The framework of the activity has suddenly changed (i.e. it has become a form of PLAY) turning a potentially embarrassing situation into a fun game.

In another experiment, participants receive sheet with 30 blank circles. Given little direction, they are asked to turn the circles into as many things as possible in 60 seconds. In most cases the adults won't finish all 30 (or even come close) because our ingrained, adult inclination is to self-edit as we're having ideas. Our desire to be original is a form of editing – and it's not playful.

We tried this experiment this morning during our morning meeting. Here a glimpse at a few of the results...

The playful environment is the creative environment.

Studies have shown that children feel most free to play and create when they’re in a trusted, safe environment. If you work in a creative profession, it’s important to create a space where people are inspired, have the security to take risks and feel they have permission to play. Brown views friendship as a key component in fostering that sense of trust, calling it a “shortcut to play.” “[Friendship] allows us to take the creative risks we need to take in our industry.”

Creatives also need symbols in the workplace that not only remind everyone to be playful – but give people permission to embrace playfulness. (Things like the Googleplex dinosaur and Pixar’s huts and caves.)

Find out what it is - then ask WHAT CANIT BE?

Brown explains that adults have a tendency to immediately categorize a new object as quickly as they can. To an adult, this is quickly recognized, categorized and filed away in our minds as a “kitchen item."

Show the same role of aluminum foil to a child (or  Chipotle), and they see possibilities. Children are more comfortable and engaged with open possibilities. Like adults, they ask WHAT IS IT – but then they take it one step further and ask WHAT COULD I DO WITH IT and WHAT COULD IT BE? Suddenly a roll of aluminum foil has endless new uses and magical possibilities, and Christmas toys are cast aside in favor of the box that could be so much more.

Talk is cheap - DO is invaluable.

Brown goes on to discuss the value of role-playing in the creative workplace, citing an experience one of his team members went through in order to better understand the needs of an ER client (and those they serve). The designer role-played his way through the process of being admitted to the ER just as any patient would, camera in hand the entire time. When IDEO reviewed the tape, it was mostly playback of a view like this. Immediately, the IDEO team was inspired to come up with new, innovation solutions they may never have thought of without injecting themselves INTO the experience.

When kids play house or dress up like a firefighter, they’re trying on that identity. Brown calls role plan “an empathy tool for prototyping experiences.” And it’s something we should be doing as marketing, branding and creative agencies. It’s one thing to rationalize and hypothesize about what a client does (and what they’re customers need/want/experience) from behind a desk, it's another to get into the trenches with them to live it and try that experience on for ourselves.

The Conclusion

Life can't be all play all the time. Even for children, there are unwritten, agreed-upon rules about when, where and how to play. Brown concludes with a hypothesis that in creative work we go through two modes: a generative mode (play, idea marinating, inspiration seeking) and a DO mode (coming back together to look for and create the solution.) He calls these modes divergence and convergence.

For the BEST creatives, it's not an either/or thing.

It's an AND.


Your Turn: Do you take time for play?  How does playfulness affect your ability to do what you do? What have you learned from playfulness (or lack thereof)?

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Where do good ideas come from? For the last several years, Steven Johnson has been investigating that very question. Specifically, what are the spaces that have historically lead to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?

And what did Steven find?  People, of course.

Say farewell to the eureka theory, because it seems great ideas rarely arrive in a flash of great insight. Great ideas prefer to simmer, incubate and marinate.

Great ideas operate on their own time frame. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, other times a few months or, in some cases, a few decades.

And perhaps most interestingly of all, great ideas play well with others. In fact, more often than not, great ideas result from the collision of smaller hunches.

As it turns out, there’s a very real chance that the missing piece of your great idea is hanging out in someone else’s head - right at this very moment - just waiting to meet you. And that meeting is a catalyst with the power to propel your idea from “hunch” to “breakthrough.”

Before we dig any further into Steven’s research, let’s take a trip back to elementary school. One of the first rules we learned was “NO TALKING.” Violate the rule, get your name on the board. Press your luck, get a check mark after it. Three times? Well, we won’t even go there, you rebel.

Now I’m going to ask you to throw away that little schoolhouse nugget forever. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Toss it out. Feel better? You should, because you are now one step closer to greatness.

You see, our teachers had it all wrong. On the quest to foster great ideas, innovation and creativity, the #1 rule should have been: MORE TALKING!

And Steven Johnson’s research agrees.

“The great driver of scientific innovation and technological innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people - and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches, turning them into something new. That, more than anything else, has been the primary engine of creativity and innovation over the last 600 or 700 years.”

And herein lies the lesson for each of us. As marketers. As CEOs. As teachers. As parents. As leaders. As human beings. Great ideas and innovation happen when hunches (and passions ...and people) collide.

Talk to your customers and fans and staff and colleagues and neighbors. Listen to what they have to say. Build unlikely partnerships and teams. Rally together. Shake things up. Encourage and enable interaction and contribution. Invite everyone to the brainstorm and to the party. You never know when or where two hunches will meet and spark the next great thing.

So there you have it. Great ideas are born when we’re busy working, playing and sharing with other people.

Which now leaves us with only one question: What are you doing still sitting at your desk?

Step out of your office. Exit the cubicle. Take a stroll down to Starbucks with your coworkers. Add your voice to a conversation. Share your hunch with someone around you. Dare to chitchat.

You may just find greatness.

Originally posted on the Brains on Fire Blog