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What’s to Blame for the Negativity and Toxicity in Your Web Design Agency?

Is undue stress at the core of your agency’s problems?

It’s easy for negative emotions to run rampant in a web design agency if care isn’t taken to foster a healthier working environment.

When employees feel as though there’s a systemic issue, it’s easy for them to fall into negative emotional patterns — overwhelm, guilt, anger, stress. Those high levels of emotional pressure can then trigger issues with their physical and mental wellbeing. And as they feel less “well,” relationships amongst coworkers and even with clients can easily become strained.

Let this go on for long enough, and your web design agency as a whole will be significantly impacted with:Greater levels of absenteeism.

  • Greater levels of absenteeism.
  • Increasingly more cases of burnout.
  • Inferior project collaborations.
  • Higher employee turnover rates.
  • Subpar design work.
  • Dissatisfied clients.

One of the best ways to stay atop of these issues is to really listen to what your employees are saying.

In this post, we’re going to look at the most common toxic sentiments you’ll encounter when something is “off” within a web design agency. We’ll take a look at what’s really going on and provide some suggestions for how you can nip this kind of discontent in the bud now.

Do your agency employees commonly express these toxic sentiments?

When your success rides on the quality of work you produce, your ability to meet deadlines, as well as being able to consistently meet and exceed client expectations, you can’t afford to let stress and negativity eat away at your organization.

Here is what to do if your team commonly expresses these sentiments.

“It’s impossible to make that deadline.”

It’s not that your team is being lazy or difficult when they tell you they’re going to miss a deadline. What they’re trying to tell you is that someone, somewhere along the line, miscalculated how long a task would take. Or that the turnaround time is reasonable, but their workload is not.

A recent Conference Board survey found that only 36.1% are satisfied with their workloads.

As Dr. Rebecca L. Ray, the executive director of The Engagement Institute, suggests:

To attract and retain the most productive employees in today’s labor market, companies must make a bigger commitment to addressing the factors within their control.

Unreasonable deadlines can lead to a variety of stress symptoms like angry outbursts, lack of motivation, and fatigue — none of which will do your agency any good. If your designers, copywriters, or other creatives constantly complain about impossible-to-meet deadlines, it’s time to take their concerns seriously.

Consider what you can do to create roomier deadlines:

  • Set realistic budgets so project managers aren’t tempted to cut corners or shrink timelines.
  • Use a task management system that keeps a clear eye on how much is on each person’s plate.
  • Encourage your team to lean on one another for support when workloads are uneven.

If you want your team to go into every job bright-eyed and enthusiastic, you have to give them the space to do so.

“The client is the one holding things up. Not us!”

There are a few issues at play when you hear something like this:

  1. The client’s expectations weren’t properly set at the beginning of or throughout the project.
  2. The client doesn’t respect your team or agency enough to remain accountable to what they owe you (e.g. feedback, content, visual asset source files, approval).
  3. Your team views your projects with an “us vs. them” mentality, instead of viewing themselves as strategic partners and contributors for your clients.

This is always a tough one to hear because you don’t want to point any fingers and further contribute to the negative emotions being bounced around. Plus, you don’t want your designers to feel as though any criticism or lack of participation on the client’s part is a poor reflection on the work they’ve done. They get enough pushback in this line of work.

To fix this one, you’ll simply have to acknowledge that, yes, the client is creating a roadblock where there should be none. But that you will fix the underlying problem so it doesn’t become an issue again.

Here’s what Itai Sadan, the CEO of Duda, recommended in a recent Forbes piece:

When managing multiple client projects and deadlines, effective and timely communication is crucial…. [Make sure to] keep everyone accountable, up-to-date with the latest tasks and reduces lengthy back and forth communication due to misunderstandings. Whenever accountability and transparency exist—even if it’s just among the members of your team—outcomes improve.

One way to turn this around for future projects is with software that streamlines the client management piece. For instance:

  • Message with clients about news tasks, milestones, and reminders. If you give your clients access to your project management (Asana, Teamwork, Monday) and/or team communication platforms (Slack, Workplace, Fuze), the transparency and immediacy can help keep the pressure off your own team.

  • Collaborate on feedback in real time with them and within the same design interface. And maintain a vibe of empathy throughout all processes.

  • Automatically import your client’s content from other sources around the web, which platforms like the aforementioned Duda, for example, can do with just a few clicks, allowing you to circumvent roadblocks.

Take the onus off of your employees to have to beg clients to do their part to get a job done. Automate where you can and simplify the rest. In doing so, you’ll encourage clients to participate and, in turn, keep team members from feeling helpless and hurt when a client’s lack of participation puts them in a defensive position.

“It’s his/her fault.”

You’ll most often find this criticism when team members work in isolation and without coordination.

When creatives are asked to work this way, it comes with a number of risks. For instance, someone could interpret a creative brief incorrectly and deliver a piece of the website that’s completely wrong for the scope of the project. This throws the project timeline off and forces everyone else to scramble and try to fix what went wrong so the rest of the projects on their plates don’t suffer.

But it’s too late. The second a lack of structure or consistency affects your team, relationships will be strained and stress will rule the roost.

According to the World Health Organization:

Research findings show that the most stressful type of work is that which values excessive demands and pressures that are not matched to workers’ knowledge and abilities, where there is little opportunity to exercise any choice or control, and where there is little support from others.

Unlike smaller businesses that often have to rely on employees to be Jacks-of-all-trades, web design agencies shouldn’t have to have that burden.

You have enough resources and a budget to hire creatives to fill unique roles and niches. But you can’t stop there. If you want to avoid the chaos, competition, and bitterness that arises when you haphazardly throw a bunch of teams into a project together, you have to have a proper structure and plan in place.

In a workforce productivity study conducted by Aruba Networks, it found that companies that leverage the right digital solutions consistently outperform their lagging counterparts. More specifically, 73% of these winning teams said that digital technology improves their productivity and 70% said it improves their collaboration efforts.

By documenting your process, assigning clear roles, using trackable checklists to manage all moving pieces of a project, and centralizing it in a singular project management platform, you could effectively kill two birds with one stone:

  • Remove the chaos that occurs when there are no clear goals, roles, or tasks assigned to a project.
  • Reduce frustration and stress that occurs when team members focus solely on their tasks instead of on the bigger picture of the project.

By working with your team inside this system, you’ll unite them through a well-organized structure that makes their jobs easier and gives them a shared goal to work towards.

“They hate my work.”

This, again, goes back to a disconnect between client expectations and the reality of what your team is here to do.

There are, also, the rare occasions when you’ve picked the wrong client to work for. You know the ones — they’ll find anything wrong with everything you do simply to have something to complain about.

Assuming your creative team isn’t at fault though — whether it be due to a minor misunderstanding or an inexplicably cranky client — this is the time when you need to assure them it’s not personal. Designers and other creatives need to have a thick skin in this line of work. They should also remember that it’s okay to receive feedback.

The great graphic designer Paula Scher gave an interview in 2009 where she said:

You have to fail in order to make the next discovery. It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow.

Remind them of this. Reworks, criticisms, and general feedback from clients on the work they’ve done is more than acceptable. Without their feedback, you can’t deliver a product that’s perfectly suited to the client (plus, it’s hard to get it 100% right every time).

Stress that not every job will go perfectly and that they need to embrace this as a learning opportunity — even if it’s just how to navigate a difficult-to-work with client.

Fix those toxic sentiments in your web design agency

If you were to reflect on the last six month’s worth of negative commentary and toxic sentiments floating around your web design agency, what would you say your designers’ biggest gripes are? Can you trace them back to the same stress triggers, like inefficient processes, out of control clients, or general feelings of disconnect amongst the team?

Sometimes the fix is easy enough. Encouragement and positivity over the long-term can do wonders for boosting morale. Other times, the fix is a bit more complex and requires some serious work on your internal processes and software solutions.

Once you do find that perfect fix, though, you’ll soon notice those toxic sentiments fall away.

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