Cooperative working to save the cultural workforce

Cooperative working to save the cultural workforce


The Catalyst Network says now is the time for more inter-team panning and delivery, to look beyond job titles and departments and not forget how organisations work with freelancers.

The Catalyst Network brings together entrepreneurial, strategic and operational expertise from across the creative industries. They meet regularly to discuss strategic challenges faced by the arts. 

Here they consider the future of collaboration in the cultural sector, as well as how to tap into the value held by one of the most dynamic and creative workforces imaginable, doing this before the sector faces losing their skills to other industries. 

Knowledge is not siloed

Many successful businesses know how to get the most value from their teams through active listening at all levels, inter-team cooperation, and being inspired by the world outside for solutions. The arts is typically a hierarchical place with specialist teams and little time to implement agile working practises. The current crisis has started to shake us out of complacency and drive us to consider new thinking. 

Take the example of digital – until March 2020 digital teams were seen as service providers, a mix of IT, comms and AV depending on the organisation. Suddenly digital teams are seen as strategists, creative consultants and (importantly) advisors for others across the organisation, holding prized information about how to operate and engage online. Digital has proven how important it is to activate different skills and knowledge in your workforce no matter what team that sits in, and to share this widely across the organisation. 

It is not a new thing to suggest that organisations could benefit from more inter-team planning and delivery, looking beyond job titles and departments, but there are often huge internal barriers in the way of implementing this approach. We suggest it’s time to take down those barriers once and for all, finding a comfortable balance of knowledge-exchange and cooperation, learning from techniques such as design thinking, teaming and Scratch theatre. 

Stop the skills-drain

The cultural sector faces a financial crisis, there is no doubt of that, and job losses are inevitable. Given that there are highly prized skills across the arts sector, with individuals offering an inventive and audience-focused approach to strategy and delivery, it is likely that many will be snapped up by others sectors where they can continue their careers; this could have lasting damage on the arts. 

When considering the future of your organisation, it may be tempting to review staff based on their financial value to you, or to review staffing in each department individually. This, we fear, is what caused the education job losses in the US that started mid-lockdown, as reported in the Arts Newspaper on 23rd April 2020. 

What makes the arts so unique and valuable is the variety of its workforce and output, and in the process of consolidation and recovery you should consider how to integrate teams to improve productivity without losing key skill areas. Re-purposing individuals could enable you to retain and assimilate knowledge, creating a more robust and inventive team as you move forward. 

As for those who are unfortunate and do lose their jobs, don’t leave them high and dry. Work with networks set up to support them to keep their skills in the sector wherever possible, transferring their skills into new areas in other arts organisations and keeping the door open to their return in future, potentially as a freelancer, as and when you require their services again. 

The forgotten freelancers

Freelancers and consultants are considered by some to be an optional indulgence, only invested in for high-level strategic advice and associated with lofty reports that are left in draws undelivered. In the arts freelancers are a rich and varied source of core value – from performers and educators, to venue support staff and creative strategists who believe in action. 

We need to protect freelancers as much as in-house professionals; they all add value to the sector. When budgets are tight and the future unknown, progress may be slow, but this is the time to take a fresh look at how cultural organisations work with freelancers.

A better understanding of the value of their work would help to establish more consistent rates and fair demands on their time. Clear briefs, concise contracts, and more integrated working with in-house teams would help get the best value for all parties. Understanding of rights and knowing where to find freelancers is also vital, creating a fair and accessible market place. 

Beyond the financial flexibility that freelancers offer organisations, they also help keep organisations on their toes – bringing in useful knowledge from the wider sector (and other sectors) and adding a new energy thanks to their self-motivated, efficient and agile approach to work. 

Let’s get regional

A silver-lining to the pandemic is the opportunities it is creating for new entry and progression in the industry for those who do not live in the major arts hubs. We now know we can work remotely, and while not ideal or universally applicable, for some roles this presents a new reality that if you are the right person for the job, it doesn’t matter where you live.

This could be key in tackling diversity in the sector, for both permanent and freelance roles, and should not be undermined by decisions to return to work exactly as we were before – everything is changing, so let’s make some of these changes good ones. 

Get involved in the solution

The Catalyst Network is working with various partners across the industry to set up channels that will help those facing job-losses to move into new opportunities in the cultural sector, and establishing resources that help navigate freelance projects for both individuals and organisations. Talk to us to get involved in this movement. 

In addition, we are also running workshops on inter-team working to help improve efficiency and innovation for those who stay in-house. Get in touch to find out more. 

The June 2020 Catalyst Thinks meeting chaired by Kate Rolfe and Nick Fielding was attended by Catalyst Network members Steph Clarke, Nicola Casperson, Becca Laurence, Caroline Sharman, Helen Galliano, and network friends David Field and Beki Bateson. With thanks to research that inspired us by the Museums Association and the Creative Industries Federation. 

The next Catalyst Thinks workshop is planned for October 7th 2020. To propose a question for the group to debate or to enquire about joining the discussion, please contact Kate Rolfe, Director of The Revels Office on 

Resource type: Articles | Published: 2020