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40% of the US workforce will be freelance by 2020, up from 34% last year. Sweden is changing to a 6 hour work week, and more people are working flexi-time or from home. If your “culture” is based around free coffee, cool furniture and a bar that open longer than your working hours… you may be solving for an analog problem in a digital world.

The agency business has been disrupted by technology a number of times, but the internal operations have remained fairly consistent for the last few decades – maybe even since the 1950s. Small teams who work together closely try to come up with a big idea. Their time is managed by a “traffic” department, and often things are still drawn up on a board somewhere. There may even be job bags with printed materials being moved around sometimes. They are often disrupted by an emergency or a minor change. Digital agencies are better, claiming to be agile* and using productivity tools, but at the heart there is still a level of inefficiency from needing people to be in the same space.

Google’s HR team undertook a project to research what made teams successful. They found the most important aspect to be norms i.e. how the team members interact and treat each other. This is backed by a growing body of research into teams that explores the concept of a team IQ, or how the capability of thinking a team can achieve, is greater than brilliant individuals within it. The research had such an impact that Google changed their hiring techniques.

(if you are already intrigued go to to download the ebook)

Nobody teaches you how to build a great team, so we revert to old models. Our entire concept of “culture” is based on physical location (free coffee, free drinks, cool office decor) and proximity (team meetings) but in a world of distributed teams, we don’t have new tools to deal with the reality that teams will, increasingly, be virtual, and not your employees.

In a war for talent, you need to offer more than money.

What if we have been looking at the future of work from the wrong perspective. Focusing on the wrong issues. It is not about AI and automation taking away jobs, its about the changing patterns of employment and ability to skyrocket productivity with less effort in less time. It is about shifting expectations away from long commutes and 9 to 5 (or even 9 to 9) in an office somewhere. Its about a future of work that does not look like the past of work. It is about enabling more freedom and better results.

My first job coincided with the launch of email. My bosses would have their PA’s print out emails, they would write replies on them, and hand them back to the PA to send them out again. It seemed perfectly normal to everyone other than people who had no idea what work was like before email.

eMail and conference calls, which were once saviours, are now part of the problem. They have increased the amount of noise we deal with every day. There are great new tools for effective teamwork (slack, trello, asana etc) but technology on its own just creates the old social paradigms in a new technology framework. Without changing the culture around teamwork, we cant deploy new technology and expect different results. We end up printing emails.

“To do something new, you have to stop doing something old” – Peter Drucker

The worst case scenario is too many tools, different team members each have their own preferences creating a hodge podge of communication, document sharing and general frustration – defeating the very thing you are working towards.

Accidental Culture Hacking

The culture canvas came out of a project with the Dutch Consulate in Cape Town, looking at the Future of Work and how that impacts cross cultural teams. It started as a collaboration piece to promote cocreation between the Netherlands and SA.

Its focus became “how do we hack a culture for distributed teams” as a way to bring this into the centre of the conversation.

It resonated with us because its our reality, project teams are globally distributed and very few team members are permanently on staff as most are specialists dipping in and out as needed.

The idea is to give a simple, one page canvas to build good team behaviours (i.e. norms) by discussing upfront how the team will operate. It formalises what good team leaders do, allowing everyone to become better team leaders and team members. It also creates a discussion to encompass what technology will be used by the team and when.

The canvas is inherently non-threatening and accelerates a team through its formation processes outlined by Wheelan by prompting questions that require a rapid maturing of the team.

It builds to create the core components that were found to be effective in Googles research on successful teams.

(if you want to know how to work with the canvas go to to download the ebook)

From trust to tools

The canvas is centred around how you do work, with the technology you use being part of that discussion. By bringing the tools into the discussion upfront you simplify the way they are used and ensure the entire team is comfortable.

We don’t have the perfect formulae for this, so what we do works for us and our dynamics. I am sure its specific to us, and that everyone out there has a formulae that is perfect for them. I am also sure that this formulae will change between teams, clients and even agency offices.

As an example, we use slack for all of our internal communication. Projects are channels and all links to relevant materials are there (even if they reside in box or google docs). We use asana for task management which is integrated with slack (and our calendars) so tasks and due dates are easy to manage. Anyone can issue a task, so we don’t need notes after a meeting – it’s already there as tasks. We rarely have status meetings internally, because everything is updated continuously and issues and raised and resolved as we go. This works well as very few people work from the office, and we have different time zones. so working asynchronously is key. We come together for structured brainstorms and workshops and then everyone carries on with the work they need to do. Each project team has its own rituals based on what they are trying to achieve.


The culture canvas came about out of a project, to solve the challenges around distributed collaboration and increase awareness to its possibilities. We found that to make the technology work well, you need to get the culture to be open to it. New rituals danced around a new fire. The canvas will work for same location based teams too, taking them through a trust building exercise and are good for existing teams that gain new members, providing them a base from which to integrate.