The modern workplace can be a toxic, opaque place. When it’s bad, it’s bad: brutal, soul-crushing, poisonous—and every other negative adjective you can come up with. Most workers just cope—they go day to day, tolerating the frustrations and indignities as the ‘norm,’ or they put into practice Band-Aid solutions that don’t really address root causes.
Work is work, right? What can you really do about it?
Nate Burgos and Stephanie Di Biase dare to challenge these inertias and assumptions that have browbeaten the average worker into submission. In their book BROKEN: Navigating the ups and downs of the circus called work (Design Feast | Goodreads | Amazon), Burgos and Di Biase have crafted a sharp and insightful guide that shows workers a different way; that work, with its messy office politics and chaotic projects, can be mastered—or, at the very least, tamed.
Burgos and Di Biase don’t claim to write a book that will solve all your work-related problems. “We’re not aspiring to work without irritation—that’s impossible,” they write. “People are imperfect so work is too. Rather, we offer ways to cope and hopefully thrive amid the false starts and fires that inevitably come up throughout the course of finding and doing work.”
It is with this honest, beyond-a-manifesto attitude that they write about the world of work. They write about what they know—and they happen to know a lot. As experienced designers, Burgos and Di Biase have worked with individual and corporate clients through creative agencies and their own design studios. They bring their collective wisdom to BROKEN, along with personal anecdotes and candid confessionals from fellow professionals working in a range of industries.
BROKEN is written for every worker, and is especially useful for those who work as creative service professionals, like designers, editors, marketing specialists, and web developers. It covers the fundamentals of work that we all recognize and read about in Fast Company and Inc.: people (clients, coworkers/colleagues), the workplace (culture, language), and work (communication, process, and tools).
Burgos and Di Biase start off with clients. They divide clients into several archetypes: the Virgin, the Committee, the Apathetic Teen, and the Strong, Silent Type. The main problem with the Virgin, or the novice client, is fear—and that fear can have dire consequences for projects if you’re not careful. “Without proper attention, the Virgin can derail both the project and the team by refusing to collaborate or trust you as an expert,” the authors warn. “They revert to using familiar methods that they can control. They go to their comfortable place no matter how irrelevant ‘the way they know’ is to the problem at hand.” On dealing with the skittish Virgin, Burgos and Di Biase are steely-eyed but they ultimately advocate kindness and understanding: “Put your ego aside, along with your fear of sharing the unfinished product with a client,” they advise. “Let them into your process while things are still getting mixed and baked. Expose your process.”
With the Committee, the client that requires multiple people to sign off on every draft or sketch, Burgos and Di Biase say the biggest challenge is dealing with the constant back-and-forth and indecisiveness of everyone involved. When there is a lot of noise but not much decisive action, it can lead to projects straying far from objectives. “When any project or problem involves too many people,” Burgos and Di Biase write, “you end up with a camel when you were trying to make a horse.” As one fix, the authors recommend careful pre-planning before any work gets done. Assign client roles upfront and figure out who the final decision-maker is right away. If too many people have to clear your work, narrow the group down by playing “musical chairs”; that is, as a project progresses toward the finish line, reduce the number of people that need to give an opinion.
On the other side of the work equation are your coworkers. Just as they do with clients, Burgos and Di Biase construct a clever taxonomy of sorts that reflects the politics and competing interests of the workplace. The players they describe include: the Politico, the Faker, the Nervous Chicken (my personal fave), the Robocop, the Thief, the Passive Aggressive, the Over-Promiser, the Talker-Sans-Walker, the Clueless, and the Bad Teacher.
BROKEN‘s many tongue-in-cheek anthropological zingers about these ‘tribes’ of the modern workplace make it a lively, engaging read. Reading those chapters, I could almost hear BBC host and naturalist David Attenborough narrating in the background (“…and here comes the Nervous Chicken, buzzing around your head, checking incessantly if something has been done yet…”) By far, these were my favorite sections of the book.
Yet under the witty snark is the drumbeat of a sobering message: the importance of transparency and simplicity. Burgos and Di Biase constantly circle back to these themes in almost every chapter in BROKEN, most notably in the chapters on communication and process, where they go in irreverent, sometimes counter-intuitive directions.
For example, the everyday artifacts of the office and work life get knocked off their high horse. Take the calendar. Their opinion is blunt: “Calendars are the devil.” Many people live by their calendars and would be hopeless without them, but the argument isn’t without merit. Calendars and planners can indeed become a nuisance when overused. Think about it. With obsessive calendaring, your time gets carved down into time slots to be micro-managed: one hour for this meeting; thirty minutes for that planning session; forty-five minutes of follow-up e-mails, and so on. Soon you end up with a day that’s flayed into smaller and smaller pieces, with diminishing returns on productivity with each piece. Most people would agree that it’s the heads-down work that is sacred and should be protected. Unfortunately, the long blocks of time needed for creative work for many people looks oddly empty on a calendar. The temptation is to fill in the ‘empty’ slots with other activities. But be wary. “Why calendars (and the meetings they hold) are dangerous is that they can be self-congratulatory,” the authors write. “Having eight straight hours of meetings (with barely any time to eat or pee) can make you feel very important in an I’m-in-demand way.”
Another sacred cow the authors tackle is the plan. Plans—strategies, project outlines, to-do lists, and their pals—can make fools of us all. To Burgos and Di Biase these can be useful tools for getting a team on the same page on budgets and mission. But for the long-term stuff—for big projects on big timescales—these tools can be remarkably stupid. According to Burgos and Di Biase, elevating a work plan into some kind of inviolable thing can lead to missed opportunities. What ends up happening is that you become so constrained by the plan that you can no longer adapt when things need to change. Plans can make work inert, inflexible. Instead, “plan early and often,” advise the authors, “and be ready to change [your plan] every week or so.” Remember that a plan isn’t the end-all, be-all, but merely a snapshot.
As an often frazzled editor working on tight publishing schedules that have multiple book projects undergoing stages and rounds of writing, editing, and production, with different players involved (*takes deep breath*), I can relate to how plans shift and change. Sometimes things change in manageable increments; sometimes it feels like a whole weather system is moving in. (Being on the West Coast I might dub this the ‘Pineapple Express’ of change…) In my experience, spending days or weeks putting together reams of project documentation and timelines is just another way to procrastinate; it’s superficial busyness. My work life became much simpler when I stripped down the planning machinery. What Burgos and Di Biase root for is the same—to have the process crutch taken away.
BROKEN covers a lot of ground for such a slim book. But there is a risk that readers, expecting the final word on work, might find the content light or simplistic. Indeed, there are sections in the book that I wished were a little more developed, that had a little more meat on their bones, and more than just a few lines or quip-worthy bullet point lists. I also wanted more personal narrative, more field notes and ethnographic type observations, if you will, from the authors themselves about their own experiences with the problems and obstacles they bring up in the book. There were some stories shared, but I wanted more.
But I think BROKEN is just that—a teaser, albeit an effective and relevant one. BROKEN is a catalyst that can lead to more conversations about working life in the 21st century. It may not fix the daily grind but it will give you some comfort in handling the day to day so it’s less a grind and more…a groove. Overall, the book is an accessible, invaluable guide to navigating the world of work. Early career professionals will get the most out of the insights and advice found here.
4 stars (out of 5) – An excellent read.
- Find out more about BROKEN (Design Feast publications)
- Find out more about Nate Burgos at Design Feast and Stephanie Di Biase at Ways & Means.
[Disclaimer: I received this book from the authors for an honest and candid review.]