Sustainability is a team sport
The qualitative research industry, like many others, is grappling with how to be more sustainable and finds that a good place to start is with the people we work with.
"Sustainability" must be the most ubiquitous term of the year, from global politics to apocalyptic media coverage of the climate crisis and heaving inboxes full of brand pledges to be more sustainable and, of course, briefs to help them do so.
It's an amorphous term, as shape shifting as Marvel's Loki. While that flexibility invites the dangers of greenwashing and over promising, it also invites us to think laterally about how we, as businesses and as an industry, can be more sustainable. Not only in the obvious green sense but also in the fundamental sense of sustaining the value of what we do.
The end value to our clients may be in the incisiveness and practical applicability of our insight, but the source of that insight is the value at the heart of our businesses. That source is the team. As the maxim goes, "the value of a company goes up and down in the lift", although these days it's more in and out of the multiverses of Zoom, Teams and Hangouts.
Sustain the team and the rest will follow. So how do you sustain a team in turbulent times?
Make time to play
In the first throes of the pandemic, as companies sent their teams home to work, one of the first things we and many businesses did was diary time for play. Our virtual socials, hosted by different team members, made time to share, laugh, compete and just be together.
As you can imagine, semioticians love a game of Pictionary. In the context of long hours of Zoom calls and the challenges of those dark months, the socials were a joy. So even now that we are back in the office, and even though we are busier than ever, we're still going to make time for play. Because play isn't a 'nice to have': it's an essential component of sustaining a team. Companies that play together, stay together.
Shape a better normal
The pandemic has turned all our lives upside down, personally and professionally. As the restrictions loosen, there's a lot of talk about getting back to the 'old normal', but we should be far more ambitious than that and look for the opportunity. The pandemic has shown us that radical change is possible and that we can experiment with new ways of working that work for those seeking better work life balance, those juggling caring or parenting responsibilities and those who want more flexibility on where they live.
From hybrid working to periods of WFA (Work from Anywhere), we're open to exploring a new normal. As a cultural insight agency, we're well placed to embrace cultural shifts and this is one we hope to shape, not just analyse. As those wrestling with the climate crisis are all too aware, it's not enough just to sustain. We have to be ambitious enough to shape a better normal.
Be a good teammate
In the course of our work we immerse ourselves in global cultural, but it's the hyper-local culture, inside the walls of the office (real and virtual), which is crucial to sustaining the business. As Simon Sinek says in his book Together is Better: "The ability of a group of people to do remarkable things hinges on how well those people can pull together as a team."
Before we tackle tasks, we must first think of our teammates. How are they? How are they, really? What do they need and what can I do to help? And what do I need? We must actively listen. To answer our clients' and partners' needs effectively, we must also answer those of our own team. As a business, we need to make sure to put our own oxygen masks on first.
One of the surprising positives of the past 15 months or so is the humanity it has brought to the working world. Zoom has provided a window into clients' and colleagues' homes. We've met kids, partners, pets, flatmates and been compassionate and kind in the face of unstable WiFi and the Sisyphean task of home schooling.
We are no longer just our perfect, professional LinkedIn selves. We get to be and be seen to be all of ourselves. In an industry that prides itself on uncovering real human insight, what a wonderful step forward for us to be fully human, not just reduced to our roles and responsibilities. With this shift has come greater transparency and honesty with clients, partners and colleagues, a strong foundation for sustainable relationships.
Above all, be grateful
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be grateful: for my teammates, who have pulled together in extraordinary times, to my street WhatsApp group, which has provided printing and WiFi in a pinch, to all the everyday heroes who go the extra mile for each other every day. Thank you. Think it and say it often. Ultimately, we all sustain each other.
Managing Director, Sign Salad
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2021
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2021