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The kintsugi artist: finding the gold to create a more sustainable workforce future

Kintsugi, or golden repair, is the Japanese artform of using gold to fix broken pottery. People often use it as an analogy for how we can take something that looks broken and rebuild it to be better than it was before. And that makes it a valuable way of thinking in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has shaken our world, from health systems to economies to societies, and governments, organisations and individuals are all seeing uncertainty in their futures. The pottery of our lives isn’t yet completely broken, but the support for our emerging new reality is an infrastructure designed for a previous time. If nothing changes, big things will break – reports of high street collapse are just the beginning.

By thinking like the kintsugi artist, looking for the gold to rebuild in a new way, organisations can reuse what they have and make targeted investments to pivot while minimising disruption and thriving in the new reality.

How to rebuild for a better workforce future

People’s lives have shifted, which has cracked the workforce infrastructure that supports them, keeps economies afloat and binds societies together. To embrace the approach of a kintsugi artist and rebuild it to be better than it was, we need to challenge three traditional ways of thinking about the workforce:

1.  Identify the problem and challenge limiting beliefs

If you look at a pot, it’s difficult to imagine how you would fix it if it broke. But the kintsugi artist knows they can turn such a solid structure into something better.

Similarly, in organisations, it’s easy to believe there’s only one way of doing things, especially with people. Policies and processes reinforce how, when and where we work, making it seem the only feasible reality. For example, challenging beliefs about people working from home used to be unimaginable for many – 60% now work from home, up from 30% a year ago. Then the pandemic broke that ‘pot’ of workforce beliefs. That forced organisations to think differently about the problem – and they adapted. Quickly.

As the current crisis continues to evolve, challenges will emerge for organisations. Rather than wait for them, we recommend thinking like a kintsugi artist and start acting now:

  • Look ahead: Discuss with leaders across the organisation the key workforce challenges or opportunities you expect to face as the pandemic subsides. For example, how has the location of your workforce changed and how will that evolve over the next few months to a year?
  • Break the pot: Have an honest ‘breaking the pot’ discussion with your team and senior leaders, where you challenge the limiting beliefs about the problem. For example, do you want your people back in the office because they’ll be more effective or because some leaders prefer the old reality?
  • Stop, start, continue: Agree what beliefs need to stop, start and continue. For example, stop believing the office is where value happens, start believing that value is where people are, and continue believing that people need somewhere to work.

2.  Look outside for inspiration

When the pot breaks, the kintsugi artist considers how to transform it into something better. And they find inspiration in a surprising place – not using glue or fresh clay, but gold.

In organisations, it’s easy to resort to familiar solutions. But the world has started to adjust to the crisis, so there must be new answers to these new problems. We’ve entered a new era of working. Organisations must, like the kintsugi artist, look ‘outside’ for inspiration. We recommend two sources in particular:

  • Other organisations: Investigate what other organisations and industries are doing. For example, Twitter is having all employees work home, while UK-based tea company  Pukka Herbs has repurposed its office to a community space, with rooms now available for meditation and yoga sessions, as well as company meetings. There’s no single right answer that will work for everyone but looking at other people’s ideas might spark some of your own.
  • Other trends: Explore what other trends are going to affect the workforce future, such as the property industry, public transport and communication and security technologies.

3.  Leverage people as the gold you need to rebuild

The kintsugi artist can’t treat the gold that fixes the pot like glue or ceramic. Instead, they harness gold’s unique properties to turn the pot into beautiful artwork.

Technology and processes too often lead traditional organisational change, with people slotted in as an afterthought. Such thinking needs to change in this new world. We’re living in a time of an increasingly varied workplace set-up. People in their homes are driving this variety – they’re adapting, using their ‘gold’ (or unique abilities and aptitudes), to create a workplace that enables them to be productive.

Find out why HR is the key to unlocking the transformational benefits of AI and automation

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So, organisations must work with their people to unlock those golden properties. We recommend doing three things:

  • Ask for stories: This new era has given people a chance to compare their previous and current professional experiences and reflect on what works for them. So, ask your people what does and doesn’t work for them in this new world through surveys or interviews.
  • Create personas: While people will have individual preferences, it’s surprising how much they have in common with others. You can shape similar preferences into workplace personas, such as ‘Carers’ who need to work at home or ‘house-sharers’ who need a separate workspace. This will create the foundation for practical answers that work at scale.
  • Build it together: Use the early engagement with people as a way to test solutions as they develop. For example, ask ‘carers’ for their home workstation requirements or find high concentrations of ‘house-sharers’ to identify local offices in which to invest.

Organisations can rebuild a more sustainable workforce future

COVID-19 continues to cause significant challenges to people and organisations. Things are uncertain but by thinking like a kintsugi artist, organisations can come out of this global crisis stronger. They must identify future problems and challenge limiting beliefs, they must look outside for inspiration, and they must leverage their people as the gold they need to rebuild. Only then can they create a better workforce future.

Contact the author

  • Heledd Straker

    Heledd Straker

    PA future of work expert

    Heledd is a workforce futures expert and design thinker who helps clients think completely differently about their people

    Insights by Heledd Straker

Contact the people and talent team

Claire Logan

Claire Logan

Ashley Harshak

Ashley Harshak

Chris Steel

Chris Steel

Rachael Brassey

Rachael Brassey


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