The story behind the “It’s ok to …” poster

It's ok poster

The original "It's ok to..." yellow poster. Source: supplied.

You may have seen an image of a yellow poster doing the rounds on LinkedIn this week. The poster starts with the words, “It’s ok to ..” and goes on to list the the many things that are okay to do at work, even if they might not seem like it — from “make mistakes” and “forget things”, to “not check your emails after hours” and “not check your emails constantly during hours”. 

A version appears in Google’s wellness manifesto, but the poster actually originated in 2016 and was first created for the UK Government Service. One of its creators, Giles Turnbull, shared the history of the poster in this blog post from last year, which SmartCompany is sharing with permission. 

Back in 2016, the team I was part of at the Government Digital Service created a poster; this poster, written by the team and designed by Sonia Turcotte:

The GDS It's ok poster up on a wall

Source: supplied.

This blog post gives you the background.

Since then, a few companies and organisations have either printed their own copies of that poster, or have remixed it for their own purposes.

More recently, I’ve noticed new versions of it cropping up, with a specific focus on coronavirus and its impact on employee mental health and emotional wellbeing.

One version was made by Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and they posted it on Twitter:

Gloucestershire hospitals NHS trust

Source: supplied.

Seeing this, particularly the bit about putting it up in “wobble rooms” where NHS staff can take a break from the pressure and stress, brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

The team at Co-op Digital wrote their own version, and turned it into a lovely little website:

Screenshot of website, by Co-op Digital

Source: supplied.

Then last week there was this one from Clearleft, a consultancy based in Brighton:

Screenshot of Clearleft's tweet

Source: supplied.

They’ve made a website too:

Screenshot of, by Clearleft

Source: supplied.

Via a Twitter discussion, I discovered that Bristol-based CX Partners did a similar thing:

Screenshot of CX Partners tweet

Source: supplied.

love seeing these variations and iterations. There’s always a mix of new ideas, re-wording of existing ones, and usually a few lines that are very specific to that organisation’s culture.

I like the Co-op’s line about “getting cross with technology”. I love Gloucestershire Hospital’s line: “have a cry”. That was the bit that got me.

Acts of permission

Every one of these is a deliberate act of corporate permission-granting, an effort by leaders to acknowledge the human reality that surrounds the madness of meetings and Zoom and email and Slack and deadlines and pressure and wishing you could hug people again.

That human reality gets overlooked, sometimes even forcefully sidelined, in organisations where the deadlines and the other stuff come first, whatever the cost.

So if you think a remixed version of the GDS poster would be a good idea in your organisation, I say go ahead and make one. Right now you can only send it to colleagues digitally, or make it a website like the Co-op and Clearleft did. But one day you’ll be able to stick it up on actual walls, like we did back in 2016.

Write what’s ok for you

Here’s some tips for writing your version of the poster:

  • It shouldn’t just be written by leadership. In fact, I think it will be better if it’s written by more junior people, and the leaders just trust them to say the right things. They will.
  • You’ll need several iterations before you’re happy to start using it. Allow time for that to happen. At least a couple of weeks. You’ll constantly be thinking of new additions for days after writing early drafts.
  • Not everyone on every team will agree with every item on every list. You’re trying to capture your workplace culture, not write a new staff handbook. Reflect what exists, reflect what people would like to see existing, but don’t write a list of employer expectations.
  • Beware of writing a thing like this when there are serious, elephant-in-the-room style problems in your organisation. If you ignore them in your chirpy list of things that are ok, you’ll probably just annoy people. If you start writing such a list, then pause because you’re worried about that elephant problem, that’s a sign that you should stop writing the list and go deal with the elephant first.
  • This whole thing is a valuable learning exercise for leaders, for one important reason: if you do trust your team to write this for you, and then react with horror at one of the things they have said should be ok, you should take the chance to ask yourself: “Why am I horrified? Why don’t I want this thing to be ok? What’s stopping me?” You might end up going into deep rabbit holes from here, but they’re good rabbit holes.

If your team has made a version of It’s ok, I’d love to hear about it. Please let me know (giles at gilest dot org) and I’ll happily add it to this post.

More ok:

Thanks to Amy McNichol (who worked on the Co-op’s ok list) for helping me make this post better.

This article was first published by Giles Turnbull on his blog


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