Balancing the Grind with Kim Verbrugghe, Head of Product & Experience Design at Orchard

Kim Verbrugghe is the Head of Product & Experience Design at creative and technology business Orchard, where she leads a team of CX, UX, service designers and CRM strategists.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

When I was thirteen, my English teacher made us do a TV ad and whilst everyone showed up with ‘talking heads’, I created a rap song, showed up in torn trousers, wore a cap backwards and popped my mixtape in the cassette player.

Who knew that was my debut into advertising? After graduating in Belgium, I came to live in Australia, at the time because of good surf and a stable economy. I cold-called a series of big honchos and wrestled myself into a couple of interviews.

It felt right straight away: quirky conversations, creative spaces and smart people. I started my career with an internship at Naked Comms and quickly got hired by a small independent ATL agency, called Fuzebox, where I worked with leaders I hugely respected.

I was one of the hybrid account managers/planners and ran a portfolio of start-ups. I absolutely loved my job and colleagues, but unfortunately, they downsized the agency a year into the job, and my role was made redundant.

They gave us a 2 month runway to find another job (how generous is that) and I found myself at digital agency Deepend, for the next five and a half years. I was lucky enough to earn the trust of the CEO and a 3-month grace period to develop their strategic offering. From scratch. No KPIs. No questions asked.

I pretty much grew up in that place, both professionally and emotionally. The exciting part was that we had easy access to all the other agencies in the group and it felt like one big family.

Suffice the say, we had some long Friday nights which turned into Saturday sessions. My remit mostly covered experience design and comms strategy, but I’d also touched on CRO, brand strategy, social and emerging tech projects.

Enter my current role at Orchard. As a Head of Product and Experience Design, I lead a team of CX, UX, service designers and CRM strategists. I also co-run the extended strategy team with a Head of Brand and Content and a Head of Data. We have a unique model and an incredibly multi-faceted team.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Every day is different, but I always start by clearing my inbox, organising my calendar and having a stand-up with the team. I map out my whole day, including my breaks, making sure I account for my whole to-do list, meetings, admin tasks, etc.

The rest of my day can range from client meetings, to writing presentations, holding stakeholder interviews, improving an internal process, reviewing the team’s work, managing resource allocations, analysing survey results or reading through research papers, trying to get my head around a new industry.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Absolutely. We’ve really taken the challenges that COVID’s presented in our stride. We were one of the first to move our staff to a WFH model, even weeks before the government mandated it.

As a digital agency, we were already pretty well set-up, so the transition was really smooth for us. The business listened to staff when it came to preferences, specific situations at home, hardware needs and did a fabulous job or reassuring staff, too.

I was able to swap a 2-hour daily commute for more time with my 18-month old son, Harper and my husband Adam.

I don’t miss the rush, I don’t miss that Monday feeling and, as for culture, I probably speak to more people, more regularly. With my team, we’ve put in place a monthly breakfast, we have a weekly inspiration huddle and obviously our stand-ups, too.

I’ve started exercising again too, mainly out of necessity to get rid of the extra COVID-weight, (haha!). A couple of neighbours and I set up a make-shift DIY pilates studio in our garage. We exercise two evenings per week and some Fridays we’ll clock off with a drink on the balcony.

Another silver lining has been to slow down. I used to have very intense social weekends and just those couple of months of escaping Sydney’s rat race, has made me enjoy the small things: a cup of tea outside is literally all I need to feel content now.

What I’m still not great at is keeping my hours under control. With start and finish times blurred (and because I love my job), I do end up working through many lunches and late at night after our little one’s in bed. But I wouldn’t swap the freedom and flexibility.

I am genuinely excited, that I can both be a successful, highly-efficient professional and a present mum. You can have both in 2020. Who would have guessed?

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I hate rushing, both at work and in life. So having the confines of 9-5.30 stripped away, means that I can deliver projects ahead of deadlines more easily and also not rush out at 7am for daycare drop-off.

Balance to me means being more deliberate about your goals and the pace you set for yourself. I feel happier and more relaxed than ever, I hang out with my little one on a playground more regularly, though I will also happily work more hours from the comfort of my home.

With the team we talk about outcomes, not hours. I expect them to own their projects. To be fully responsible for their success. To show up to meetings and help team members out. To be proactive and intrinsically motivated.

“How” they get there and “when” or “where” they do the hours has become irrelevant. One of my team members worked from Melbourne for a week. He delivered great work and saw his friends at night.

Whilst I want my team to deliver high quality work, I also want them to have a good time in the process. Because that’s why most of us are in this industry, right? It’s hard work but damn good fun, too.

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5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

Unfortunately my commute was the daily trigger for listening to podcasts, so I’ve not finished as many book as I’ve wanted to. But I’ve been experimenting more with cooking, which my husband’s been quite happy about.

I feel also a lot more connected to the local community and I’ve met more neighbours in a very short period of time. It’s made me feel very appreciative of where we live.

My husband cooks breakfast every morning (lucky me) and if we find time to grab take-away lunch, we’ll have it sitting on the rocks in Bronte, overlooking the beach.

I also started journaling, to remember all my little one’s new words and milestones.

Other hobbies I’ve picked up: making playdo pizza, building towers the size of a toddler, chasing bunnies in the street and playing hide and seek (I never thought I would spend so much time sitting in my closet this year).

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I was recently introduced to coolsh*t which has some pop culture, a bit of innovation and a lot of randomness.

The Curious Minds Podcast with Gayle Allen has interesting topics and is similar to HBR Ideacast.

Cassandra Daily is a great one to keep on top of NPD. Their content gives you a good sense of what’s living in culture, too.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

My Nespresso machine.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Jacinda Ardern, not only a mum, but also the young female head of government at 37.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Be in control of your own destiny. You can be successful without burning out. You can earn good money without selling your soul. You can be good at your job without going against your values. You can deliver high quality work and have a good time. Find win-win opportunities.

Learn to express your needs to your employer and tell them what you can give them in return. Flexible working arrangements will no longer be a competitive advantage, but a minimum requirement.

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This conversation is brought to you by Think Bespoke, providing LinkedIn training for individuals and organisations in Melbourne and Sydney.

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.