Arts & Job Crafting

Apropos to yesterday’s Labor Day holiday there was a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site back in June about job crafting, basically changing aspects of your daily activity to make your job more enjoyable.

I thought many of the suggestions cited by the author, Amy Gallo, were particularly applicable to arts organizations. Arts employees are apt to feeling burned out and unfulfilled due to wearing many hats and having a large workload.

But compared to many other types of businesses, employees of arts organizations generally have a fair bit of freedom about how they accomplish tasks. Employing a little creativity in the process isn’t likely to be viewed as disruptive and might even be applauded.

One of the first suggestions Gallo mentions is examining oneself to assess whether the problem might be that you are simply prone to being dissatisfied all the time. Another is to think about ways to change your outlook about your job and perhaps form emotional connections with colleagues and co-workers.

Next is to look at restructuring the job itself:

“Spreitzer and Wrzesniewski suggest using a job crafting exercise to redesign your job to better fit your motives, strengths, and passions. “Some people make radical moves; others make small changes” in how they delegate or schedule their day,…For example, if your most enjoyable task is talking with clients, but you feel buried in paperwork, you might decide to always speak with clients in the morning, so you’re energized to get through the drudge work for the rest of the day. Or you might save talking with your clients until the end of the day as a reward.

If it’s not the work you dislike but the people you work with, you may be able to change that too. Wrzesniewski says she has seen people successfully alter who they interact with on a daily basis to increase job satisfaction. Focus on forging relationships that give you energy, rather than sapping it. Seek out people who can help you do your job better”

In some respects, the fact that just about everyone performs multiple functions in an arts organization can be an asset to job crafting efforts. Lacking concrete job boundaries, people can swap some of their duties a little bit. What is mind numbing to one might provide a refreshing respite to someone else. One thing I have appreciated about the arts jobs I have had has been the ability to get up and away from one task to do essentially all of the things Gallo mentions.

I have been able to attend artist outreaches to see the impact of our work on people in the community. I can talk with colleagues and patrons and develop connections with them. I have been able to get up from my desk to stick my nose in on rehearsals and classes to get some inspiration. Walking around to inspect facilities and equipment or setting my hand to some physical task often provides the distraction my mind needs to find a solution that wasn’t coming sitting in front of my computer.

Creativity A Euphemism for Extreme Thrift?

Apologies to regular readers of the blog. I started using a new ticketing system and started training a new staff person in the same week which has not be conducive to blog entries. But things have evened out a bit and here I am.

I read a report over the weekend on the perceived lack of qualified workers in non-profit settings. A study done by people at Johns Hopkins of all non-profit sectors, including performing arts, found that, in general, it wasn’t as difficult to find qualified people to fill positions as some recent newspaper articles have made it out to be. Most organizations were also mostly pleased by the quality of the people they did hire.

There were some areas that were harder to recruit for than others. Organizations that served the elderly had a slightly harder time than most finding people. Fundraisers and information technology staff were among the toughest positions to fill. Trying to achieve greater minority representation was also quite difficult. The report did note that few organizations made special efforts to attract minorities, though.

For the arts in particular, there were some details that boded well and others not so well. On the positive side, “…turnover and hiring activity was somewhat lower…among theaters. On the negative side, both theatres and museums were the group most dissatisfied with the diversity of their applicants and with their ability to meet the salary requirements of their applicants.

I had mixed feelings about the results the survey found regarding staff turnover. Eighty percent of those surveyed had turn over in the year prior.

“Surprisingly, however, the proportions claiming negative effects from this turnover were less pronounced than might have been expected, and were often offset by roughly similar proportions claiming positive effects.”

In the accompanying chart on page 5, the only categories in which the positive responses outstrip the negative are in organizational budget and staff creativity. The negatives were much higher than the positives in productivity, morale and burnout.

The positives about the budget are obvious. Not having to pay someone helps save money. I am uneasy about the staff creativity result because I think the go to position for so many non-profits when they face staff shortages of any sort is to smile and determine to work harder and smarter.

I suspect creativity claim is actually a ploy to cope with the increased workload and is a facade for the damage to morale and feeling of burnout. Having been in similar situations, I imagine that the creativity manifests itself in penny pinching steps akin to my grandmother washing aluminum foil and hanging it on the line to dry so it can be reused.

Everyone stands around and congratulates each other on how clever they are to be so thrifty. Then go back to their offices and skip lunch so they can get all their work done, their hunger pangs temporary dulled by the recently shared optimism over how creative the staff has become.

The areas where the negatives and positives were close were ability to fulfill mission, quality of programming and quantity of programming. I would be interested to know if there was a correlation between those who felt the staff became more creative and those who cut programming and reported the quality of the programming increased. I know I sound cynical, but again I suspect that people soothed their concerns about cutting back on programming by convincing themselves that they had succeeded in providing higher quality with fewer resources.

I have had the same conversation internally and among staff at a number of places. So yes, you can accuse me of projecting my biases, but I can’t imagine those dialogs are anywhere near atypical.

When I read in the report about how resilient these nonprofits are, I think about the fact that it is actually individual people who provide the resiliency by redoubling their efforts out of dedication to a cause. I am pleased that many organizations are able to satisfy their personnel needs. But the situation still bears watching because the individual’s determination to soldier on may be masking a problem that will suddenly emerge with mass burnout or retirements.