When Karen Cole opened a studio in Singapore for global brand business 1HQ, she was determined to do things her own way. A year on, her approach is already paying dividends. Here she talks about her experience – and gives us her five top tips for creating a positive working culture.
Opening the doors to 1HQ’s studio at Marina One last October, gave me that same mix of excitement and fear that I felt when I arrived in Singapore 10 years ago – but with an important difference. Those 10 years spent here had taught me a lot – about what works, what doesn’t and most importantly, how I wanted to do things differently.
Singapore is undoubtedly an incredible place to work. When I got here, I was immediately struck by the cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures created by East meeting West. But I also began to pick up on the subtle, unwritten rules that influenced the way studios worked. These are meant to be creative places - but there seemed to me to be invisible guard-rails that kept people’s ideas constrained within boundaries and hierarchies. It seemed to me that the bigger the business, the more these kicked-in and the less open and collaborative the environment became.
The other obvious adjustment I had to make was to the pace and intensity of work. It was relentless. 14 hour days weren’t just expected, they were celebrated. And technology meant that you were ‘always-on’ and available via phone, email, text or WhatsApp group. How fast you showed those two blue ticks became a standard people judged you by. Things are much the same today – if anything the pace is even quicker. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Of course, there are crunch times when you will have to put in the extra hours – but that should be the exception not the rule. You simply don’t get the best from people constantly running on too little sleep and too little time to think.
So, for me, there were clear priorities for the culture I wanted to foster at 1HQ: creativity without constraint, constant collaboration and absolute respect for the boundary between people’s work and personal lives. I’ve worked in start-ups before, and understand the rush and the realities of what that means. I know the way they can challenge your best intentions but I believe those principles don’t just make good sense, they make good business too. As the 1HQ team has come together, we’ve started to talk about how we take those principles and live them every day. The conclusion we’ve come to is that there’s only one metric that matters - and that’s care. If we care enough, about the work and about each other, we will thrive.
So far, it’s worked well. The business is growing and we are doing exciting work for an interesting range of clients. Yes, we are working hard to deliver the quality clients expect but it’s every bit as rewarding to hear the laughter and chatter that goes with it – and to get positive feedback from the team on the work-life balance they can enjoy.
As we’re coming up to our first birthday, I’ve been thinking about the lessons I’ve learned and the advice I’d pass on to someone in the same position as I was 12 months ago.
The creative industries are notorious for big egos. Those dominating personalities can smother dissenting views and can get in the way of great work. I encourage everyone to be confident in voicing their own opinions and ideas. A good idea can come from anywhere - but it won’t if you subscribe to the cult of the ‘genius’ who everyone must bow down to. People are more likely to be happy and engaged if their point of view is respected.
We made a conscious decision to move into a co-working space in the CBD. It creates the feeling of being part of a bigger team and offers great opportunities for communal interaction. Our space at Marina One offers a lot in terms of social buzz too, with many eateries, shops and fitness opportunities to choose from. Don’t underestimate how important a desirable work environment is.
Keeping your own space open is positive too. Walls deter spontaneous conversations and private offices make leadership less approachable. This hinders day-to-day office operations and interactions. When connections break down, uncertainty, rumours and gossip fill the gap. And that’s a difficult and damaging environment to turn around once it’s established.
As the 1HQ team grows I want to ensure that every single one of us is happy in their job. I never want anyone to walk through the door in the morning dreading what the day is about to bring. That’s about valuing people as human beings – not just as resource on a studio plan.
Demonstrating that starts with the simple things, like making sure people step away from their desks for lunch or make time in the day to get some fresh air. These might sound like small gestures, but they matter.
Lead by example
My experience has taught me that setting boundaries around work-life balance is the key to producing great creative output. You can be passionate about your work. You can be committed to the late nights and early mornings. But we owe it to ourselves, our clients and our craft, to step away when the work starts to suffer as a result. I make sure I give myself enough time to re-charge my batteries. The team knows that, and they know I expect them to do the same.
Trust in transparency
I have an open diary policy, so everyone can see where I am at any time. Some might say this blurs the line between professional and personal life, but I believe transparency works because it builds trust. Likewise, I trust the amazing people I work with to decide how best to get the job done, and done brilliantly. In the end, that’s what really matters.
Karen has spent the last 9 years in both Singapore and Shanghai working for clients such as Heineken, Unilever and Kraft Heinz maximising a global reach across China, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia. As Singapore continues to firmly establish credentials as the design capital of Asia, Karen is determined to put 1HQ on the map creatively, as well as support future design talent in the region.