On-Off Group: When empathy is a culture

When someone says “design”, what’s the first thing that comes mind?

Is it “drawings” or “sketches”? Perhaps “color” or “aesthetics”? Mostly things associated with beauty, right? Not too long ago, I thought the same things as well. Now, the word “design” has a whole other meaning for me…

How I Started with On-Off Group

It was around 5 months ago when I was struggling on how to design a web platform. The prevailing question was – “Where do I start?”. Being an engineering graduate, I knew a thing or two about designing, but the process of how to start designing was lost to me.

Looking for some guidance, I searched the web and came across a facebook event entitled “Why Service Design is the secret to great Customer Experiences”. I wasn’t sure if this was what I needed, but it was not too far from where I lived, so I went to the event regardless.

Arriving a little late, I had to sit at the back of the room. I missed the first 20 minutes of the talk, so I sat there listening to the speaker talk about things like “empathy”, “understanding” and “personas”. This was not what I expected. Service design was not a foreign concept to me, but this approach was so different from what I learned in school.

Then and there, I knew I had to take this opportunity and ask the speaker about my problem. I raised my hand and asked a question. Long story short, I liked the answer and stayed until after the event to talk to the speaker. His name was Phil Smithson, the director of On-off Group, and he taught me where to start.

My Life As An Intern

I was so eager to learn more that I sent Phil an email, requesting for the opportunity to be an intern at his company. I was lucky enough to land an interview and got a spot in their marketing team. The team was small at first but grew very quickly.

Life as an intern in On-off Group was just so different from any job I ever had. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that they practice what they preach!

“Empathy” is the most prevalent theme in the office and Design Thinking is applied in everything! From preparing for the next workshop, to planning marketing strategies, to tackling concerns. Everything is done with design thinking in its core.

I was even taught how to chat on Slack with “more empathy”. Yes, we empathized every chance we got! It was a lifestyle!

One of my favorite things about the office was Wednesdays! Two truly unique things happen on hump day – namely, (1) Failure of the Week and (2) Lunch and Learn!

Failure of the Week is an hour-long session allotted before lunch to help every member of the team improve on one thing they “failed at” throughout the week! Failures are not limited to work related topics – any sort of misstep, mistake or lapse in judgement can be counted! Then the whole team gives suggestions on how to do better the next time around.

One session that I remember well was when I opened up about having trouble managing my irregular schedule at work and other commitments. The team suggested syncing my google calendar and cellphone calendar; they also encouraged me to say no or delegate some tasks if I feel I’m overcommitting. I took their advice to heart and it worked wonders!

Lunch and Learn comes right after Failure of the Week. One member of the team tries to teach us something – anything really! And while we’re learning, lunch is on the house! Amazing, right?

Together, that’s a good two-hours or more spent on something that’s not work related! I can’t think of any other organization that does that. But what’s impressive is not that On-off Group allots time to help and learn from one another. The really impressive thing they’ve achieved is building a culture where everyone is open to talk about their problems without fear of being judged. The team truly understands and empathizes with one another. Some of my team members have literally cried after opening up about really personal things.

What Happens Next

This is a type of culture I never imagined finding in a work environment. This culture molded me to be more empathetic and put others first. I believe that whoever is exposed to such an environment will be molded in the same way I was.

And why do I say so? It’s because their culture was “designed” that way – with empathy at its center. You may enter unsure and intimidated, but you’ll leave a more secure and confident person. You’ll be able to understand and relate to individuals better.

Admittedly, as I end my stint as an intern, that culture is one of the things I will truly miss! A culture where everyone has an open ear, where you can speak your mind, and where you can be comfortable in your own skin. I sincerely hope that I’ll be able to bring it to my next organization as well.

So now, if you ask me what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word “design”. Without a second thought, my answer would be… On-Off Group.

Marco Manuel