Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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Back to normal? The government is underestimating the scale of change for workers.

As the UK government looks for a path out of lockdown, Professor Almuth McDowall considers the psychological impact of transitioning to a new normal.

Picture of people waiting for the tube in London

On Sunday afternoon, we were on our way back from a socially distanced walk with three moderately enthusiastic teenagers when the phone rang. BBC Radio London asked if I was happy to discuss the Transport Secretary’s announcement that the government was considering a phased approach to businesses reopening their doors. The suggestion is to put a number of safety measures in place to safeguard individuals from getting infected, but also minimise pressures on transport and infrastructure.

For employers, the key propositions are to minimise the number of workers using any equipment, to stagger work start and finish times and to maximise home working. The idea is also to encourage people to engage in more active commuting, including cycling and walking.

Many organisations have of course been open and operational throughout the crisis, including our now much appreciated local shops, which have introduced social distancing measures such as limiting numbers allowed in at a time and protective screens.

But will the transition back to the workplace be as easy as some might suggest while extra precautionary measures are implemented?

When quizzed on the radio, I took a rather cautious and even cynical view. Quite frankly, I do not think that the implications of what will be a gigantic organisational change exercise have been properly thought through.

First, let’s think about infrastructure constraints. Many returning workers have children who, we hope, will return to normal nursery and/or school hours sometime soon. This would make it difficult for all workers to shift start and finish times, as there will be practical issues such as school pick up times to work around. Transport will also be a challenge for this reason, given that peak demand is also due to children travelling to and from school. 

Furthermore, not everyone lives in cycling or walking distance from their place of work, quite the contrary. Surely, we also must avoid a scenario where more people are taking to their cars and driving alone, as we are already witnessing in our neighbourhood, to avoid public transport. 

Let’s also think about who will and needs to return to work. There will be workers who are scared about returning. There are also people who will not be able to return, at least not for the foreseeable future, because they are vulnerable, or someone in their family is. 

On the other hand, there are people who are desperate to return, because they currently live and work in crammed conditions, or because they live in areas with insufficient connectivity.  

Each business has to start with a detailed analysis of how a phased return to a mix of onsite and virtual working will play out in practice and accommodate individual needs and preferences. This is not a quick solution, but takes time, skill and effort. 

Research tells us that to make virtual working effective, particularly during times of crisis and uncertainty, managers and leaders need to take an individual approach to help people feel secure and build up trust and effective ways of working. Again, this is no quick fix. 

Some organisations are getting this intuitively right, others not exactly. One of the keys is a combination of communication and clarification of expectations and roles. This will become much harder as businesses are required to adjust and manage a staged transition to open their doors again. If we are not careful, businesses will spend all their energies on managing logistics, rather than concentrating on the core business to keep their customers happy and deliver a good service.

The literature on organisational change firmly agrees on one issue. Change is hard and stressful, even where it is for the better. Humans are hardwired not to like it. This is why times are tough at the moment. Acknowledging this, and our own vulnerability is an important step to manage sustainable change. My fear is that the UK government is considering too complex a range of practical measures without due acknowledgement of the physiological impact on people. It’s time for a rethink.

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