Trends of 2019: How We Work

The way that we work today was put under scrutiny in 2019, as new styles of working – from flexible and remote working to the four-day week – were discussed widely. We examine the key points here

While the conversation around new working styles took place across all sectors, these ideas felt particularly pertinent to the creative industries, where 9-5 office life isn’t always the most successful or popular way to create projects.

The creative industries also suffer from some particular dilemmas, including overwork, under pay (or no pay at all in some instances) and challenges for parents – especially mothers – to juggle the often all-consuming demands of creative projects with a family life.

As concepts such as co-working or remote working become increasingly mainstream, CR examined the pros and cons of these new models over a number of articles in 2019. Here are some of the discoveries we made.

IT’S A FLEXIBLE LIFE

Flexible working is becoming more common, and it is likely that you will know someone who has an unconventional set up – maybe they work from home one day a week, or they do unusual hours. But while as a concept it is widely understood now, it is still far from being the norm.

“As an industry we are still a long way from flexible working being seen as ‘normal’,” says Caitlin Ryan, Regional Creative Director, EMEA at Facebook. “It is still considered as a special arrangement or privilege rather than ‘business as usual’.”

Ryan believes that serious systematic change is required before it will become a regular thing. But while this will take work, she also believes it will solve some of the problems that much of the creative industries face, in particular diversity.

“There is a lot of talk about the desire for diverse talent, without enough talk about the thing that could deliver and keep that diverse talent: flexible working,” she continues. “Until we change the lens through which we look at flexible working, I don’t think we will see the progress we want and unlock the true potential of diverse talent.

“This is not a comms problem. I believe we need systematic change. We need our industries’ most talented system designers to strip down the engine, keep the parts that work, discard the parts that don’t and rebuild something that will work for our future. And we need to consider the whole supply chain, from how head-hunters source and are financially rewarded, to how creativity is measured, judged, valued and paid for, and how clients brief, manage and reward for creativity.”

Beyond bringing in a wider range of people to the industry, flexible working is also viewed by many as being key to creating better work. Again, this seems especially relevant to creative people, who are tasked with regularly coming up with new concepts and ideas – something that cannot always be done to order within a strict office timeframe.

“Very few people have a great idea at their desk,” says Laura Jordan Bambach, CCO at creative agency Mr President. “You need to be able to get out into the world and be inspired and you get better creative work from actually bringing different things together. So if you’re doing nothing but desk research, tied to your screen, you’re not going to get the best ideas. [Flexible working] makes good creative sense and for us it makes good business sense because people are fresh and empowered and full of different experiences and everyone in the company can bring their creativity to the fore.”

So there are the pros, but what are cons? For James Greenfield, founder of design studio Koto, flexible working – and especially remote working – can come at cost, particularly to the unity of teams.

“I think remote working works for the individual,” he says. “Working from home, flexibility, family care … all those things are important, but very difficult to counter-balance with the need to create an effective team. When you look at the history of breakthroughs, innovations and things that have shaped modern society, a lot of that work was done by teams. Whether you think they’re good or bad, these products were all made by teams, and in almost every occasion those people were in the same room or the same building.”

Greenfield also points out our reliance on the written word for communicating when people are operating in different locations, and how this can be open to misinterpretation. “Unless you fundamentally know someone inside out, you can’t tell their mood from the written word. People are very good at masking what they actually feel, and you can look at a disruptive communication medium like email and see that it’s impossible to have a really fundamental team. It relies on one person communicating and everyone else sitting and waiting silently for that response. It’s a staccato thing that everyone ends up resenting. Something like Slack is trying to create a much more conversational process, but it really indexes for those that prefer communicating that way.”

It is of course difficult to find a working style that suits everyone, and with flexible working there is certainly more reliance on trust – trust that team mates will pull their weight, and that people will communicate when they are struggling or need additional support.

For digital designer Daniel Howells, a positive attitude towards employees is essential. “If you start off with the assumption that your employees can’t be bothered, then it’s more of a systemic problem in the sense of how you inspire them and get the support you need? If they’re in the office, are they only doing the work because of presenteeism? Remote work will only work if it starts out from a position that it will.”

Illustration: Andrew Werndna

THE FOUR-DAY WEEK SOLUTION

Another widely discussed concept this year was the four-day week. With numerous examples showing that it is fact more productive for staff to spend less time at work, momentum began to gather around the idea.

Lorraine Gray, founder of Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow, explained to CR why the four-day week has proved successful for them. “We knew we’d have to do something a bit disruptive to be different,” she explained. “We’d always championed flexible working and family-friendly working, and what we’d found is that the people who were working reduced hours per day, or reduced days per week, were achieving the same – if not more – than people working a traditional full-time pattern. When we spoke to them, we found out people working less hours and days came in with a different sense of momentum and motivation. They knew they wanted to come in, do their job, and leave to enjoy that quality time without worrying about being behind on tasks or projects. They’d come in with a different level of focus to attack the week.”

There are potentially tricky issues to iron out with the four-day week – for example, what do you do if you clients work five days and demand that you are also available? And what about pay? Do you pay less for less hours, or acknowledge that you are getting the same level of productivity as a five-day week and pay accordingly?

As with flexible working, the answers to these questions will vary from company to company, and industry to industry. But the need to find unconventional solutions shouldn’t mean just giving in and reverting to the norm either. Instead creative leaders have to, well, lead.

“Unless it’s led from the top, and leadership are making this change in order to give them permission to do the same, I think there could be a lot of fear of it hindering people’s career,” says Clare Jones, former Managing Director at We Are Pi/Pi Studios. “There needs to be a huge paradigm shift in order for people to feel that, as humans, the age of industrialisation is over for us. We’re in a service industry and that’s geared around customers. If they’re satisfied with the way we serve them in four days, then we should be satisfied with that. It’s a fallacy that you need to be on 24/7 because that demand is never coming from customers or clients. It’s coming from a culture that’s warped over time.”

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WIDER WORK TRENDS IN 2019

Not all discussion around work centred on flexibility this year, though. There was ongoing anxiety about what AI would do to the creative industries, a sector that’s previously been deemed as immune to its impact. Plus, in a fragile and quickly changing jobs market, there was increased conversation about whether freelancing was the best solution for a creative person.

Pastoral care for creative people also came under the spotlight too, examining everything from whether people should work for free, to how to deal with bullies in the workplace. From an industry that has long indulged mavericks, so long as they are talented enough, there is increasing recognition that companies need to offer safe and supportive environments to nurture the wide variety of talents and perspectives that the creative industries urgently need.

Most important is the need to create an environment where people will be happy to suggest risky, ground-breaking ideas. Richard Brim, CCO at adam&eveDDB, suggests that the ad industry in particular can be condemning of new ideas, with disastrous results. “The industry can get quite bitchy – we’re all incredibly critical, and incredibly opinionated, and incredibly damning sometimes of work,” he says. “But I would much rather see people trying things that are new and different than following a safe formula, because there is far too much safe stuff out there. That’s not me saying everything that comes out has to be liked, and it’s not me saying we need to give an A for effort, because that’s also not right. But as an industry, we have to stop eating ourselves – we have to help and support each other.”

Illustration: Peepshow

CAN YOU GROW OLD AS A CREATIVE?

While many of the creative industries’ worst traits appear to be being slowly tackled today, one that remains problematic for many is ageism. An illuminating article for CR about the design industry pointed out the ways that experience is being increasingly undervalued as previously senior roles are taken on by younger and younger designers.

“When I hear of creative directors who are 27-years-old I think, what life experience are you bringing to the table?,” says Elizabeth Carey Smith, a Design and Creative Director in New York, who started a debate about design careers on Twitter and was later interviewed for CR by Lisa Hassell.

“It’s hard to imagine, when comparing them with someone who has had many different jobs and has learned from different client experiences and from the creative directors they’ve worked for. The ability to sell [an] idea authentically and responsibly is vital…. There is a lot of business practice to it; these creative directors are selling their ideas into clients and that is a skill set that has to be learned. It’s something you learn from observation. It’s not a skill set you learn in school like typography or illustration — it’s something you watch someone do and then you have to cultivate that within yourself.”

Smith expresses concern around the message that’s being sent to younger people too about how they might progress longer term. “The larger issue is when younger people look at people ten years older than they are as obsolete,” she says. “And that’s so messed up, because we have to work till we’re 70! They are diminishing the value of experience.”

For ad creative and activist Cindy Gallop, who also joined the Twitter conversation, the key is for generations not to be resentful of each other, and instead pool experience and come together. “Experienced designers can pull together really large things, because they’ve done it before or they’ve done something similar and they’ve got a huge network from which to go from, because they have years and years of experience in the field. Often you’re hiring a creative director because they are bringing all of that with them, an organisation on its own doesn’t have a roster of amazing illustrators, doesn’t know where to even begin; or photographers, or producers for shoots — all these things that a creative director pulls together. I would love to see something theoretically taking responsibility for people in a better way, in a clearer way. We have to stop fighting with each other about that to get on the same page.”

While it can occasionally feel bleak for older creatives in an industry that favours youth over experience, there remain examples of people who’ve built a long life in design. Take, for example, Milton Glaser’s attitude to retirement, after turning 90 this year. “I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful career and I’m still in the middle of it. I’m still trying to find out exactly what it is I don’t know,” he told CR in a recent interview.

“Our view of retirement is ridiculous. I mean, people in retirement at 65? What a pathetic idea when they are at the fullness of their understanding in how they could be helpful. What there should be is a transition from an active work life to a communal work life, so that everybody who retires can pursue how to bring benefits to the existing community and to everyone they encounter…. If I ever retire, I hope I will die the following day.”

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