Empathy and emotion must be front and center now

"Leadership is about empathy, vulnerability and love."

Last year, frog celebrated its 50th anniversary as one of the most successful and iconic design firms in the world. We celebrated our portfolio of work beginning with the Sony Walkman and Apple McIntosh SE to more recent work with clients such as Disney and SiriusXM. As the current leader of frog design, I was a little jealous that my generation of frogs had not been part of much of that history. Were our best years behind us? How would we make our mark in the next decade?

When we began our 51st year, everything changed. The pandemic emerged at the start of 2020 and our Shanghai studio was the canary in the coalmine. As we were shutting down the Shanghai studio, we quickly learned that we had to be able to work remotely or we would be out of business. Our team there led the way. In a matter of weeks, frog shape shifted from 14 studios in 10 countries to nearly 700 individual studios in more than 10 countries.

Had I known what our 51st year had in store for us, I would have feared the worst. Part of our marketing and selling proposition is the power of immersive design research in the field and intimate, frequent workshops in our studios – spaces designed for inspiration, provocation and magical thinking. We had to reinvent ourselves.

Our clients still wanted to partner with us. Not only could they not risk hitting the pause button, in many cases the pandemic and its impact on their business and customer experience demanded that they fast-forward, preparing for the "new normal" during these abnormal times. 

What have we learned? Most of our employees (frogs, as we call ourselves) are satisfied with our remote work arrangement and over 80 percent of frogs would like to have the flexibility to work from home and in studio. Over 70 percent believe we are at least as productive as working in the studio, if not more. Three-quarters believe our global communication is as good or better than before.

One of our executive design directors recently told me that remote work had actually created a stronger, more cohesive global community within our organization because of all the increased communication: "New bonds have formed connecting our teams across geographies. I have never felt so close to my colleagues before. It’s an amazing feeling."

That said, more than two-thirds of frogs miss the hallway conversation and human touch. Our clients also identify the human-touch moments as the missing part of the magic. They have also noted that this continuing time of adaptation requires aggressively nimble partners that can effectively pivot or instantly adapt the approach as either the pandemic or the work itself requires.

Our clients are looking to frog to partner with them during this challenging time. They appreciate how we’ve shifted our models to bring them along in the work journey, providing real-time collaboration rather than status updates in countless decks. This has created more informed, empathetic teams. We also know that our frogs are working more hours per day – which can lead to burnout or exhaustion – and we are having open conversations about how to better create boundaries between our personal and professional time.

Empathy is so important now, more than ever. Over a third of frogs are taking care of children while working from home. We want our people to prioritize their families. We even incorporated our tadpoles (our frog offspring) into a recent All-Hands call – since they are, in a way, our new colleagues and managers.

Leadership has developed another level of nuance because of the pandemic, and, particularly in the United States, Black Lives Matter. Leadership is about empathy, vulnerability and love. frogs are not looking for leaders who know the answer; they are looking for leaders who admit that they too are on a journey. The best leaders share their personal stories and confess their own anxieties. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when we admit what we do not know.

To effectively design in the current climate, we must redouble our emphasis on empathy when building diverse teams, designing products and experiences for diverse bodies of users and orchestrating remote teams. As frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, famously proclaimed, "Form follows emotion." We are still in the beginning stages of understanding how COVID-19 will change the way we work. But empathy and emotion must be front and center now. We are most definitely following emotion in this 51st year in a way we could not have anticipated.

Andrew Zimmerman is President of frog, a leading global design and innovation consultancy and a company of Altran, now part of Capgemini.

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