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If arts leaders refuse to invest in their staff, do their organisations really deserve to survive? Alex Marshall calls for more support for the sector's workforce.

A photo of a ping pong bat on a table by a whiteboard

I’ve spent my entire career working in the subsidised arts and for the last five years I’ve also worked simultaneously in sport, business and technology. One of the things that continues to surprise me is how the arts – the most people-centric sector in terms of output – is somewhat ironically the least people-centric when it comes to prioritising its own workforce.

There is a tendency to think the subsidised arts are ‘special’, fuelled by passion and love for the artform rather than corporate greed and profit. We work in the arts for the reward of a job we love; we don’t need employee perks like ping pong tables and free beer on a Friday to make us show up. Employee engagement strategies are for those nasties in corporate life, who have to invest in their people in order to make them stay.

But when it comes to supporting and developing the workforce, there is a lot to be learned from beyond the sector.

People over product  

There is still a tendency in subsidised arts organisations to focus exclusively on product-related activity (programming, fundraising, marketing) when prioritising costs. People-related spending tends to be the first thing cut when budgets are squeezed and in times of crisis. This is often because funders won’t support core costs and also because we know people will stay in their jobs when they love what they do.

Subsidised sport has a similar set of problems. Tech start-ups are equally at the mercy of multiple sets of investor demands. However, both take a more people-centric approach to work. They believe that people are the key to survival and success, not the product. The product will only ever be as successful as the people you employ. Therefore, you should spend as much time (and money) on your employee experience and staff development as you do your customer experience and product growth.

Research (most recently the OC Tanner Institute’s Global Culture Report) backs this up: organisations that properly invest in employee experience are more resilient in times of crisis, more sustainable in the long term and ultimately more successful financially.

This approach means having a clearly defined people strategy that is central to the business plan. It should include policies, equality action plans and staff handbooks, as well as defining and investing in every stage of the ‘employee cycle’ (recruitment, induction, retention, development, exiting, alumni).

Process over informality  

One of the great things about working in the subsidised sector is its friendliness, supportiveness and collaborative nature, which often negates the need for rules and processes. But this informality can inadvertently hinder diversity. The ubiquitous ‘coffee and a chat’ allows informal recruitment and elite networks to flourish. The recruitment of freelancers, consultants and contract staff through word of mouth perpetuates the ‘who you know’ currency.  

Business and sport are hot on process when it comes to recruitment, and with good reason: it helps to level the playing field and minimise the opportunity for biases to flourish.

Blind CVs are standard in business recruitment: names, education, qualifications and addresses are all removed to avoid affinity bias temptation. Recruitment is based on skills and aptitude rather than passion and interest (using the latter tends to favour people from wealthier backgrounds). Interview panels are diverse and include independent interviewers from outside the sector to check and challenge decision-making – particularly for leadership and governance level roles.

Specialist or generalist?

The arts sector lacks specialist knowledge in key people-related areas such as wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement. Many smaller organisations employ admin or operations generalists to look after HR-related issues with an emphasis on learning on the job rather than formal training and accreditation. This can leave organisations lacking and exposed in critical areas such as diversity and inclusion. Sector bodies, conferences and events can plug the knowledge gaps, but examples of best practice in these areas often lie further afield.

The subsidised sport sector has a similar lack of people specialists, so it has looked to a sector that has ample expertise for support: corporate business. The Women Ahead mentoring scheme matches high-potential leaders from sport organisations with mentors from businesses which are partners of the 30% Club campaign. The business provide access to the specialist support and knowledge that mentees and their organisations lack.

Getting your people strategy right requires investment of both time and money. I’m always surprised at the number of arts organisations who say they can’t or won’t invest as much in their people as they do in their programming. If leaders won’t invest in the employees who are their biggest ambassadors and greatest assets, then do their organisations really deserve to survive?

Alex Marshall is a strategy consultant working with organisations on employee engagement and communications.

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