Want To Smack That Trump (Or Clinton) Supporter In The Next Cubicle? Read This Instead

It’s no stretch to say that we are all living in those “interesting times” that the famous Chinese curse warns us about. And by “all,” I mean, actually, all of us. As managing director at a global company with 45 offices around the world, I am keenly aware of what is going on not just here in the United States, but also in so many countries where we have offices. A migrant and refugee crisis consumes most of Europe and significant parts of Africa and the Middle East. There’s contested military rule in Thailand. The #metoo movement is toppling entire social structures. Even in super-calm Canada, tempers are flaring over oil pipelines and where they should run. 

Creative agencies are likely to feel the results of this situation more keenly than other organizations. Most agencies today, including my own, work in closely integrated teams. That means we are constantly in each other’s workspaces, brains. It’s an amazingly fruitful way to work but there are also risks to it—particularly when politics, change and unrest are so top of mind for everyone—and the past year has brought those risks into sharp relief. 



Apart from drawing a kind of Mason Dixon line, erecting a 10-foot-high wall down the middle of your office, or padding the lunchroom walls, what can agency management do to ensure that everyone feels safe and respected and sane, while keeping alive the curiosity and the creative spark that fuel what we do? 

I have some suggestions.

Recognize that everyone is totally stressed out. Last year, the American Psychological Association surveyed 1300 American workers and found that around 30% had seen or heard political arguments in the office; some 25% confessed that they avoided certain co-workers because they disagreed with their political views. Significantly, “nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) reported an increase in workplace hostility and 17 percent said team cohesiveness had suffered.” Now is the time, in other words, to encourage people to take those long-hoarded vacation days, to come in an hour later, to work from home, to bring their dog to work. Now is the time to see if you can possibly push a deadline or two so that you don’t add fatigue and nervous energy to the mix.

Build relaxation time into your office’s day and not after hours. If you schedule after-work yoga for your gang, maybe move it to lunch; take your meetings outside (I say this from sunny San Diego), or on the roof—there’s nothing like a little fresh air and exercise to get everyone’s blood pressure back into the healthy range. Get a stair-climbing challenge going. Think about having happy hour in the afternoon—somewhere that’s not a bar.

Work harder at building community. I’m not talking about those team-building exercises where blindfolded account managers are led across a rope bridge by a team of creative strategists or where people must communicate complex philosophies using only photos cut out of National Geographic. I mean finding opportunities that will show people how much they have in common, rather than highlighting how much they have to disagree about.  For example, set up a random lunch date or coffee break system so co-workers can get to know one another beyond the boundaries of their teams or their established friendships—there’s something about eating together that helps us bond. Make it possible for employees to see one another as Joao or Suki or Nick, rather than “Democrat,” “Torontonian,” or “Brexiter.”

Take a road trip (sort of). If you’re fortunate enough to have an international organization, encourage people and teams in far-flung offices to meet (over Skype, unless you’re Virgin or SpaceX) so that they can see how other people live and work, learn about how other cultures handle political differences, get some perspective on what’s happening locally, and develop connections that will enrich life at work and at home. (Bonus: you’ll take a step toward more effective global collaboration.)

Provide a creative outlet for all that energy. It doesn’t have to be client work—it could be a sizzle piece or prototype, a pro bono project, or simply an exploration. Let the work be risky, take chances, do things you wouldn’t normally do. These aren’t normal times.  You’re not looking for “Most Feasible” here—you’re looking for “Most Wondrous,” “Most Unexpected,” “Most Brillant.” 

Some experts (many of them in HR) say that politics should be kept strictly out of the office. I actually don’t think that’s possible, or even desirable. We have to talk to one another and try to understand each other, if we’re going to work together as an effective team. Learning to listen to others is, after all, part of the toolkit that every good business person—every good human—requires. And there’s no doubt that complex emotions can be the source of our most astounding creativity.  Perhaps our goal these days should be to transform the old “interesting times” curse into an unlooked-for blessing. 

Here’s to interesting times, then. Can’t wait to see what we all do with them.


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