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How can a creative business owner ensure their staff is *actually* happy?

IMAGE VIA ULTRA VIOLETTE

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Not making them “take annual leave to go to the dentist” is a start.

I finally subscribed to The New York Times (largely for access to The Cut’s Sex Diaries, obv) and a lot of the great pieces I’ve come across since are around late-pandemic burnout and existential ennui. 

As a Melburnian, I’m wrapped in what feels like a giant cotton wool cocoon from the global health crisis, but the pieces still hit close to home. A scroll through an essay on ‘languishing’ (described by author Adam Grant as the ‘neglected middle child of mental health’) quickly grabbed my attention. 

Adam describes languishing as a prolific phenomenon of dulled motivation and focus, “and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021”, especially in the context of our careers.


Looking for more ways to procrastinate? We’re with you. Come on over to our Life section. 


It led me to think about the job dissatisfaction, burnout and lack of fulfillment sardonically satirised by a lot of millennial corporate or 9 to5 creatives in Australia. (Take this Flex Mami TikTok reaction video for example). I wondered what those at the helm of small, thriving creative businesses in our local orbit are doing right now to fend off ‘languishing’ in their (mainly millennial-filled) teams. 

I have friends begrudgingly packing PR boxes in unpaid internships on a tired loop, or constantly counting down to the fleeting euphoria that comes at 5pm on a Friday. And before anyone says we’re afraid of ‘hard work’, it might be worth counting how many unpaid internships it takes a comms graduate to complete before earning a single buck these days, or how competitive the job market has become.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), one in three young people in Australia were unemployed or under-employed in 2020. In June last year, the rate of youth unemployment hit an all-time high of 16.4 per cent.

How does the modern, ‘woke’ entrepreneur ensure their employees don’t feel the same crippling career panic that they once did before self-employment? Turns out, it’s absolutely possible to foster an inspired workplace. And so many clever Australian creatives are creating places for open dialogue, honesty and remarkable career progression.

I spoke to a few brand founders who I think are doing just that, and here they explain how it can be done.

Cat Webb, Good Times Pilates Founder

What kind of ‘boss’ are you? 

I ask a lot of questions to my team; what I can do to support them better, what they think about certain ideas or projects, if they think there’s a better way we can do something, etc. I’m always checking in on a personal and professional level. Having been in their shoes for a number of years, I have an idea of what it’s like but I try not to assume and instead ask. I take everything as an opportunity for us all to grow and be better. Many of our team were once my colleagues and friends, so the shift from mate to boss is still in constant flow and always a work in progress. I think having a strong ethos, and fundamentals (as above) help us approach things with compassion and respect so we grow within our positions in the team and as human beings.

What would you do if an employee was noticeably unhappy or dissatisfied?

If an employee is noticeably unhappy or dissatisfied and I don’t already know why, then I’ve missed an opportunity. Somehow our standard of reciprocal radical candour and openness has been misunderstood and that’s on me. First, we’d chat about what’s making them unhappy and how myself or the team can help, and once we’ve come to a solution I ask what I can do to be better in the future. In terms of resolutions, we usually agree to change one thing and set up a timely check-in, we keep this process going until everyone is feeling good about it. 

How do you think other Aussie small business owners can better check in with their teams and create desirable working environments?

These are a few things I have learned over the years and carry through with our team:

1. Personal one-on-one time with each team member, that’s half social and half work chat or some kind of mix of the two. But I always include a check-in on their mental health and home-life and work-life balance with authenticity and friendship.

2. Gratitude! I tell my staff I love them all the time, but that’s my authentic style. There are so many ways to express personalised gratitude, but consistent connection (as above) helps that expression come from a place that’s true for you and feels right.

3. Practice radical candour and teach it to your team too. It’s not just for leaders, it’s for all humans that have to communicate. If you haven’t read Radical Candor by Kim Scott yet, I implore you to do so asap. It helps you develop skills to care personally and challenge directly.

Sophia Athas, Hatrik House Founder

 

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A post shared by Sophia Athas (@hatrikkk)

How do you really know (as an employer) if your staff is happy? 

This is hard and it’s a constant task. Checking in is important. Asking about aspects of their life that are outside of work is always nice, and being in touch with everyone on a personal level rather than just a business level is something I never want to lose. I think I have a good intuition when it comes to my team, and I’m learning how vitally important regular catch-ups and an open dialogue are. 

What would you do if an employee was noticeably unhappy or dissatisfied? 

Check in. Extending the olive branch is the first step. Ask questions and take on feedback even if you don’t want to hear it. You can only better the environment or working situation if you’re told what other’s experiences are, because often as the ‘boss’ you aren’t privy to half of what goes on. I don’t like being around negative people, so as soon as I can sense there is hostility or stress it has to go. 

How do you think other Aussie small business owners can better check in with their teams and create desirable working environments? 

Listen and learn from others. I was taught this from a young age, that you don’t know everything and no one is an expert without taking advice from other people. You don’t have to take everything as gospel, but seeing other’s experiences and talking about different situations makes it a lot easier to apply these skills and approaches to my own business. 

Ava Matthews & Bec Jefferd, Ultra Violette Co-Founders

 

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A post shared by Ava Chandler-Matthews (@avamatthews)

What are the fundamentals of your business?

Ava: We are a female-founded Australian SPF (we call them skinscreens) business called Ultra Violette. We’re a small but mighty team of two founders, plus a staff of eight (bearing in mind most of these aren’t full-time!). We launched just over two years ago and this time last year, we only had four of us in the business with most of the roles being done by Bec and me! We also have an amazing team of contractors. These are in mostly quite senior positions where the expertise isn’t something we can necessarily afford full-time, but the role is critical to the business such as paid ads, forecast modelling, etc.

Explain to us what your team culture is like. 

Ava: Fun and flexibility coupled with accountability are the aims of the game for us. We approach everything we do with a sense of fun and that absolutely extends to the team culture. Nothing is so serious or bad that people should be crying in the toilets! Everyone is friends, we socialise outside of work and I think that in this realm, a fish rots from the head. The culture is basically the opposite of what we’ve had at previous employers. We want our office to be somewhere people want to come, rather than feeling like they have to. Or if they want to work from bed (this is something I do a lot!) they can. Not having to take annual leave to go to the dentist (yes, this is something I’ve had to do before!). We trust our team to get the job done and as long as it’s done, we don’t care when or where. 

How do you think other Aussie creative business owners can better check in with their teams and create desirable working environments?

Bec: Working for a creative and flexible business sounds like nirvana for a lot of people, but it can also be hellish with no boundaries or structure.  I personally think a good mix of all of the above is important. There is no point having flexible working, ping pong tables and drinks on a Tuesday, if you don’t know what your job is and have the necessary support to get it done effectively. So I would start with clear and documented expectations, a regular feedback loop, being available for your team when they need you and then build whatever the hell you want creatively speaking, on top of that foundation. 

Phoebe Simmonds, The Blow Founder

 

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A post shared by The BLOW (@theblowaustralia)

Explain to us what your team culture is like. 

We’re not just interested in physical transformations, we’re just as motivated to create emotional transformations as well. We want to create a space and experience where anyone who visits can walk out feeling like they can conquer their day with confidence. Yes, that can come from hair, but even more so, it’s based on how we make our guests feel. So we create a culture that’s very high energy, centred around openness and communication, and never walking past an unacceptable standard. I hire stylists who represent our brand DNA, who are positive, driven people who want the best for our guests. If they have drive, good vibes, can work well in a team, are a yes person, are obsessed with styling and willing to learn and evolve, I want them at The Blow. Diverse personalities are great — we don’t want to all be the same, like robots — but at its core, every member on our team needs to be truly nice and fun, and just get it. When I started The Blow, I wanted to take out the intimidation barrier that guests can sometimes feel (myself included) when they visit a salon. Hair should be fun and stylists should be approachable. 

How do you really know (as an employer) if your staff is happy? 

If they stay. If they give you feedback and feel trusting and open enough to communicate with you. If they show their happiness, love and commitment for their role and the business by doing their job, turning up on time, delivering exceptional customer service, hitting their targets.

What would you do if an employee was noticeably unhappy or dissatisfied?

Talk to them. Anything can be solved by an open conversation. 

Happiness for employees is important (duh), so here are six ways to implement it at your workplace.

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