Agency Business Agency Culture Remote Working

If agencies want bold ideas, they’ll need to work to make staff feel safe

By Tim Whirledge | Head of strategy

September 29, 2022 | 9 min read

Since the beginning of the pandemic, agency businesses have struggled to balance traditional methods of productivity with staff comfort. McCann Manchester’s Tim Whirledge says they shouldn’t fear the latter.

Life ring in water

Agencies should prioritize ‘psychological safety’, says Tim Whirledge / Unsplash

I’m obsessed with this simple principle: the safer you feel, the bolder your ideas.

Safety and creativity may feel like unusual bedfellows. However, I believe one route back to the cultural influence the advertising industry used to enjoy, is to make people feel they can be their authentic selves at work by driving an open and inclusive culture, where people are comfortable to share half-finished thoughts, ask questions from left field and brainstorm out loud.

In 2018, Harvard Business School published a paper proving ’psychological safety’ was critical in driving innovation, better decisions and healthy relationships at work. But can psychological safety also increase the likelihood of brilliant creative ideas too?

In my experience, the more at ease you feel with the people you work with, the more likely you are to share with them the most random, bizarre, outrageous, weird but not-sure-where-I’m-going-with-this-someone-help-me-out-oh-good-you-get-it-too thoughts that dance through your mind.

Random musings are often the tiny builds on an idea that break an entire industry convention, sway an election result, create new social norms or hey, heaven forbid, even manage to sell something. Feeling safe builds bolder ideas.

I felt this firsthand a few weeks ago as the full agency descended en masse to the office – the first time we had all been together IRL since the start of the pandemic – and the vibe was brilliant. We ran it as mini breakouts with each department putting on a show-and-tell session dotted across our lovely McCann Manchester campus, culminating in a BBQ together and poolside beats. And it was this energy that got me thinking; it is our psychological safety that we need to nurture and cherish as we continue to emerge from the pandemic.

There’s a caveat. Let’s not limit ourselves to the assumption we can only generate it IRL. We will always have a physical component to agency life but what if, over the last two and a half years, we haven’t been great at working virtually? What if the pining for a return to IRL agency life to create human connection is distracting us from the possibilities of deep, meaningful connections with our colleagues remotely?

So here are five ideas worth trying that might engender a creative environment where people feel comfortable to be their true selves, whether they are working from thousands of miles away from each other or in the next seat.

Head out on a morning walk

There are a plethora of apps claiming to boost productivity and creativity but going for a walk is about as low-fi as you get.

And yet, it was on his daily walks (on what he called his ‘thinking path’) that Charles Darwin hit upon the theory of evolution.

He knew long before a growing number of research papers have been able to prove, that a daily constitutional frees the mind up to a more associative, open-ended state. So why not try one for your next creative review or briefing?

Establish regular check-ins

All too often, our meetings essentially become verbal checklists with everyone simply reciting what they have on their plate.

That informs the team of what each person is doing, but it doesn’t help form connections that make people feel safe and empowered to take chances and suggest bold and creative ideas.

Instead, ask your team to share the highlights and lowlights of the previous week and what they are looking forward to or anxious about in the week ahead. Let them be open about where they need help or support and you’ll foster an inclusive, open environment that brings out the bold, confident creative spirit in us all.

Small talk and big ideas

Not the surface level pleasantries. But the quite vulnerable, generous, revealing conversations you can have when you’re not in the office together. When being at home brings down a wall of formality.

It’s these moments of vulnerability you can’t recreate in the office and they are important because they help us take off the mask to reveal our true selves to our colleagues.

It’s tricky to not come across as too over-bearing or too direct but the energy of a team transforms when you get small talk right. In a world where the old agency maxim ’drink together to think together’ feels a bit out-dated, big ideas will increasingly come from great small talk.

Become an ‘omni-channel’ host

Everyone can have a virtual voice. In a physical space often the extroverts or the more experienced can be guilty of drowning others out. But as a creative leader, why not encourage the sidebar chat by celebrating the serial contributors or the comments of the week?

Turn it into a ’thing’ at the agency or in your team. In meetings, ensure someone is ‘hosting’ the ‘whole’ conversation; both the chat that takes place orally but also in the comments too.

Harnessing both quick, instinctive and loud thinkers alongside contemplative, structured, quiet thinkers by turning their thoughts into a reciprocal relationship is quickly becoming a real skill of the most talented hybrid creative leaders. Something that is very hard to recreate physically.

Get a brew on

If you’re just starting out, how likely would you be to put a meeting in your boss’ diary to say you need help/ don’t understand/ are unsure of what you’re meant to be doing? The questions you can ask in passing or at the end of a meeting about something else become harder to ask in a virtual only workplace. The answer?

Create more virtual spontaneity. If people feel they are able to connect quickly and without an agenda virtually, they are more likely to share important snags that are stopping them from flourishing. So as an example, why not create a ’brews up’ bat signal for your team; an open invite in that moment for people to share a virtual cuppa together. No agenda, just teabags, right now.

The pandemic proved to us that we can work far more productively with technology that we thought, keeping our companies moving forward when the world came to a screeching halt. What we gained in technological connectivity has unfortunately come at the expense of interpersonal connectivity. As we return to the office, there are some relatively simple and organic ways of creating an inclusive work environment that brings out the best in all of us. The best work, the most creative ideas, the boldness needed to take a chance starts with a person feeling safe enough to be themselves.

Tim Whirledge is head of strategy at McCann Manchester

Agency Business Agency Culture Remote Working

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