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How TRA reimagined the future of work through metaphor

Woman in silhouette

The ‘Big Bang’ theory is beyond the comprehension of 99.9% of the population (maybe more, definitely me), yet the term Big Bang is very graspable and allows us to gain some understanding of what it implies. 

And, recently we’ve been asked to live in a bubble – a request which is clearly not meant to be taken literally, but instead metaphorically. The days of the bubble are over and instead we are emerging, blinking from our caves and staring at a new normal – our very own human big bang. 

Ok, enough overuse of mixed metaphors. The point is that as we explore the new normal, metaphors allow us to lean on familiar concepts to create new ways of living. Smart marketers and advertisers do this all the time, because metaphors make it easy for the human brain to grasp a new idea by likening it to something we already understand. It’s why we use metaphors when we tell the stories in the data we collect and curate. It’s why we listen to people’s metaphorical memories as an insight into the perceptions and narratives that they have of brands.

The Big Bang metaphor – but instead our working universe contracted.

Meanwhile, inside our metaphorical bubbles we discovered a new world of WFO (and look how quickly that became a shorthand). Is it an accident that the next new thing is simply a reworking of those three letters – FOW, the Future of Work

After 10 weeks of working from home, my fellow members of the TRA Leadership team and I were tasked by the agency’s partners to re-imagine the Future of Work at our agency. An exciting yet daunting task - but the key is in the word re-imagine. We knew that this needed to be more than a reworking of our operations and processes. We needed imagination to emerge from our big bang with a concept that was clear and easily applicable to everyone in the TRA team, no matter what their role might be.

Like most agencies and consultancies around the world, COVID-19 forced TRA to convert kitchens, dining tables, patio furniture, even closet floors, into home offices. And we did it, made it through, got the work done. Exceptionally fortunate to be in New Zealand, we made it through to the other side and returned to the office after a relatively quick 10 weeks in lockdown. 

Lockdown was a remarkable period of time when all our behaviour and ways of living were upended and challenged. So, our task to question, ‘What did we learn from working through lockdown?’ felt ideally timed. Should we fall back to our old habits and ways of working ‘just because’, or completely overhaul how we approached our jobs, never looking back? While our team was still highly amenable to broad change and disruption, we had a sliver-sized window of time to assess how TRA could significantly evolve its ways of working.

What ensued was lots and lots of chat. Quite a few meetings, and definitely a couple of PowerPoints. However, all the work was worth it when we landed the insight that our office was less physical space for work, and more of a generator. COVID-19 certainly proved that ‘work’ can happen most anywhere, so sometimes we would need the team to plug-in for critical project moments. In contrast, sometimes our team could be free to run on battery when it suited their work, and wellbeing, best.

Generator – Plug-In - Battery

This powerful yet simple metaphor gave us a meaningful way to rethink the core purpose of the office and the gravitational pull it once had. But it still meant change across the business, which is never easy. So why was this metaphor particularly impactful and insightful for TRA?

A powerful metaphor can wrap entirely new behaviours or ways of thinking in a blanket of known comfort, intuitive understanding, established expectations, and feel immediately well-trodden. Our FOW metaphor of Generator – Plug-in – Battery communicated easily understood rules and norms that our team could embrace right away. What happens when a battery runs out? It has no more energy. Where can one get more juice? From a generator or power source. How do you pull out that power? By plugging-in.

We’re proud of how we’ve evolved our ways of working through metaphor. It’s beautifully simple language that is hard to misinterpret. Expectations of the management team are clear, and the TRA team intuitively understands that we’re far more like a smartphone battery than a car battery, and our generator runs like a solar panel as energy must come in to flow out.

At TRA, we share everything. We don’t subscribe to keeping the things we know and learn to ourselves. This includes our ways of working. So, if our Generator – Battery – Plug-in metaphor resonates with you, take it and run with it. And let us know how it evolves in your organisation. You can download some key ideas from the presentation we shared with our team here.

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Caroline Fletcher
Caroline Fletcher
Head of Qualitative Practice

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