How We Work

Stories and thoughts about the things we do that (sometimes) work

The Power of Workplace Do-It-Yourself

Sometimes, quick and easy is a missed opportunity.

Plural Investments*, a hedge fund started several years ago, had a problem. They needed art on the walls of their New York City offices. It was a small problem of no strategic importance, one that could be solved quickly and effortlessly by simply buying a few paintings.

But sometimes, problems lacking strategic importance never get solved because, well, they're just not that important. Which is what happened at Plural. The agenda item "Art in the office" kept getting pushed off in favor of work more critical to the business.

Still, it remained a problem because no one liked having blank walls.

Then, one day, Jenny Killeen, Plural's head of Human Capital, was looking through a colleague's vacation photos and found herself stunned by their beauty. That's when she had the idea: why not use the creativity of our own staff to populate the walls?

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The idea was brilliant. When Matt Grossman started Plural Investments, his intention was to harness the best efforts of many smart, creative people rather than just rely on the genius of a single founder, as so many other hedge funds do. Why not make the office an aesthetic reflection of the company's philosophy?

Applying a strategic solution to an insignificant problem immediately heightens its significance. Suddenly, "Art in the office" got pushed to the top of the agenda. It wasn't simply about pretty walls anymore. It was about living up to the vision of the company.

This wasn't an abstract idea, either. It would require harnessing the best efforts of many smart, creative people.

Kate Marlatt, an assistant in the office, stepped in to lead the effort. Kate asked people to submit photographs they had taken — along with the story behind each photograph. Over 130 photos were submitted.

But they only had enough space for forty. How to choose? If one person were to decide, it would contradict the very notion they were trying to convey. So Kate set up a contest. All the photographs were put online and the entire office was asked to vote. The winning photographs would be unveiled at a wine and cheese evening to which everyone and their significant others were invited.

The excitement grew and more people began to volunteer. Kate researched the best way to display the photographs and created an art brochure, including the photographs, their stories, and personal artist bios of each photographer. James Serafino, in facilities management, handled the framing and hanging. William Porcelli, in technology, set up the online submission and voting process. Shemeka Flores, an assistant with a penchant for event planning, handled the wine, cheese, other food, and decorations with input from Rob Aurigema, the chief operating officer and a wine connoisseur. And Jared Kaplan, a music buff from the technology department, volunteered to DJ the evening.

This wasn't just about art on the walls anymore. The entire company was rallying to create a work environment — and now a celebration — that reflected and inspired them.

My wife Eleanor and I attended the wine and cheese evening. John Metzner, the president, proudly showed us the photograph he had taken of an airplane in flight that was chosen and he talked with us about his interest in flying. More people described their photographs to us, and as they did, uncovered deeper parts of themselves — the parts that usually lie hidden behind task lists and paper piles.

I felt the same excitement I do when I visit my children's classrooms and they show me their work hanging on the walls. "Look what I've done," they tell me. "This is my classroom."

We forget, sometimes, that adults in an office are not that different than children in a classroom. We're all people who take justifiable pride in work that reflects who we are. We all want to be seen and acknowledged not just for our output but for who we are.

Art reflects who we are. Even people whose photographs were not on the wall could talk about why they voted for a particular piece of art. Everyone had the opportunity to be seen in a personal way.

The end result? The artwork in Plural's New York offices is far more captivating than traditional office art. And more importantly, employees are surrounded by their own creations, which gives them deeper ownership for their workplace and their work.

This Halloween, my nine-year-old daughter Isabelle decided she wanted to sew her own Halloween costume. She spent hours designing, cutting, sewing, trying on, and redesigning. All her work inspired me to sew mine too. So I asked her to help and she guided me, step by step, as I cut, sewed, and sewed some more. It would have been much easier for both of us if we had ordered costumes online. But hours later, I had both a costume I was prouder to wear than any other before and a memorable experience with Isabelle to cherish.

Sure, it would have been much quicker and easier to have bought art for the walls. But, sometimes, quick and easy is a missed opportunity.

*Plural Investments is a client of Bregman Partners

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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