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The Experience of Building Experiences

09-24-14 Drew Clemens

Drew’s completely unscientific, informed-yet-anecdotal perspective on what makes creative cultures work—what teams really need to build great experiences.

The last time I shared in our blog, I talked about loving the one you’re with—an encouragement to web workers to find contentment in their present place.

I’d like to stay on that theme and talk about the other side of the coin. What makes a creative culture attractive for people to come and join? What do people need to remain engaged and excited to collaborate on building a better web? What ultimately drives them away?

This is my completely unscientific, informed-yet-anecdotal perspective on what makes creative cultures work—the experience of building experiences.


At the risk of getting fairly meta, I believe the right way to look at this is from beyond industry. Instead, I’ll approach it from a very human point of view. One of the simplest structures to understand the human need is one from High School health class, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The hierarchy goes from the most basic physical needs at its base to the most nonmaterial or ethereal at the top. Essentially, if you haven’t eaten, you can’t meditate on the meaning of existence.

Now, let’s apply these need classifications to the human experience in our workplaces.

Physiological Needs

At first blush, I wanted to blow right past this first level. After all, I don’t think any of us expect our employers to spoon-feed us each meal and give a place to sleep at night. But just as I was ready to dismiss this and move on, I realized that it is entirely possible for a workplace to disrupt and keep you from these most basic needs. In fact, creative industries such as the web can be notorious for it.

It seems the most common violation is to occupy so much of one’s time that they are literally unable to maintain healthy sleeping or eating habits. I’m not talking about the occasional late nighter—I think that’s totally acceptable (and even good) for creative folks. I’m talking about consistent, systematic, unapologetic expectations that keep you at your desk, slinging code or pushing pixels night after night, lunchtime after lunchtime. I don’t need to explain it further, you know the horror stories.

What causes it, though? Don’t write it off as “corporate greed” and “evil profits” and “blah, blah, blah.” There could be some truth to that, but that’s a cop-out thing to say when someone just wants to be upset.

I think overwork often happens for one of two major reasons:

  1. Your leadership knows how ridiculously hard you’re working, and they are okay with it. They may see your skillset as a commodity (easy to replace when burned out). Or maybe they’ve always worked that way themselves and think it a completely acceptable way to work. Their mentality is probably one of, “pay your dues and move up if you want to have more control over your time.”

  2. Your leadership is too far removed from the work being done to realize the impact of the expectations they’ve set and the culture they oversee. They may, in fact, be saddened to hear that you get four hours of sleep each night and dream in HTML—if they were aware of it.

Meeting Physiological Needs

If #1 above is the reason you’re being overworked, you’ve got to suck it up and deal with it. Sorry. They have the right to work people hard, and you have the right to leave if you’re not cool with it. Maybe it’s best for you to work it and “pay your dues” and move up—maybe you do need to gain the experience and late nights are the price for that opportunity. Or maybe you’ll just be “moving up” into a position where you’ll hate yourself. That’s your call. If you don’t like it, take that amazing brain of yours elsewhere; there are lots of open opportunities right now.

If reason #2 is the culprit, I’d like to make some suggestions for leadership and then those being led.

What Leaders Can Do

If you truly believe people are your strongest asset, you have to build structures around you that give realistic and sincere insight into the lives of your employees. Make decisions based on your employees’ realities rather than your optimistic impressions. I’d venture to say this is as important a goal as any other on your plate, and you have to make time for it.

What Workers Can Do

If your leadership espouses that “their door is always open” or they are “open for feedback,” by all means take them up on it. If you sit on your hands, your leaders may never know the problem, and it most likely will never be addressed.

On the other hand, if you’re afraid to share these things with those who sign your paycheck, that’s a different issue altogether. In fact, it’s the next set of needs I’ll discuss.

Safety Needs

Safety encompasses a lot of areas of life. Security of body, resources, health. The issue here is how safe you feel in your employment. In other words, your job security or lack of it.

First, we have to consider what makes a person feel secure in a job. I feel it’s a little naive and dismissive to say “do great work, and you should have nothing to worry about.” Talented, hard-working employees are let go all the time due to bad economy, shifting business priorities, or just poor decision making.

I believe the only way people truly feel secure in their jobs is when they are told that they are secure in their jobs. Two major statements that tell you your job is reasonably secure:

  • Your company is doing well

  • You are doing well

You feel insecure if there is bad news on either of these fronts. And if there is bad news, you probably should feel insecure. It’s good that you know, so you can do something about it.

However, most people feel anxious (or downright paranoid) if there is no news. Being in the dark is an uncomfortable place. It’s easy for your mind to go to “worst-case scenario” places when you have no idea how you or your company is doing.

I haven’t been busy lately. I wonder if we aren’t getting enough work. Am I getting enough done? Am I falling behind? If they have to let someone go, would it be me?!

Meeting Safety Needs

Leadership, be aware that those you employ need to understand where they stand. Regular and sincere encouragement (or critique) shouldn’t just come occasionally and situationally. It needs to be regular, often, and made directly toward a person and his or her role in the company. In other words, “good job, team!” does not necessarily make an individual on that team feel secure. Whereas a comment like, “Karen, you’ve changed the way we handle testing. I don’t know how we did it without you!” is enough encouragement to last a long time. Really.

The web industry presents even more unique challenges in this area. On any given day, I communicate as much with my keyboard and internet connection as I do with my face. Emojis go a long way, but they can’t replace an unmistakably genuine smile and slap on the back. Don’t let efficiency kill your human connection. Don’t engineer the heart out of your team. Get in front of one another.

It’s also important to note here, leaders, that meeting your team’s need for security is likely the hardest hurdle to overcome. If your people don’t feel safe to give you feedback, they won’t. That makes this a far more primary and important need to meet than those following...hence its place near the base of the pyramid.

The Need To Belong

Some folks have a hard time connecting with others for reasons of personality or personal insecurity, and there is potential that they are putting up walls that only they can take down.

However, don’t dismiss this as a them problem. I’d argue that—in most cases—when people don’t feel they belong, it’s everyone’s problem.

It’s a problem within a team because alienated people grow further and further from being members of the collaborative force, causing everyone to miss out. It’s a problem because when someone feels they are on an island, his or her work suffers. It’s a problem because lonely people are generally unhappy, and unhappy people can make everyone suffer.

Meeting the Need To Belong

To really know why someone doesn’t feel they belong, you really do have to know the person. Personality type, desires, experiences all come into play. However, there are some common areas within team culture that can really make or break a person’s sense of belonging:


It really begins with who is brought on the team. In my experience, great people beat out great talent just about any day of the week. You might be able to make some short term gains by bringing on a genius, but if you can’t work together well, they’ll know they don’t belong. It probably won’t last, and it may leave a painful competency vacuum when they are gone.

If you hire great people and give them time and guidance, they can become great talents. And by that time, they will likely have enough invested in the team—and vice versa—that everyone wants to work together as long as possible. That’s the long-term play.


Even a round peg in a square hole can slowly fit in with enough intentionality. Whether you are a leader or a peer, when you see that a person is on the outskirts, it pays off to take the time to try and bring them in. Your culture might need some round pegs to round out the team. And this person on the outskirts could probably use some squaring up.

In the end, the team suffers when members are drifting away. It may go unspoken—or it may be a matter of gossip—but it contributes to disunity. And disunity leads to broken lines of communication, which kills collaboration, which leads to poor work. Be intentional about your team’s unity.

Lack of Transparency

There’s nothing that will make you feel more like you don’t belong than watching the team around you operate with ease within unwritten rules and practices that they fail to share with you.

Sure, there is always a ramp-up period where the new guy is going to feel like the new guy. The trick to helping him belong is having a plan and culture that doesn’t make him work to fight his way in. Invite him in. Onboarding, training, or informal lunch invites go a long way toward a person feeling invested in and valued.

Esteem and Self-actualization

These levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are not fully removed from the previous ones. However, these needs go to another level and deal with the potential of a person—the lofty places creativity and ego can take someone. The need to unlock potential and be recognized for it.

Instead of going into anything specific on these last two tiers of needs, I’ll just focus on them as a group and their relative importance to the preceding three tiers.

I know many web shops feel they need to build progressive, free environments to meet these high-level desires of their teams. And that can be a good thing. Building a team that feels the freedom to be creative and spontaneous is both attractive and incentivizing.

But these should be concerns only for those who have had their more basic needs met.

For a time, you can feel like a champ writing code from the top of your local park’s jungle gym just because that’s “where you feel most creative” and “your boss is totally cool about it.” But all the freedom and spontaneity in the world doesn’t a happy coder make when you’re always wondering how your boss thinks you’re doing or if another layoff is coming.

First Things First

If you only get one useful nugget out of this article, please hear this: Don’t put the cart before the horse; don’t run before you truly know how to walk; and don’t try to be that company you read about with exotic schedules and benefits and arcades in the lunchroom until you’re doing the basic, boring stuff really, really well.

Until your employees and coworkers feel like they have a healthy work-life balance. Until you have very good communication up and down the food chain. Until you know—not assume—all these things, do not put your time into the top of the pyramid.

Just like sugars and snacks at the top of that other tasty grade school pyramid, they may seem great at the time, but if you don’t have the good, foundational stuff in your diet first, you’ll end up more hungry (and less healthy) than when you started.

And I’m not just saying this to the leadership of your group, I’m talking to you, Debbie Developer and Danny Designer—don’t whine about all the “extras” if you know you and your workmates still need the good baseline stuff. To whatever extent you have control or ability to give feedback, push for the right priorities.

A Personal Note

It’s good to mention that I do not believe that we can (or should) be fulfilled completely by work. A healthy person is having these needs met through family, friends, faith, causes, community, and countless other sources.

However, I’ve never come across a creative company that didn’t portray itself as a place of relationships and community. Any decent shop tries to meet its employees’ needs, and I do believe our work is a big part, even if not the whole, of what makes and fulfills us. So, let’s do everything we can as leaders and teammates to make our web shops a better place as we make the web a better place. We’ll do better work and be better for it.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not talking about anyone company out there. These anecdotes come from what I’ve seen in my dozen or so years of working in the creative industry. Web shops. Marketing agencies. Design studios. I’ve heard stories or experienced first hand all the high and low points that I’ve mentioned above.

And don’t think Sparkbox is perfect either. I believe we’ve worked hard on doing right by one another, but we’re still growing and still learning, just like everyone else. In the end, we’re just trying to remain open, empathetic, and focused on building great things while building one another up—just as I’d encourage you to do.

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