When culture is such an intangible asset, how do you design it in a way that supports the creative growth of your employees? Justin Dauer has written a book just about that.
Justin Dauer is a Chicago-based multi-awarded designer, writer, coffee lover, and the self-published author of Cultivating a Creative Culture, a book about resetting workplace culture. Through case studies and human-centered tactics, Justin uncovers his vision of a real dream office, one that invests deeply in the growth of its employees.
In this #WorkplaceWisdom interview, I chat with Justin about the inception of his book Cultivating a Creative Culture, his mission to revolutionize the concept of billable time, the power of caffeine and fika, and how working at a Swedish organization taught him that “everyone should have a seat at the table.”
Creativity is an elusive concept. How would you describe it?
Creativity is a problem-solving activity with an open mind, which takes place in all lines of work, whether it’s visual, cognitive, physical, or with our hands.
That’s why the example of Nick Sarillo’s restaurant business Nick’s Pizza & Pub that kick-starts the second chapter of the book lies outside of the design field. At the core of this Chicagoan successful business is a system of beliefs and a creative environment that supports and treats everybody with humanity.
Creativity has business value. It leads to solutions that beget innovation and remove complacency in totality. Ultimately, the message of my book is beneficial for people in any industry.
“Creativity has business value. It leads to solutions that beget innovation and remove complacency.”
How do you bring empathy to work environments?
To the absolute core level, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In the work environment, it opens a business up to so much. For instance, if I’m a C-level and you’re a J-level person, what I say is considered more important than what you say.
However, there’s an incredible piece of information that you might have. By being empathic, we help everyone have a seat at the table and remove blocks of hierarchy.
Why is creative culture so relevant for organizations now?
Creative culture means retention, success, quality of work, and profit. Nowadays, people are familiar with companies that have healthy and engaging cultures.
“Creative culture means retention, success, quality of work, and profit.”
I could go to Google or LinkedIn right now and search businesses that focus on thriving culture. I’d get reams and reams of information. Because of that, organizations have to compete for both outward for business and inward to retain the top talents.
Working at the Chicago office of the Stockholm-founded digital agency Nansen opened your eyes to human-centric and flat work culture. What did you learn there?
When I came across the job offer as the creative lead for the Chicago branch of Nansen (now rebranded into Making Waves), I had recently quit my job. I had enough of being a number on a spreadsheet and I was at a moment in which I was reflecting about what I wanted to do in my life, but when I read the offer it was like anything I had seen before. First, it was to build up a creative team from scratch. Second, it described the office space based on openness, transparency, and humanity. The American worker in me couldn’t believe what I was reading.
I went for it and got the role. In that office, we could read books in the middle of the day. And when sometimes, Swedish colleagues’ partners and children came in bringing cinnamon rolls for fika––a Swedish concept that means having a coffee with something little to eat––everyone stopped working. Phones were ringing, and none was answering. Many times, I thought: “what’s happening here!? What planet am I on?”
I visited Stockholm a lot in that role. I often saw teenagers at two o’clock in the afternoon sitting together with a piece of cake and their coffee. They’re just talking, not on their phone or texting. That was such a revelation. I’m in a new role now, and I’ve taken those values along with me.
Has there been any resistance to such a culture?
Not at all. Since my job was to build a team from scratch based on empathy and openness, I became the first ambassador of Swedish business culture. When I described it to potential employees, I could see the fire of excitement in their eyes. I recognized people who had burnouts in previous roles, or when a person was tired of the 9-5 and being a number on a spreadsheet. Our workers were loyal to our brand and passionate about Swedish culture broadly. Because that kind of lifestyle and mentality lacked in the US, word of mouth spread organically in the Chicago area.
One paragraph of your book is titled “The Revolution of Stepping Away from Your Desk.” Can you tell me more?
As an American employee, you have a psychological shuttle that keeps you “chained at your desk.” Often I have to “force people to leave their seats and grab some coffee”– when I see them struggle to concentrate or motivate. I wrote a book about good habits to spur inspiration at work, but I’m guilty of this myself sometimes. We all do. I have weeks in which I’m busy with deadlines and meetings, and I don’t have time to take my team out for coffee. Thankfully, they remind me that we should do it. Everyone feels better when we gather together as a team.
How do we produce our best work?
As we sit in front of our computers all day long, we need to balance the tangible and the intangible parts of our work. As designers and developers, we mostly do digital work. However, during user interviews and usability testing, we talk to real people, often face-to-face and in their own environments. It’s incredibly vital to put a soul on the user persona.
In a nutshell, we produce our best work when we “step away from our desk.” When we get up from our chairs and walk out of the office for a while, we don’t waste anyone’s time. Instead, we’re getting inspired by what’s in that environment. We may see somebody demonstrating empathy to someone else in the street, we may notice a detail something that could inspire an animation that we’re working, or we could go an observe some architecture. There’s no such shortage of inspiration in Chicago.
In your book, you talk about retreats as a staple to the company’s identity. What is the challenge of designing off-site retreats?
Retreats have been tremendously successful initiatives both from a marketing and employees’ wellbeing perspective. After writing and talking about it, people have continuously reached out to my company to ask to work for my team. But retreats have the most impact on participants’ lives. During the outdoor camp called [x]Camp, I found out that some people had burnouts and thought about leaving the job. Upon returning to work, people felt inspired and more energized and confident about their work and our team.
The challenges are taking the time to plan thoughtfully, research, and set the scope and goals. In the end, the various stakeholders decide and need to see benefits for both sides. For [x]Camp, once we set aside a budget, we approached the leaders for approval. And obviously, they asked us to list the benefits for the organization. I agreed to write some marketing copy about the retreat and our work culture, which served as an ongoing recruiting system.
If you plan these trips thoughtfully, cook, and share accommodation, the cost is almost no-issue. Setting someone to a conference like Adobe MAX or SXSW will cost three times more than a retreat. However, the experience and the takeaways are massive compared to being sitting passively at a conference.
I know that you’re a coffee lover. In your opinion, which purposes does coffee serve in work culture?
Coffee serves many purposes throughout the day. When I walk into the office I wait for my team, and we all go to the kitchen, where we have an espresso machine. Drinking coffee together is such an ingrained part of our workday that if I miss it someone from my team reminds me of it.
The point of having an espresso machine at the office is that it takes a while to make a good cup of espresso, or a cappuccino and people have to wait there. And, while they do, they have time to chat with each other. I’m more of a darker roast pour kind of coffee drinker, but the process of making an espresso puts me in a calming zone. I love that process. The espresso machine is a fantastic device that accomplishes many human sets of things at once.
It sounds like your team loves coffee. Was your decision to install an espresso machine?
I’m happy to say that the business leaders took the decision. It had been there before my arrival. When I was touring the space during the interview, and I noticed that there was an espresso machine, that workplace got so many points. We use coffee beans from local roasters like Dark Matter and Intelligentsia. It’s coffee for people who love coffee, the aroma, and the process of making it and enjoying it slowly.
“The espresso machine is a fantastic device that accomplishes many human sets of things at once.”
If you were to convince a straight-thinking business that a good cup of coffee could help them do better, how would you do it?
In a straight-thinking business, the bottom line is that the key influencer takes many or most of the decisions. I’d show that pausing for a cup and the culture of no judgment around the staff doing so translates into a better quality of work, fresh thinking, and respect for the individual.
Pausing at the espresso machine means that this company cares about me, because primarily “it supports me in making coffee.” It’s a simple gesture that goes so far. On the contrary, reconfiguring the office spaces is much more substantial –and expensive.
“Pausing for a cup and the culture of no judgment around the staff doing so translates into better quality of work, fresh thinking, and respect for the individual.”
Also, the kitchen space is important. It could look like this: a water cooler, a coffee machine in the center, with enough space to sit around, snacks, maybe a TV, and a music player. All those things build up as a microcosm of culture within an organization.
In general, use empathy to outline the need for an espresso machine. Show the costs and the pros. The investment is the machine, but it’s going to last for many years. The cost is trivial compared to the return on investment on employee engagement and productivity.
The table is the place where people gather for meetings or to eat. How do you envision it within a thriving work culture?
The table represents slowing down and humanizing a dialogue. When you’re sitting at a table, you’re consciously deciding to slow down. That’s what I call the ‘act of the linger’, which means pausing to take some quality time for yourself or to have a humanized dialogue with your colleagues. Fika, the Swedish concept of the coffee break, which I talked about earlier, at a deeper level is about taking time to pause and recharge. It’s vital in a thriving creative culture.
Finally, how did you get the idea to write Cultivating a Creative Culture? How was the process of writing this book?
The incipit for this book was the article Resetting Agency Culture I wrote for A List Apart in 2015. By that time I had been working at various agencies for about 12 years–and too many were devoid of empathy, and focused more on who has cleared more work at the end of the day. I had enough of that culture, so I approached A List Apart to write about that topic.
The feedback I received was much better than I’d have imagined. I realized that agency culture–or lack of thereafter–was so much bigger than any agency. So I went to A Book Apart with a book proposal. Soon after I started to write this book with them. However, when I was three chapters in, they modified their publishing schedule.
At that point, I decided to take more creative ownership of the content and self-publish the book. I hired an editor, a publicist, and an illustrator. It was much work with marketing and promotion, but when you self-publish, the book stays with you.
Learn more about Justin Dauer’s work.
- How to Adopt a New State of Mind that Transforms How we Work. Interview with Jan Orvet and Tommie Cau (WE Factory)
- Justin Dauer on The Nourishing Workplace podcast (listen)
Need some help to transform your workplace into a place of hospitality?
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