One of the greatest benefits of working at an ad agency is culture. For much of my career, I have loved going to work, and I am certain the people and the energy are what makes it incredible.
On March 12, we sent everyone in our office home to work. That evening, Governor Mike DeWine courageously shut down schools across Ohio, and I knew we were witnessing the beginning of an extended “new normal” for how we work together at Curiosity. We had a healthy financial foundation, a new business pipeline full of opportunities, and we were executing great work across our portfolio. Was I concerned about the health of our business? Sure. The growing uncertainty about, well, everything would give any business leader pause. However, my greatest concern was how to maintain what we believe to be the best company culture anywhere.
I would love to tell you that we planned our transition to remote working, both operationally and culturally, and implemented it to perfection. We didn’t. I don’t think anyone could write a plan for this. We were prepared to work in a virtual environment. I credit our leadership team with making the rigorous migration to the cloud last year so we would be “ready” for a situation like this. There are no consultants for migrating your culture to the cloud. We had to figure that out on our own. If I could go back in time to just a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t change a single thing we have done to pull our culture forward into this life. But, I would give myself a slight advantage by providing these six tips to foster and nurture company culture in a remote working organization:
1. Embrace the suck.
This situation sucks on many levels. As a leader, embracing that fact and acknowledging its reality to your staff allows people to immediately move beyond it. If you ignore it, the elephant stays in the room. You have to help your people mentally and emotionally overcome their new reality. There are advantages to the new way we’re working together and you can’t leverage them if people are paralyzed by it. Turn this headwind into a tailwind with new cultural opportunities - virtual games, challenges and social activities that are not work-related or work-motivated.
2. Establish regular communication forums.
I say forums because communication should be a dialogue. You need to give people a chance to ask, share, celebrate and be vulnerable. Prior to COVID-19, we had a bi-weekly staff meeting that typically focused on the state of business development and recent work that had been completed with an occasional celebration of our people. Now, we have increased the frequency to weekly and shifted the focus. We still keep people informed about what is happening with the business, but much of the time is focused on celebrating our people and, actually, celebrating the situation we’re all in right now.
3. Adjust in the right places.
Remote working puts pressure on business operations. It’s critical that you’re able to stay disciplined, but it’s just as critical that you’re willing to adjust when the process just doesn’t make sense anymore. I know that sounds obvious, but the time wasted from fear and paralysis related to process adherence will have a greater negative impact on your business than normal. In a remote working organization, your processes and culture are far more intertwined. The new process challenges presented by the new working situation can have a negative impact on culture. You must recognize the issue quickly and pivot even faster. We have a vital component to our process that requires an in-person collaborative workshop with clients and partners. Instead of scrapping it or forcing it into a remote environment, we altered it to make it as productive and successful as the in-person version and even fostered greater participation from our staff.
4. Be a source of information.
A trait of a great culture is the proliferation of a common understanding. You can’t withhold information out of fear of indigestion, but you have to ensure you’ve established a clear framework for determining what information is vital and actionable; and, you must stay consistent. Early on, we made the decision that our primary information sources would be the state government, the CDC, the NIH, and the WHO. We communicated that framework to our staff and effectively eliminated any other sources of potential misinformation.
5. Be a source of inspiration and empowerment.
It would have been easy to tell people to just stay focused on our work and this will soon pass. That isn’t representative of the culture we had created prior to COVID-19, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the perspective that would continue to foster it through this period. We inspired and empowered our people to be leaders for our clients and our community. They didn’t disappoint. Within a day or two, we had ideas to help our clients keep business going and demonstrate corporate leadership; and we had ideas that helped businesses in our community not just survive, but thrive. Most importantly, we invested in the ideas to make them possible, not just in our time but by putting hard resources behind their execution to ensure success.
6. Be flexible.
This is the most important one. There will be a new challenge or question every day. The level of flexibility needed is beyond anything I could have comprehended before COVID-19. Of course, it pertains to how we work and how we communicate. More importantly, it pertains to how we live. Our employees are simultaneously going through the biggest work, day-to-day living and parenting challenges they have ever faced. You have to give people a chance to manage and address those challenges every day, which means your expectations about what happens during a normal workday need to change. You can’t expect an 8-to-5 day anymore. You shouldn’t just “allow” the flexibility, you should encourage and facilitate it. The health and wellness of your staff depend on it.
I look forward to the day we get back to reality. And back to celebrating our wins at the company lunch table together. Until then, stay home and stay healthy.