Let your staff have a bit on the side and your business will reap the rewards

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock

It’s easy for CEOs, directors, designers, et al, to get buried in the day-to-day of creative agency life.

To forget some of the passionately held beliefs that informed every decision in those early halcyon days. It’s understandable. Client commissions take over…There’s too much to get through...You need to keep the money rolling in…Exorbitant studio rents have to be met.

But it’s worth making the time every now and again to take stock. To press pause and breathe and remind yourself – and the team – why it is you do what you do. Why it excited and inspired you so much in the first place.

People generally join the creative industries because they have great ideas, strong talent and a desire to produce brilliant work. But all too often, that initial verve gets lost in the maelstrom – it isn’t nurtured or allowed to thrive.

A recent report by the Institute of Leadership and Management stated that 34 per cent of ambitious workers were likely to leave their jobs this year to go off in search of pastures new, citing a lack of development opportunity as the main reason.

So what can agencies – which have spent valuable time, energy and money finding, recruiting and training the right people – do to keep the magic alive and stop staff from feeling uninspired or, worse still, wandering off?

At Straight Forward Design, we set up a Stretch Projects programme that gives everyone the opportunity to have a go at something new and see what happens. It doesn’t matter if it works and gets progressed or not. It’s just a chance to suck it and see.

If you’re still not persuaded of the potential benefits of this approach, look at Google. It famously encourages staff to devote 20 per cent of their time to side projects, and it continues to be one of the most innovative companies around.

It might feel a little counterintuitive at first, but a few small steps are all it takes to create an environment where creatives want to stay, learn and grow.

1. Plant the empowerment seed

Side projects that allow team members to explore new territory in a safe, ‘no-fail’ environment change the dynamic of the whole workplace. Freeing up work time so that people can initiate their own ideas has myriad benefits. It creates a self-empowered workforce, where learning, improvement, nourishment and development are at the top of the agenda. It’s an active approach to making things better that has the potential to boost people’s passion and enjoyment for creative problem solving across the board.

2. Take the pressure off – this is not about the bottom line

Celebrate creativity for creativity’s sake. Giving team members time to explore their own creative avenues in working hours has the potential to unlock exciting doors that may otherwise go undiscovered. With no strict deadlines or complex briefs to adhere to, innovative thought becomes limitless.

In-house projects aren’t about chasing results– autonomy, no right or wrong, total freedom in creative thought are, by definition, what makes these systems so progressive. Our Stretch Projects programme gives the team freedom to learn and build on skills they enjoy, – whether that’s fulfilling a life-long dream to illustrate a book, or create a series of animations, or produce handcrafted prints.

3. Move into new areas

Side projects have the potential to take your paid-for business into new areas. What better way to build your agency profile and demonstrate an ability to produce engaging content and visuals in what has, thus far, been uncharted territory? Self-initiated briefs can expand skill sets, pushing team members into new categories. They can also provide a good platform for PR, changing and shifting the perception of your agency.

Do something new and you could find yourself working with people from different disciplines, too. Knowledge and skills can be expanded into new areas of design – which has the potential to lead to new business relationships, client or otherwise.

4. Encourage team bonding

We expect our team members to collaborate and be creative within the constraints of client briefs, budgets and timelines. Allowing them to pool their expertise to create and shape their own vision is a powerful way to develop motivation, interdisciplinary skills and close relationships. However much we appreciate the roles we’re in and love what we’re doing, breaking away from the day-to-day to explore new avenues is healthy and benefits everyone. When creativity – not work – is the priority, new and exciting things happen!


This article was written by Mike Foster. After 20 years working for some of the biggest branding agencies in London, Mike founded Straight Forward Design in 2008 with the simple goal of creating effective design solutions to problems in as straight forward a way as possible.

Mike remains forever positive and always supportive, setting the tone for how to do business today. He set up the Stretch Projects programme at Straight Forward Design to allow his growing team to explore their ambitions and keep the creative energy alive. Good for them, good for the agency, good for business. Find out more: straightforward.design.