On Agency Life
I’ve worked at creative agencies for half my life. Even if you do not consider yourself a creative or white-collar professional, I think much of these lived experiences map neatly onto the state of work (remote or otherwise) in 2022.
Bathrooms Are for Doom-Scrolling, Not Emails
Set, honor, and leverage boundaries.
Far too much has been said about the erosion of the clear 9-5 shift into a murky amniotic soup of 24-7 trauma. Critics cite technology, corporate culture, financial precarity, predatory labor practices, and garden variety managerial incompetence. And they’re not wrong. But these are symptoms, not pathologies.
Enter boundaries. Boundaries are not a tool of the privileged. Boundaries foundational to all healthy relationships both inside and outside the workplace.
Set many boundaries. Share them with your team, your supervisor, your clients, your friends and family. Verbalizing them helps keep yourself honest. It also gives others the chance to keep you accountable.
Here are example boundaries to get you thinking (note these aren’t all mine):
- I shall not work through lunch.
- I shall take a five minute break every hour or two.
- I shall not feel guilty about quitting Slack while in deep work.
- I shall not work on weekends.
- I shall not work after 6PM.
- I shall not work before 7AM.
- I shall always take a full week vacation where I do not check into work at least once a year.
- I shall adopt an end-of-work-day ritual.
- I shall always take a post-work walk.
Honor the boundaries of others. If you mis-step, apologize.
When someone violates your boundaries, let them know. Politely. Tactfully. Directly. And, if the situation calls for it, publicly.
One of my personal favorite boundaries — and, sorry if this is too much information — is no work in the bed or the bathroom.
Once, back in the before times, a fresh email popped into my inbox and the sender emerged from the bathroom seconds later. Awkward.
The horror of dealing with a minor crisis on Slack while vacating last night’s burrito is more than I can imagine. Give yourself some dang peace, ok?
My “bed boundary” is even more crucial. I’m skeptical of “energy” or “vibrations.” However, I am not skeptical of hormones, pheromones, and Pavlovian responses.
Have you ever walked into a tense meeting? That tension you perceived extends beyond furrowed brows, sweaty palms, and shuffling feet. This is because the working body is chemically different than the sleeping body. Similarly, the working mind is synaptically different than the dreaming mind. I want my industrious-creative-work-fear-anxiety hormones excreted in designated locations. Not my bedroom.
Yes, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work, but that’s a different game than cuddling up with my laptop and doing spreadsheets while my partner sleeps beside me.
Disable Pavlovian Notifications
Yes, there you have unreads in Slack.
No, you don’t need to be notified.
Salaries Cut Both Ways
I intentionally keep loose boundaries around working hours. When I’m in the zone I happily work 10, 12, even 16 hour days. I do this because I know sometimes I will only have an hour or two of productivity in me. When those days come, I simply stop working, go take a nap, or read a book.
This isn’t to say that you ought to take advantage of your employer by any stretch. But it is to point out that by not packing it in early sometimes, you are probably letting your employer take advantage of you. “Salaried employee,” is typically code for “work as many hours as it takes to get the thing done.” The great irony is that sometimes the best way to get something done is to just do it later.
Travel on Company Time
I used to travel regularly for work. At the onset, I booked my flights on weekends. After a few months, I realized the absurdity of this arrangement. I was sacrificing my family and personal time to work.
This is another exercise in boundaries.
If travel is a requirement for your job, speak with your supervisor about expectations, per diems, and mileage reimbursements.
The worst that can happen is your supervisor will be forced to speak aloud the company’s unreasonable expectations. The best that can happen is you’ll get some nights and weekends back, make 56 cents a mile for driving to the airport, and have some of your meals covered. That’s quite the upside!
Open Heart, Clear Mind
There’s a quote from a dubious author I am quite fond of:
“Under the present brutal and primitive conditions on this planet, every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being.” — Robert Anton Wilson
While I don’t share these conclusions, I sympathize with the sentiment. To me, the idea is to give people grace. Everyone is going through varying degrees of Quite Serious to Horrendously Serious shit right now. Assume your colleagues genuinely want to help each other, to do the right thing, to be a good teammate.
I once discovered a colleague was keeping a written list of grievances against me: five minutes late for work on this day, didn’t take the garbage out that day… Legend has it he showed the list to the owner and was promptly laughed out the office. Was I guilty of those things? Probably. Was I also in the midst of dropping out of college, leaving home due to an abusive step-father, quitting my band, a breakup, struggling with mental health, and a whole heap of other issues? Yes. Does that excuse my behavior? Not exactly, but an open conversation would have been a much healthier coping mechanism.
Nepotism, Favorites, and Office Politics
They exist. They’ll exist forever. We’re humans. I don’t have an answer for you.
If something feels off, odds are something is off.
If you’re in a position of authority do what you can to document fair and equitable hiring and promotion processes. Get familiar with your HR policies. Speaking up in the moment has proven to be the most effective deterrent for me.
If you’re not in a position of authority ask questions and offer support. Read your employee handbook. Many organizations have “no retaliation” clauses that legally protect you from speaking up.
Either way, if your company has “referral bonuses” seek to end them. These financially incentivize people to refer others in. Statistically, your friends and family are most likely to look like you. This means that bonuses such as these quite literally incentivize not only nepotism but also homogeneity.
I used to think “gossip” meant saying intentionally false information about another person. But really it means saying anything you wouldn’t say to that person directly.
Gossip is especially toxic in the agency world when people start to pile on their clients and vendors. While collective-shit talking about your least favorite client may feel like team-building it is actually highly destructive, juvenile, and unprofessional.
Embrace the Uncomfortable Conversations
Whenever people shared issues about their manager with me I always a responded with a variation of the same question: “I hear you that you’re having a difficult time with your manager. Have you talked with them about it?”
They never did. So that is always what I asked them to do.
The anxiety of thinking about having the uncomfortable conversation is almost always worse than having the conversation.
Remember, you can only script out the first sentence.
Respect the Chain of Command
Unless you work at holocratic anarcho-egalatarian co-op, please talk with your supervisor about any issues before going through, around, or over them.
The chain of command exists for a reason: to organize labor. If you go around your supervisor, manager, or director you not only undermine their trust but also create more work for everyone involved in other leadership positions.
Remember, if you aspire to be in a leadership position, one of the most important skills for a leader is the capacity to follow orders.
Companies should have documented escalation protocols for sexual harassment, embezzlement, and other such incidents. If your supervisor is doing something illegal, then absolutely go around them! But also follow the protocols!
Finally, always present a unified front to your clients. I’ve had my own colleagues strike up strange alliances with clients for personal gain. It’s a bad look and never ends well.
Sometimes Things Suck
Sometimes projects don’t go well. Sometimes key people quit or are fired. Sometimes you won’t be able to sleep well from the stress. Learn to differentiate between anomalies and patterns. Some degree of suckiness and discomfort is bound to come with most jobs.
Be True to Yourself
Opportunistic promotions and projects can be life-changing, challenging, and even fun. But they can also pull you from your path and erode your intentions. Be true to yourself, why you got into your field, what keeps you going, and what your goals are.
I regularly schedule time to reflect on myself, my performance, and my job. Every year I take off the last two weeks to be with family, sit with myself, clean up my studio, archive & backup files… This post is a result of these EOY meditations. The “GTD Framework” is a pretty good system if you enjoy structure. Retrospecting on your work is still work and is just as important as doing the work itself.