Many companies are still trying to figure out how more flexible work configurations impact their organizational culture and their teams’ productivity. To get a sense of how creative firms are approaching this, we spoke with Paul Bennett, the Iceland-based co-chair and chief creative officer of IDEO, the global design firm. Here are excerpts of our conversation—which was held on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting this week—edited for clarity:
How do you think about in-person work these days?
It's got to be ‘carrot,’ not ‘stick.' You've got to make people want to come in versus telling them to come in. And you've got to make coming in as exciting as possible. So, for us, that's definitely project related, content related.
For your firm specifically or your clients?
Both. Come in and work on something awesome together because once you get in flow, you'll realize that you still A) like each other B) that you don't suck. Ultimately what's underpinning all of this is as we've separated ourself away from the workplace, our sense of confidence in self is dissipated. So that's what you've got to appeal to. You've got to appeal to people's sense of their own self-worth, their own confidence, their own sense of togetherness. It's not just coming and do a project, do a Zoom in some bleak room. It's people feel. Certainly creative people—and I think this is true for other organizations as well—feel very diminished in this moment. We did a process recently where I gathered all our partners together to envisage the future together and at the end of every session the relief on everyone's face was profound because we don't suck.
We thought we might suck because we haven't done this for so long. So the atrophy is real. That's one of the things that I'm saying to a lot of our clients: atrophy. The non-exertion of the collaborative muscle is atrophy. You've got to create a way for people to come together and for it to be positive, for there to be benefit in doing so. Also the workplace is not home. Just can that idea that I think we all tried for a while. It's not home. Home is now home. Work is different. But work can be this very generative thing for people and it can be a place where you can feel part of something and you can feel like you're doing something productive. You can definitely feel like you're with your peers. Loneliness is very real for people right now. This can mitigate loneliness.
We are definitely giving people reasons, giving people carrots to come together. We're building project cycles which have much more collaborative together time, much more alone time, much more together time. We're bringing clients in, we're hosting clients, we're doing a lot more events, bringing in a lot more speakers, a lot more stuff to surround the experience. But we're not bribing people. That's not the process. It's not bribing people to come back in.
'Carrots' is taking the form of meetings, speakers? It's not free bagels?
Yes, it's free bagels. But free bagels is the cost of entry. It's also take the gnarliest part of your project, the project where you're most likely to need each other and where if you think about it deeply, sitting alone at the desk in the corner of your bedroom is going to feel pretty bleak trying to solve X. So why don't we break the problem into those kinds of moments? Let's find those moments. A word we're using a lot at the moment is togetherness as a 'boost.' It's a booster. So let's use those moments to boost throughout the project. So we've been bringing together 'gnarliness' and 'boostiness' in equal quantities and then surrounding it with bagels rather than just bagels as the cost of entry.
It sounds like that overall supports a hybrid approach....
Hybrid is real, yes. Don't fight it and don't be a jerk about it. Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with childcare and how to deal with going to the gym and how to deal with elderly relatives and not getting Covid. All that stuff is real. That's not just millennial angst. You've got to actually genuinely listen to the stuff that's behind all of that. That's a real cry for a different way of working.
What are the consequences of the way that we're reorganizing work for organizational culture and productivity?
We haven't come out the other side yet to actually know. Yes, culture's all over the place. There are also cultural highs. We've been having ‘home weeks,’ where you bring everybody together for a week and we do crazy Olympic shit and everybody has a great time and then suddenly it keeps everybody going for quite some time.
What is 'crazy Olympic shit'?
We brought in a DJ and we had a DJ contest and we brought in a bunch of weird shit and everybody was doing contests to see who could draw the weirdest stuff. We gamified the week and we joined two locations together. We did it with both our Munich and London locations and it was a huge success. And everybody's like, 'This will keep me going for six months.' So I don't think we're quite on the other side of being able to say culture is dead. Culture is alive. Culture is gardening and you have to keep planting, you have to keep weeding, you have to keep tending, you have to keep harvesting. So that requires new role. We're very lucky. We have an entire staff-experience team who take that very seriously, to whom that is their calling.
Productivity is a different thing. We have not so far struggled with things being late. I tell you what we have struggled with. I did a review of a bunch of our work and it was good, but I was blown away by how long every presentation was. We were in the 250-slide category and I was like, 'What the fuck's going on?' I think it's endemic of our not being together. The shorthand has disappeared. Longhand has reappeared. We feel this tremendous desire to justify every blink, everything, every thought, every post-it. One of the things I'm missing is this intimacy equals shorthand.
Everything has become a symphony, which makes sense. Nothing is a short jazz moment. Everything's a five-album set. That's freaking me out because it telegraphed to me a lack of confidence.
Which seems like a thing you could address...
Well, I went berserk. I went berserk and I'm like, 'A) this isn't insightful B) no one's going to read this C) what are we doing? We're supposed to be helping our clients simplify their thinking, not show our own complexity.'
It maybe suggests more frequent check-ins to give confidence in the work...
Actually, to me it suggests: make confidence a strategy, make confidence a thing that you work really hard on doing, which is actually rewarding teams for being brave and bold. and what I keep referring to as 'page turner.' I need to want to turn the page and if I turn the page and I know what I'm going to see, that's not exciting. So thoroughness has become endemic.
One of the conversations here in Davos is about the end of the job and a shift to skills, with the idea that organizations should comprehensively catalog employees' skills, provide continuous upskilling, etc. What do you think of that?
We've always thought that. Designers are very, by our very nature, incredibly restless. Nobody wants to be doing the same thing every project, never mind every year. We are constantly in a state of upskilling. A) Technology is demanding. And B) our clients are demanding. Our business model says you can't do the same thing over and over again. You have to be constantly changing. The shift is we've always pushed that and now it's being pushed by our creatives who don't want to be left behind. Somebody said to me recently, and I love this line: 'IDEO has constantly reinvented design. Please remember to constantly reinvent designers.' I love that.
What does that mean?
Keep us in a high state of reinvention too as your employees, which I think is great. It is actually exciting for our staff to want to be constantly in this sort of growth mindset. It's part of the process, it's part of the culture now more than ever. I'm walking into rooms where I'm like, 'What the fuck is going on?' in a good way. This stuff's going in all kinds of different interesting directions because our teams are choosing to expand their skillset exponentially.
Stepping back, do you have thoughts on how organizations and work should be restructured amid all of the changes we're experiencing?
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, repeat after me: 'This is happening anyway.' And so A) embrace that B) understand that it doesn't mean that you're going to lose all control. It doesn't mean that your business is going to collapse tomorrow. If you actually choose to believe, as we are doing, that this is actually a healthy evolution rather than an unhealthy revolution, then this can be kind of an exciting time. If you get freaked out—the word I use is people get very 'clenched.' There's a lot of clenching going on. All of my hard-earned equity is going out the window. Actually, it's not true. In a lot of cases, this is a moment to learn. This is a moment to be very trusting. We do not find people trying to fuck the system over, but we find people trying to do their best in general. People are trying to do good. So my advice is take a deep breath and calm down. This is all going to eventually be great. Yeah, it's in that weird sort of nether land at the moment between these two spaces where the old and the new are somewhat at loggerheads. But they are going to eventually come into some kind of equilibrium.
How do you think generative AI will impact jobs and creative work especially?
I'm not sitting here thinking it's going to take my job. It's kind of awesome that I had some weird Game of Thrones portraits made up by AI. But what do I think of it? For now, it's fine. I want to start to see it apply to some really serious topics. To me, AI and all of these things are going to get really interesting when they're go into healthcare. For example, when they start to get used in the space of dementia, they start to get used with Alzheimer's, or they start to get used in the patient experience. Then I'm all in. But for right now, bring it on. The fact that everyone's having fun with it and it's sort of demystifying it, I'm cool with that. I don't see it as the thing that's going to replace me . Years ago, when we first started doing open innovation, I was on stage in Australia and somebody said, 'What do you think about real people doing your job?' And I'm like, 'What a dumb thing to ask. Real people doing my job. What do you think I am? I'm a real person.' (As opposed to designer.) It's all good. But I want to see technology applied for good. At the moment, it has to evolve past its playful beginnings into its meaningful moment very, very soon.
A lot of organizations want people back in the office, but they don't always know what to do with them when they're there. What are some of the specifics of how you structure those 'boosting' and 'gnarly' in-person moments?
One of the simplest things we did was everybody shares work that they've been doing. We share projects, we talk about topics to do with culture. We have open forums, we bring people in, and then we have a lot of fun. We did a live DJ contest and everybody was having the best time. But you can't just mandate it and scream at everybody that they have to do this all the time. This is the carrot moment. You have to make people excited. I want the byproduct of this to be everybody to go, 'Oh, I remember we used to do that, that was great. Let's do it some more.'
How do you structure the 'gnarly' moments together?
Gnarly doesn't have to be difficult. Gnarly can be breakthrough. So let's just say you're in a breakthrough part of a project. You've got all the insights, you've done a little bit of synthesis, and you now need to start to ideate. That's a moment when you really need to come at it from outer space. That to me is a great time to bring not just the team together, but a much extended group of people together to start to atom smash the project from all kinds of different angles. That's what we did in real life and that's what we would do in this life, which is you would grab somebody going by in the corridor and say, 'Come and join me for 15 minutes. What do you think of X, Y, Z?' Trying to remember that it's our job to be disruptive and rather than forcing that to actually make that a part of the process is to come together to do that. It helps that we have good spaces. It helps that we have people who've made the space exciting to be in. It helps that the space is conducive to creativity. We're not in some cube sitting there with a Zoom.
How are your spaces configured?
We have offices like everybody else, but they're design studios that feel like creative entities and so therefore they have all the things you'd imagine. They have all the comforts of a rec room and all of the seriousness of a boardroom.
That's a good description of what most offices probably should be....
The days of the gratuitous tech office with everything, that's all gone. Most of our offices have turntables and people play music and most of our offices have conference rooms and people can present to clients and they have good technology that works. But definitely in this moment in time, right now, office as destination is a thing for us. Office as Carrot, not office as stick.
Does it mean that you need more real-estate footprint or less?
We don't know yet. It will probably ultimately mean less. We are also experimenting with using our offices as hubs for alums, which is a nice thing to do anyway because we value our alumni to bring in projects and ground clients in them. We've been co-hosting a whole bunch of stuff to open them out to the community wherever possible. We've got a maker community that we always try to host wherever we are. So trying to make the offices—the word du jour is 'permeable' as possible. They just have to work harder than ever to be good.
There's a recent book called Ideaflow out of Stanford and the premise is that the volume of ideas is important. One thing that's interesting about generative AI is the possibility of generating a higher volume of ideas. You can go into ChatGPT and say, ' Give me 10 possible names for a new product that does this and has these sure attributes,' and you get a volume of possibilities...
It's a tool like anything else. I use Pinterest for the same reason. I don't sit there on Pinterest and go, 'Oh my God, the answer.' I go on Pinterest and I go, 'Oh, I'm kind of feeling string art. Let's start there.' To me it's just an input. I feel the same way about 'real people' in my processes as I do about AI in my process. It's a thing that gets inputted into my milk churn and gets turned around like everything else. It's not the answer. I have a friend who's deep in AI at the moment, who's typing in 'A Storm Trooper walks into a bar' and all kinds of shit is going out and he's having the best time. So there's a trivial side to it. But, more than anything else, it's basically a glorified, thesaurus, a really exciting way to be able to tweak your neurons and find new ways to be able to think about things. But it's not the only tool.
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