'Start a Work Revolution' Interview

By Kaitlyn Hatch

To read the full post featured on Faunawolf Creations, click here.

Recently I got to attend the 6th annual Designer’s Fiesta (yeah, they put the apostrophe in the wrong spot) in London, where I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk by Emma Sexton. I honestly had no idea what the talk was about when I chose it - just that the title appealed to me: Redesigning How We Work.

It was an invigorating and dare I say, liberating talk. By the end of it I felt like throwing my fist in the air and starting a revolution in the workplace to challenge how we approach work and how employers view their employees.

As it is, I don’t have a bayonet to carry nor a red flag to fly – but I DO have a blog, so I asked Emma if I could help her spread her revolutionary ideas with an interview blog post and she said yes!

K: First of all, a bit of background. Could you tell us about your impressions when you initially joined the work force?

Emma: Well, you just join the workforce, don’t you? That’s just the way it always is and you just accept it. As human beings we’re very good at doing what’s always been done and not questioning it - because everyone else is doing it.

There’s a lot of psychology around that, so yeah, I entered the workforce and I was like, ‘Okay, this is just how it is.”

But when I moved down to London for my first job I didn’t start to question it so much as it just scarred me a bit. I was about 23 and I joined the design department of an events company. In one week I worked 99 hours in five days, with an hour a half commute each day!

When you do the maths on that, there’s actually only 120 hours in five days. It meant I actually had to sleep at my desk occasionally!

It all came to a head over a brochure we produced for a client. The client said it was all wrong so we had to have an emergency briefing on a Friday night, and I was meant to be going on holiday on Saturday. The Managing Director told me I wasn’t allowed to go on holiday.

At this point I was so tired. I was ill, I’d not been eating properly - I needed that holiday. So I told him I was going, regardless. His rebuttal was that my holiday costs nothing and this was a three million pound account.

Effectively he said, “F*** your holiday.”

So I said, “F*** your job. I’m going on holiday.”

This didn’t make me solve anything but it scarred me in a way that I wanted to do something different. The stress of that time was so bad. I was young, so it didn’t bother me so much but I couldn’t do it now - I was eating terribly, never sleeping, working all hours.

I remember sitting on a train watching someone mopping the platform and really wanting to be that person and have that job knowing how horrendous my day ahead was going to be.

That was a dark place. But I just accepted that that was work - you did what you were told and if you had to work 99 hours, you had to work 99 hours. But going through that kind of employment was what enabled me to start questioning it.

K: So, at what point did you establish your agency, Make Your Words Work?

Emma: There was always an excuse not to set up my own business, even though I knew I wanted to do it. The income was the most scary thing. But I’d had a play at running my own business at another company - almost like an entrepreneurial role but I knew I was going to get a salary. It was a good way to test the water.

Then I felt like I needed more experience. More experience, more experience, more experience. The voice inside my head was always saying, ‘I’m not ready yet’.

I was at this career point where, if I were to stay, my next career move would be to get onto board level, but then the strategy of the business changed drastically and it really didn’t excite me. I looked at what my new role within the changes would be and I felt demotivated so I knew then I finally needed to quit and set-up my own business.

That was the turning point. Effectively I was done working really hard for someone else to achieve their dream. I wanted to work hard for myself and achieve my dream.

So I set up my own business to do the role I was enjoying but doing it how I wanted to do it.

K: In the talk you gave at the Designer’s Fiesta you describe work as ‘school for adults’. I found this very relatable around things like requesting time off – whether for a holiday or even just to leave early for a dental appointment. Almost like going to the teacher or a parent for permission. Or ‘office politics’, which is really just gossip, in-fighting and cliques in a professional setting.

How have you set up your own agency to combat these kind of ‘expected’ workplace dynamics? 

Emma: When I look at a lot of the office politics I was involved in over the years, and even the stories I hear now from my friends, most of them come down to people’s ego and emotional intelligence. It’s personal issues with individuals.

Businesses seem to forget they’re working with people. There’s a lot of navigating personality types and egos and dealing with the mind-set of what it means to ‘be the boss’.

I see a lot of the ‘politics’ as just bad behaviour, to be honest. Even with clients, it’s about navigating their ego and what you’re pandering to.

I’m a trained coach, I’ve done a lot of personal reading as I’m passionate about psychology and understanding human behaviour. With my agency, we don’t have politics. There’s a culture of treating each other fairly and with respect. Things don’t blow up into big deals because we have an honest conversation when something comes up, right away.

As human beings we crave honesty and openness - but then it’s also one of the hardest things for us all to do. I make it my policy to be open and honest – and kind - with everyone who works with me.

If I’ve got an issue with somebody I step back from the emotion of it all and look at the situation. I’m very mindful about how I react to people and I cultivate self-awareness. I say to myself, “Hang on, actually, am I being a bit of a dickhead about this?” I look at what’s me getting wound up because I’m justifying being wound up versus being annoyed with myself because I didn’t brief someone properly, or something similar.

K: What advice would you give to employees who want to highlight to their employers that a job is an exchange between employee and employer, and not about ‘ownership’ of employee time? 

Emma: It basically nearly always comes down to a lack of trust. The culture of a traditional workplace is that you have to force people to do work for you. You keep them in the office so you can ‘watch’ and make sure they’re not skiving off.

The world of work is changing. The shifts we’re starting to see and will continue to see over the next few years will be phenomenal - because you just can’t ‘own’ people like that. The next generation are not going to tolerate it.

As an employer you can’t communicate that you don’t trust your employees. It’s the wrong mind-set to believe that not trusting people, restricting them and giving them these rules, will somehow make them work how you want them to. The funny thing is that when you trust your employees – and you give them autonomy - they actually work harder for you. You get much more out of them. They make your business better.

When you treat people with respect they start to enjoy their work. It seems like a weird dynamic because the thing that you feel most uncomfortable doing as a business is actually the best thing.

I find it fascinating that we now know so much more about psychology and human behaviour and yet we’re still running businesses like we did 200 years ago.

K: What recommendations would you make to employers to ensure they are respecting the autonomy of their employees? 

Emma: Employers need to get over their ego and treat people as grown-ups and their equals. It’s a partnership, rather than a purchase. You’re not buying an employee for a salary, it’s a value exchange.

K: And how would you encourage employees to establish their autonomy? 

Emma: There are more and more companies adopting this way of working - who get psychology, who understand what motivates people. Seek out those companies! Because if you’re the only one asking for it in your organisation, you’re basically fighting a losing battle.

If you can find other people in your company who do want to do the same, you can definitely pursue that and you should. This was actually one of the biggest reasons I set up ‘A Herd to Run With’.

I wanted to see what other people were doing and how I could expand my knowledge about it. See what sort of inspiration I could find or provide to other people. And what I found it there’s a lot out there. Lot’s of companies are working differently. Which is nice to see because so often businesses are scared to try things because they want to see how someone else has done it first.

So you can try and start a revolution at your current job, definitely, which is what 'A Herd to Run With' is all about. But it’s a question of picking your battles. If you’re in a really archaic company, you’re the only one fighting for it, don’t waste your time. Spend your time finding a job at a company that’s doing it or thinking about doing it or would like to do it and doesn’t know where to start. Otherwise you could be really frustrated. So it’s about knowing when not to bother.

K: Could you give a bit more background about ‘A Herd to Run With’?

Emma: It was set up earlier this year as a way to harness ‘thinking power’.

I was looking at me as a person: how I like to work, the technology that’s out there, what I know about psychology and what I’m seeing in terms of other companies doing things.

As soon as I took on an employee I had to ask how I’d actually feel about giving someone unlimited holidays or how I feel about this person not being in the same room as me, because that would mean getting an office and I don’t want to get an office.

People told me how I was working was amazing, but that I wouldn’t be able to continue working like this once the agency got bigger. If you tell me I can’t do something there’s this rebellious Emma who says, “Don’t tell me I can’t do that! Because I think I can!”

So 'A Herd to Run With' was born out of me going: Well, actually, I’m pretty certain that you can but I have no idea how. I wanted a way to find other people who are doing things in bigger organisations or different organisations so we could find new role models.

I partnered with another woman, Vicky, who’s an expert in Organisational Change. It’s a bit of a passion for us. We do four events a year - every one with a different topic. We’ve looked at Holacracy, which is a new organisation structure that’s not hierarchical.

Our next event, which is at the end of this month, will be looking at culture. We’re specifically asking if you need to have an office to have culture. We’ve also done general meet-ups and we’re finding there’s a real appetite for it.

It’s basically a chance for conversation, to see what we need to create in terms of tools and other ways of working. We’re finding role-models who are doing things differently and giving them a platform to share their learnings. It’s like getting the guinea pigs together to talk about what they’ve tried - what worked and what didn’t or how it could have worked if it was done a bit differently.

Organisations who are a bit nervous about trying new things can see what’s been successful and find someone to talk to about rolling it out in their business. It’s like that book ‘The Tipping Point’ - people are trying things and being mavericks. Then there are the early adopters, then everyone else starts following along. So I’m trying to find the early adopters to influence everyone else!

I’m basically trying to start this work revolution!

K: You said a lot of good things in your talk but the bit I loved best was when you said (and I tweeted this, I loved it so much): “Productivity should be measured in outputs, not hours.” 

Can you unpack this and speak to how you measure outputs at Make Your Words Work? 

Emma: It’s hard because traditionally businesses have always measured on hours, and in design it’s a bit of a struggle. It doesn’t actually make any sense to charge by hours. Some jobs might take me an hour but a junior designer might take all day. So do I charge an hour for my time or do I charge a day rate?

I look at productivity instead. I am the most busy, and motivated person. I own my own business! I’m passionate about it. I would literally work all hours of the day - but even I have days where I sit at my computer and I’m just not feeling it. I’m really tired or I’m just not productive.

I’m more interested in people getting the work done. I don’t really care if it takes you all day or an hour. I’d rather pay a flat project fee on what the project is worth, not the time it takes. So that’s how we work as an company at Make Your Words Work.

Leyya, who works with me, is on a salary but I don’t clock her hours. She is autonomous - if she wants to take a three hour lunch she can do that. As long as the work is delivered and the clients are being serviced, I couldn’t actually give a sh*t. Because I want to work like that. I want to take the afternoon off because I’m in the mood to and I’ve finished up everything else.

I work with all my freelancers like this too. I’ll cost the project based on what I think is a reasonable project fee and ask for it to be delivered to that fee and that’s it. I don’t care where they are or what time of day they choose to work on it - as long as it’s in by the deadline. If it takes them half an hour then it takes them a half an hour and they still get the full project fee.

It’s about acknowledging that human beings have times when they’re really productive and times when they’re not. Let people set their own hours and they nail it, every time.

As the business is growing I might need to adjust a bit. I still don’t think hours is the way to measure but I’m am still trying to figure it out.

It’s a different time for work and business now. Someone with fifteen years experience doesn’t necessarily know as much as someone with two or three years experience. People don’t seem to get that we are in this weird place where the world hasn’t changed loads through the seventies and eighties but from the mid-nineties to now it’s almost been tipped on it’s head! So we need to learn to share, and be open to learning all the time. It’s a very interesting time and I am intrigued to see what happens.

K: Thank you so much! Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

Emma: Yes! I heard the other day that it takes 35 years to really create change, in terms of how many generations you have to go through for there to be a massive culture shift. But I’d like to see that fast-tracked. And the only way that’s going to happen is if more people start pushing to work differently.

Let’s make this revolution happen a bit faster! Because the other reason I’m looking at redesigning how we do business is to solve the role gender plays. The way we’re doing business now doesn’t work for women - or men. We need to totally reinvent business culture and operations so women are not continually stuck out and men are not stuck in.

K: Oh! That makes me think of one last question. Sexism in the workplace seems to be getting more subtle and difficult to point out. How do you go about pointing out those discrepancies, and how damaging they really are in the workplace, in a way that can be heard and understood? 

Emma: It’s really hard, isn’t it? I do think there’s a lot more awareness, but there need to be more things like Ada’s List andSheSays for example. Ada's List started as a Google group specifically for women in tech. It started in London and has around 13,000 women on it. I find these groups are really good because there’s a lot of discussion and awareness.

There’s still so much to do.

K: There is. But I think you’re definitely doing your bit. Thank you so much for granting me this interview! It’s been super insightful and I’ll do my darndest to get it to go viral. 

Why you can’t afford not to love your work

What if it were the law that you could only do what you love for a living? Wouldn’t it transform the workplace, and make for a world in which people were infinitely more pleasant?

How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? Do you mourn the night’s end and pray for it to be Sunday again, or do you spring out of bed, full enthusiasm for the day ahead?

The answer’s probably a combination of the two, depending on what day of the week it is, how many times the kids woke you up, or whether you polished off the Prosecco last night or stuck to those ‘dry January’ good intentions.

But I’m going to wager that if you love the work you do, it’s probably pretty rare that wake up in a bad frame of mind. I’m basing this on nothing more than conjecture and my own privileged experience of getting to do what I love for a living.

But a 2010 study suggests I’m not that far off the mark. The New York Times reports:

“In a 2010 study, James K. Harter and colleagues found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers.”

In other words, whether or not you like your job matters. A lot. And it should matter to your employer too, because your happiness at work affects your productivity, which in turn affects their profit margin.

That’s certainly true for me. I love my job as a freelance writer more than I ever knew it was possible to love something you ultimately do because it pays the bills. I’d want to do my job even if my bills were taken care of. My work makes me feel purposeful, inspired, and connected to the world beyond my role as a mother of three. It’s rarely glamorous and not always fun, and the hours are long, but I’ve never got up on a day when I was due in the office and wished I didn’t have to show up at my desk. Heck, I’ve shown up there even when I didn’t need to, just because it’s a place where I feel creative, happy and fulfilled.

To quote a Guardian article, being happy at work makes us better people:

“Nic Marks, director of Happiness Works, writes that if we were happier at work we would inevitably be happier in our whole lives: we'd be better partners, better parents, and better people. He believes the important things for our happiness are rarely even physical things, but instead the quality of our relationships and feeling of purpose we get from our home and working lives.”

As a case in point, I’m writing this at 22.43 on a Saturday night. I’ve forgone the bottle of wine that has been chilling in the fridge all day, in favour of being clear-headed enough to write this. And it doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. (That’s surely the litmus test for happiness in any job; if you’d ditch a cold glass of something that gives you the warm fuzzies in order to work, without feeling in any way short-changed, then you must be in the right job. If, by contrast, you feel short-changed? Well, you probably are.)

So why don’t more employers go to greater lengths to make staff happy?

And more to the point, why do we tolerate spending our days in jobs that don’t light us up inside, or make us feel glad to be at work?

What if it were the law that you could only do what you love for a living? Wouldn’t it transform the workplace, and make for a world in which people were infinitely more pleasant?

I’m not suggesting I’ve got the recipe for Utopia - which is over-rated anyway… surely perpetual happiness makes it impossible to appreciate degrees of happiness? But I don’t think we should settle for jobs that don’t make us happy.

I’m not sure why, when so many of my friends have high expectations of their personal relationships, they seem so prepared to settle for something deeply disengaging or disappointing when it comes to work. Why accommodate that? Why not expect to be happy at work? Because after all, it’s not self-centred to prioritise your own happiness at work. Indeed, it seems it might be one of the most altruistic things you could do.

So, when you open your eyes tomorrow morning, do me a favour. Take the temperature of your soul, and gauge whether your working day makes you glad to be alive, or elicits a less favourable reaction in your guts.

If it’s the latter, make yourself one promise. That you’ll seek out some way this year to do what you love and call it work. That means different things to different people; of course. Maybe you’ll retrain, or volunteer, or push into a creative pursuit outside of your 9-5. You might resign, apply for the job you know would make you happy but which seems beyond your grasp, or finally take that sabbatical.

Whatever you do, remember that being happy at work really matters, and has the power to change the place you work.

Now, I’m ready to drink to that...


Permanent employment: the elephant in the room

The gap in valuing freelancers and contractors needs to close if businesses are to truly embrace agility, says Vicky Grinnell-Wright.

Even amongst the most innovative organisations, including those leading from the front on radical reinvention of office space and agile working for all, there is an elephant in the room. That elephant is traditional ‘permanent employment’ and the prevailing predisposition towards ‘employment’ and ‘employees’ over contractors or freelancers.

A friend of mine, having contracted at an organisation for a year, has been asked to take a ‘permanent post’ in 2015. The expectation was that the friend would see this offer as a sign of their employer’s endorsement for their work and a cause for personal celebration at this success i.e. moving up in status from contractor to employee. However, my friend is not sure that this is cause for celebration after all. The idea of a permanent contract is in itself interesting in an organisation that has a history of fairly regular restructure and where ‘permanence’ is at best, only semi-permanent. So, if a permanent job is not a permanent job, what is it and what is the appeal to the employer and to the employee?

Permanent contract myths
There are a number of myths around permanent contracts. The first is that they offer greater security of role and income. Certainly it is true to say that the UK mortgage lending market has a frustratingly deep-seated preference for employment, however temporary or shaky. But why? In our recent Hospital Club session on the future of work, a quick show of hands revealed that around 70% of people there had experienced one severance or redundancy and around 35% had experienced this more than once.

One could argue that the employee who has worked in the same organisation for 15+ years, is in fact less secure in onward income generation than a contractor who has managed to secure ongoing revenue from personal business development over a sustained period of time.

The second myth is that employment offers the employer greater stability and/or is a better commercial decision for the business, relative to higher day rates paid to more flexible resources. Speaking to another friend, the recent recipient of a sizeable severance cheque, he revealed that the annual corporate severance pay budget is £3.5m. This feels like a considerable budget item for any organization.

So why is it so large? Excluding the few cases where talent is being exited on performance grounds, or paid off when a colleague or manager makes an ill-advised maneuver leading to constructive dismissal or discrimination claims, this is a big budget frequently used to reluctantly ‘get rid’ of proven high calibre talent. Our research suggests that this is largely down to hiring the required talent for a specific client need or project and then finding the business needs change, or the limited opportunities to offer highly skilled people expected, offered or indeed promised career progression.

Use of freelancers
However, the alternative is contracting or freelancing and both of these words are loaded with prejudices. To some organisations these people are a warmly-welcomed, talented, committed and agile resource with specific skills and specific deliverables, that do not require ongoing investment beyond a project need. However, to many more these are the ‘overpaid’ grudge purchase made when backs are very much against a wall, or full time employee recruitment drives have failed to deliver the goods.

Clients often lament that contractors are ‘not part of the team’ or that they ‘lack commitment to the business’ and that they therefore ‘need’ to hire a permanent resource to secure the loyalty of the asset. And yet, in the vast majority of organisations, next to nothing is done to foster the loyalty of the contractors, they are frequently left out of key meetings, key communications, they are not provided with desk space or appropriate IT interfaces to work in the agile way that a lack of desk would necessitate. They are somehow considered outsiders often ‘on the make’.

I have contracted for many years and I have also been an employee for two of the last ten. Nothing about my period of employment felt genuinely more secure. Nothing in the way I committed to my work was different from the way I do now with my contract clients. I led and managed a team, often in an agile fashion and I worked with multiple stakeholders in multiple territories, as I do now. I was paid (when we account for lack of employers NI and tax advantages of a limited company) a similar rate, and I received no distinct advantages or disadvantages of security when an ‘employee’. My client references would testify that I offer no less commitment to the businesses with whom I enjoy a ‘contract’ rather than ‘employment’ relationship.

The gap in valuing and including contractors as part of a core talent pool is an unhelpful one of perception. It’s time to revisit the status quo and the social norms of how we bring our talents to organisations and how we create legal and social contracts that foster mutual interest. If employed teams are becoming more ‘agile’, less office-based and more frequently measured on results than on presence in a fixed location, then the distinction between contractors and employees will blur and the ‘them and us’ will be eroded. Leaders and managers will need to learn new skills in how to work with dispersed teams and either everyone will be ‘on the outside’ or the new way of working will narrow the distinctions between they types of contract under which an individual engages with an organisation.

What does 2015 hold?
A results-based workplace will necessarily give way to agility; physical, cultural, technological and contractual agility. No one size fits all when it comes to honouring all lifestyles and all life stages through an organisation committed to true diversity in the workplace. People will be hired not on the somewhat arbitrary parameters of postcode, availability to be in a fixed location 9-5, five days a week, forever, but on their skills to do the job in hand for the current period of need. No more, no less. Loyalty then would be fostered by using some imagination: by recruiting talent with shared values and a demonstrable ability to commit to the hard and softer measures the business required and by blurring the division between employee (supplied with benefits) and contractor (responsible for self).

Small changes, for example using a co-working proposition such as that offered by Neardesk, could build big bridges, with all people, irrespective of contracting status, given access to a number of buildings in which they can work, meet, and socialize, with coffee provided on a swipe card on the house. Technology for employees is moving to personal devices anyway and the tax man is going to have to get with the programme as he or she revisits the IR35 tax laws to better enable agile working which meets the needs of organisations for flexible and dispersed teams. Lawyers will need to get on board and move contracts from mitigation to enablement.

The rise of the ‘Talentor’
This new breed of workers will need new-style recruiters and hiring managers. This breed for hire we are naming the ‘Talentors’. They contract their talent into organisations not as ‘outsiders’, but as part of and builders of the agile community that flexes with business needs. They have and bring a sense of commitment and belonging and their contracts are not a simple exchange of time for cash amounts. Now all we need is some Talentor recruiters, Talentor hiring managers and some smart organisations who can lead from the front.

I had to start my own business, work was just 'school for grown-ups'

Emma Sexton's drive to rebel against office protocols led to a new kind of working, based on results not timetables.

Click here to read the original Guardian article.

I have wanted to have my own business for as long as I could remember. Someone recently asked me why this was, and it was the first time I had really considered an answer to that question. I always thought I had wanted to have my own business for the challenge and the freedom. I think I actually wanted to be my own boss because I have a blatant disregard for all of the work rules and protocols. Not the important ones ("don't steal stationery"; "make your colleagues tea"; or "don't call in sick and then tell everyone about your hangover on Facebook") but the ones that seem to make total sense to some people but are nonsense to me, such as "not being the first to leave work at 6pm in case I look like I am not doing my job properly". Ridiculous. I always told my team that if they had to work late then they clearly need some help and gathered everyone together to ensure all of us got out on time.

Work is essentially "school for grown-ups." It involves a number of other unnecessary rules, such as getting exactly 23.5 days holiday per year. What? How dare you tell me how much time off from work I can have. Do you own me? Anyone who has employed me knows full well that I made them far more money than they were paying me. I also know that I put in more hours than my contract ever told me to, yet my repayment for hard work and loyalty is that?

The other prerequisite when you're part of "school for grown ups" is the "be at your desk from Monday to Friday, 9am until 6pm" rule. Every day it's the same commute. The same environment. The same lunch options. This monotony almost drove me crazy.

I am now in the second year of having my own business and working harder than ever. Yet the freedom to make up my own rules is incredible. With a sister, niece and nephew in Australia, being able to run my business from anywhere in the world means I can spend precious time with them whenever I choose. My work hours are based on what is required to get the job done, so some days that's 18 hours, others it's none. I am ignoring the pressures of traditional business owners telling me to get an office. This keeps my business lean, meaning that my profit margins are healthy and I can work from anywhere I choose. My work colleagues are now fellow entrepreneurs and freelancers who join me to hotdesk and hang out. I can get the rest I need, whilst always making time for exercise, and now I know the times of the day that I am most productive.

My cooperative of freelancers is also able to work the same way. I pay them per project, not per hour, and they just have to meet the deadlines. This means they can work at anytime and in any location. If they get the job done quicker than I expected, then well done to them: they still keep the project fee. It is no surprise that many of my cooperative are stay-at-home mums who can't work a traditional nine to five, but can do evenings and weekends.

As my business grows I am determined to give my employees the freedom, trust and rewards that hardworking loyal human beings deserve. The first sign of any them following nonsense protocols and they will be given 23.5 days holiday as punishment … actually make that 22 and then they can "accrue" the extra 1.5 days.