By Kaitlyn Hatch
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.