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 space and 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. We’re bringing clients in, we’re doing a lot more events, bringing in a lot more speakers, a lot more stuff to surround the experience.

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‘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 taking 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.’ Let’s use those moments to boost throughout the project. 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 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 gardening and you have to keep planting, you have to keep weeding, you have to keep tending, you have to keep harvesting. That requires new roles. We’re very lucky. We have an entire staff-experience team who take that very seriously, for 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?’

It’s endemic of our not being together. The shorthand has disappeared. We feel this tremendous desire to justify every blink, everything, every thought, every post-it. 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 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. Thoroughness has become endemic.

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. 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 when 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?’ Try to remember that it’s our job to be disruptive and rather than forcing that, to actually make that a part of the process and to come together to do that. It also helps that we have good spaces. We’re not in some cube sitting there with a Zoom.

Read a full transcript of the conversation with Bennett, including more on how IDEO’s spaces are configured, whether it might reduce its office footprint, and what he thinks the impact of generative AI will be on jobs.

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