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Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers, on why the organisations latest research underlines the need to take a fresh approach to talent
‘Permacrisis’ was the word of the year for 2021 as from the Covid crisis to the cost of living crisis uncertainty was omnipresent. Yet industry response arguably focused too much on where people were sitting, rather than how productive and happy those people actually were. A fact that perhaps makes the ongoing ‘great resignation’ no great surprise.
It is an ecosystem which makes new research from Leapers, the community which supports the mental health of freelancers, a must read. Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an independent strategy and innovation partner, is one of the industry’s leading voices on taking mental health seriously every day of the week, unpicked the key trends unveiled in the research. Data which underlines that leaders need to take a fresh approach to tackling the creative industry’s mounting crisis of confidence.
Do leaders need to take a new approach to managing change? “Absolutely,” says Knight. He explains: “The only constant is change” is not a new phrase, and there’s no shortage of articles on the importance of being able to embrace uncertainty and change as a core skill in modern life.”
He continues: “The last few years have been extreme in the challenges they’ve thrown at us - but developing resilience to uncertainty is perhaps a defining trait of many of the self-employed and those working in the creative industries, which seemingly has been in a talent crisis for the last ten years too.”
While agency CFOs might point to the unstable economic environment as a proof point that the talent crisis is poised to end, the reality is there is no end in sight. When you layer on Brexit and the fundamental shift in what constitutes success to younger employees (spoiler alert a fancy job title is no longer enough) then it's clear that the biggest creative challenge of 2023 remains boosting staff morale.
It’s a defining theme of Leapers’ research which provides clear and actionable insights for agency leaders focused on the biggest creative challenge of 2023: boosting staff morale. For while the research focuses on freelancers, a lifeblood of the creative communities, the insights and drivers of the industry’s most important resource; its people are a compelling reminder of the need to move beyond a one off ‘Wellness Wednesday’. Consider, for example, the comprehensive ‘life changes’ programme from AMV BBDO as the ultimate creative challenge.
It is almost impossible to tackle the creative industry’s mental health crisis without recognising the impact of cold hard economics.
The research underlines the fact that the industry cannot meet these creative challenges alone. Knight explains: “Our research suggests that those who are actively part of support networks and communities are those who deal with change most effectively - there’s safety in numbers, and whilst being part of a community might not resolve things like inflation rates or a cost of living crisis, it really helps to have connections with others who understand the experience.”
This is particularly vital as despite the long standing rhetoric surrounding ‘bringing your whole self to work’ so many of these experiences remain wordless. From the CMO who has taken to delivering creative feedback via the medium of copious voice notes, to the creative midweight who was told to ‘be more’ like her male creative director, when you scratch the surface of the industry, it's difficult not to conclude that a creative crisis of confidence is afoot.
I think our perspective on ideas like ‘Imposter Syndrome’ have developed significantly over recent years - whilst it was never a well defined or researched concept, it probably speaks more to gaslighting and work cultures which are less than psychologically safe, than to some sort of ‘condition’ which we need to help people to work through.Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an Independent Strategy and Innovation partner
It is a challenge reflected in the research which shows that 80% of respondents said feelings of a lack of confidence have caused them stress or anxiety during the year. A data point which underlines ideas such as ‘imposter syndrome’ pathologist that is a normal part of human nature. Yet, should we be doing more to build back better?
“I think our perspective on ideas like ‘Imposter Syndrome’ have developed significantly over recent years - whilst it was never a well defined or researched concept, it probably speaks more to gaslighting and work cultures which are less than psychologically safe, than to some sort of ‘condition’ which we need to help people to work through,” explains Knight.
The challenge of ‘resilience culture’ combined with an industry in which managers aren’t always taught to manage, means that the scars of careless feedback can hold talent back or push them out. This is particularly acute for freelancers, who after reading Knight’s advice, may reflect on the power of creating your own proof points, rather than holding onto toxic feedback.
Knight explains: “Feeling nervous or anxious in new situations, being humble, or even denying our own successes is something that perhaps comes to all of us at times. In a self-employment context - you often only have yourself as the curator of your successes - and if you’re not capturing all of the small steps forwards, it’s easy to forget the examples and evidence that you can do something.”
He continues: “It’s important to capture the little wins, the small steps forward, the successes we have along the way, and remind ourselves with evidence of our own progress.”
The importance of learning and development was another key area of focus identified by the research and Knight believes that individuals need to work on developing their own development roadmap. The research shows that 74% of freelancers struggle with a lack of direction or progress. Knight explains: “It’s easy to plateau in a career if you’re not continually investing in professional development.”
He continues: “Clients will inevitably only hire freelancers who have demonstrable examples of where they’ve delivered a capability previously - so doing something for the ‘first time’ can be difficult, so I’d love to see more organisations taking a punt on freelancers with less experience, helping them develop skills and investing in the future of the flexible workforce.” This need to hire on potential not previous experience is particularly vital in the wake of the talent crisis.
It’s important to capture the little wins, the small steps forward, the successes we have along the way, and remind ourselves with evidence of our own progress.Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an Independent Strategy and Innovation Partner
The research also points to the importance of recognising the impact of the ‘permacrisis’ on how people feel. In essence, while leaders are understandably desperate to move beyond the pandemic, arguably by failing to recognise today’s challenges companies are at risk of collectively gaslighting their employees.
Knight explains: “It’s not only COVID which is affecting the mental health of people within the industry, constant headlines of layoffs, a cost of living crisis, global economic downturns and violent conflicts, and even the dramatic changes in how we’re working have all had an influence in how unsettled we’re feeling.”
Managing this unprecedented pressure raises significant challenges in a hybrid and remote working world. As Knight explains: “Creating safe environments is much harder if the only time you’re able to ask your people how they’re feeling is over a zoom call, or via a people survey. Whilst remote and distributed working has many benefits, it demands new ways of working with your people and supporting their emotional needs.”
He continues: “Organisations need to go far beyond ‘wellness surveys’ or offering an extra day off here and there. A holistic approach is required, to understand where the pressures upon people are coming from, how it’s manifesting, and what new structures need to be put in place to support people to do their best work together.”
Creating safe environments is much harder if the only time you’re able to ask your people how they’re feeling is over a zoom call, or via a people survey.Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an Independent Strategy and Innovation partner
To rise to the demands of this challenging working environment leaders need that most elusive of things: time. Knight is clear that meeting these needs is not just a job for the HR or people teams. He believes that managers need to have more time (and training) to commit to supportive conversations, not just performance reviews. “It’s entirely possible that the pendulum has swung too far for many people, and new types of structure, habits and behaviours need to be put in place to deal with new ways of working,” he adds.
He continues: “Organisations could also really help individuals by following up after projects to share results and the impact of work - so successes are less about ‘work done’, and more about ‘impact delivered’. Ultimately we want to know that our work is meaningful, not just completed on time.”
There are also changes which people can embrace as individuals as they start to recognise their own agency and impact in addressing a creative crisis of confidence. A shift which begins with not being guided by a negative internal monologue. He explains: “Lack of confidence can often easily be remedied by getting outside of your own head and talking to others. For self-employed individuals, the power of community, again, is beneficial here - having others to support you in those moments of self-doubt is really helpful, and I’d love to see more client and agency organisations creating genuine communities of the people they work with, not just their employees, but their collaborators, freelancers and contractors too - where peers can celebrate all of the wins, recommend each other, and create better ecosystems of peer support.”
Impactful creative leadership increasingly demands recognising the career ‘squiggle’, the term first coined by Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper, authors of The Squiggly Career. The phrase perfectly encapsulates the way in which employees are eschewing linear career paths and embracing side hustles and squiggles.
It is a trend which is born out in the research, which shows that there are an increasing number of ‘side hustlers’ who are both employed and self-employed at the same time. However, the research underlines the need to follow the example of AMV BBDO, who have sought to encourage staff to ‘squiggle and stay’. As the agency’s recent Life Changes policy explained: “It is AMV BBDO’s strongly held belief that setting up a side hustle encourages innovation and creative thinking, as well as improving and increasing business skills, which is all beneficial to its business and company culture.”
Without that support, pressure will build. As the research revealed 56% of the ‘dual employed’ were prevented from working at some point due to poor mental health, compared to 39% in only self-employment.
Knight explains: “It’s probably the group who are ‘hiding’ their side-hustle or having to do it in evenings and weekends who are struggling the most, and where organisations are supportive of their people working on a wider range of projects and initiatives, is where the most benefits lie,” Knight explains.
He continues: “There are huge benefits in having projects which help you to learn, to have autonomy and align with your passions and motivations, and the rewards from a sense of creating something new are wonderful - but if they place undue pressure on you as an individual, and they cause you to feel overwhelmed, neither the main gig or side projects will succeed. If employers are smart - they can benefit from not only ‘allowing’ their people to have side projects, but actively supporting and investing in them too - imagine being a shareholder in 100 employee-run small businesses, which you can help to succeed, whilst having a workforce who feel motivated and supported by you as an organisation. It could be the future of product innovation and business incubation.”
I think the creative industry is still having a bit of an existential crisis over the role of ‘spaces’ and how people work together.Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an Independent Strategy and Innovation partner
In the wake of a pandemic which put so much of our lives on hold it is no surprise that a desire for control is at the top of the agenda for industry talent. This desire for more control is still the top reason for moving into self-employment with over half (54%) of those who were new to self-employment this year citing it as the primary driver to moving to this way of working. In contrast, 'control over where I work’ has declined to only 13%. So are the creative industries finally becoming more flexible around remote and distributed working habits?
“I think the creative industry is still having a bit of an existential crisis over the role of ‘spaces’ and how people work together,” says Knight. He continues: “Agency offices have long been held up as ‘creative spaces’ where the best people come together to collaborate, yet anyone who has worked for long enough in an agency knows that often the best way to develop fresher thinking is to be nowhere near the office.”
This does not mean that face-to-face interactions are unnecessary and the drive to create less transactional relationships between brands and agencies, as well as colleagues is vital. Knight explains: “Without a doubt, being able to bounce ideas off brilliant colleagues, and the corridor conversations and overheard inspirations are absolutely essential in any creative organisation - yet, the idea of being anchored to one single space, where everyone has to come together, seems antiquated - there are already no shortage of examples of modern “agency” style businesses who don’t sit together, and create amazing work.”
It's a refreshing take in the midst of an agency ecosystem in which some holding companies are guilty of mandating working patterns to protect office space. When a holding company mandates occupancy levels to guarantee that office space is kept, in many ways leaders are hamstrung and unable to critically evaluate how their talent creates their best work. Instead, we are left with a one-size fits all model which leans heavily towards protecting the status quo and office footprint.
Knight believes that a shift in this approach is afoot. He explains: “Ultimately, the best creative businesses require working with the best creative talent, and as that talent increasingly moves into self-employment or demands more flexibility around how they work - businesses need to shift their thinking on their proposition to talent. We’ll only see increasing numbers of organizations who have minimal employees, and rely more and more on fluid and freelance talent - and that probably means fewer big offices, and more decentralized workspaces - we’ll undoubtedly see the rise of smaller satellite spaces, where creative networks have spaces and places to come together with their clients, their audiences, their suppliers, and randoms who sit in the same space, and we’ll see exciting things happening in new types of coworking and cocreation spaces.”
Arguably the most concerning stat for industry leaders in the research is the fact that over half (61%) of people who were new to self-employment reported their mental health had improved during the year they moved to self-employment. Rather than normalising workplaces and working practices which are toxic to their mental health, people are voting with their feet and are not afraid to step out on their own.
As Knight explains: “I think we’re increasingly aware of our own mental health, and the contributing factors to it, and that’s why people are often turning towards self-employment. I also think individuals are increasingly demanding more of their employers and employers are doing a great deal more to resolve issues around mental health at work.” It is a trend which Knight thinks means things are generally pointing in the right direction.
However, he warns that in reality there’s way less support in self-employment for mental health than there is in employment. The research shows that 63% of the self-employed don’t feel their mental health is adequately supported at work, compared to 30% of employees who would like more support for their mental health and wellbeing from their employers.
“I think employers need to listen to people who are leaving work less because they feel it's damaging their mental health, but more because they want more control and autonomy in their roles,” says Knight. He continues: “This is the single biggest reason why people move into self-employment, and if employers were to listen to their people and design ways of working which offered more respect and autonomy to individuals - I think we’d see more people willing to stay within permanent employment.”
As a new year begins the question of how the industry will retain top talent, support employee wellbeing and reduce ‘wellness washing’ is at the very top of the agenda. The uncertain economic climate will undoubtedly put pressure on initiatives to support staff.
As Knight explains: “As we head into a recession, all eyes will be focused on optimisation and cutting any non-essential costs, and unfortunately for many organisations, that means lots of initiatives which have less of a direct impact on the bottom line.”
He continues: “In reality, to move from wellness washing initiatives like ‘Wellbeing Days’ and Headspace memberships towards genuine positive impact and results - employers need to look holistically at how they operate to reduce the organisational stressors - i.e. excessive workload, poor internal communication, lack of management support, training and development, and that requires organisational redesign and operational investment.”
The threat for the industry is a perfect storm for talent. As Knight explains: “Generally speaking when things are hard economically, headcounts reduce, hiring is frozen, workload goes up, mental health declines, people burnout or leave, and the problem is further exacerbated.”
Yet the truth is the talent crunch remains and the reality for leaders seeking to retain top talent is that the autonomy of freelancing means there is a growing pool of creatives for which it is fast becoming their Plan A. Or at the very least a very meaningful and accessible Plan B. A shift that means that prioritising not just employee morale, but economic and emotional wellbeing is vital.
For Knight it means the work of Leapers is increasingly important, as he explains: “I think employee headcounts dropping means that more people will consider (or be pushed into) self-employment, and there will be a greater need for projects like Leapers to support those who are new, and feeling like they don’t have the support they require. I’d like to see more organisations sign up to the FreelanceFriendly pledge and at the very least, signpost their freelancers to support.”
In the midst of a media narrative which has for so long espoused the power of ‘building resilience’, 2023 offers the promise of actually doing things differently. The potential to not simply demand more resilience from people, but take practical steps to reduce the stressors, insensitivity and toxic traits which demand that resilience in the first place.
Sign up for the FreelanceFriendly pledge here.
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