Keeping teams connected to one another and the work they do is a tough task under the best of circumstances. Separating those employees and seating them in front of a screen for eight-plus hours per day in the middle of a pandemic has brought a whole new set of challenges.
“Leaders everywhere are struggling with this question,” says Elliott Phear, CEO of Night After Night. “A business will always be about people, and without the chance conversations, lunch hangs, and impromptu brainstorms that happen in the office or at a local bar, there is a void that must be filled so people feel connected to their work and their team.”
Maintaining office culture within the context of a long-term work-from-home reality requires more than the occasional DoorDashed lunch or Zoom cocktail hour, but rather, finding meaningful ways to foster connectedness. Regular check-ins between managers and staff have played a key role over the past year. “We‘ve learned a 3P check-in approach to gauge everyone’s ‘peace index’—people, place, purpose,” explains Brent Barbee, president of Conquer. “If any of these areas are out of line, their peace index suffers, the team suffers and productivity suffers.”
For others, it’s been about a balance of activities and empathy. “We’ve found that the best way to foster a feeling of growth and fulfillment while working from home is to recognize a job well done, engage in virtual activities together like online cooking classes, and to give autonomy for team members to take ownership of their work even if it means making mistakes and learning from them,” says Ashley Crane, Senior Associate of Celebrity and Influencer Talent at UM.
Over the past year, agency leaders have found novel, thoughtful ways to show up and make connections—both to peers and to work product—feel more real than virtual. What’s clear is that keeping office culture alive through these times requires team effort. Here’s how members of the Amp community are doing their part.
Interpersonal relationships at work are a critical element of good office culture, and they became even more important with the onset of the pandemic. “For many, colleagues and clients are the primary people they interact with on a daily basis,” says Shai Reichert, co-founder of The Experience Design Studio, where recent initiatives have included virtual yoga and a weekly newsletter recognizing employee accomplishments. “Everyone is going through some form of isolation and deviation from their previous norm. Being empathetic is key.”
Encouraging empathy across organizations is one simple but powerful way agency leaders are encouraging stronger bonds. “Our most important element of success is ensuring that every decision we make is rooted in empathy,” says Jeff Rosenblum, founding partner of Questus. “This means making sure that everyone is sensitive to the physical and emotional needs of both team members and clients.”
The same principle has been put into action at Response Agency, where staff are encouraged to ask one another how they’re doing, take mental health breaks and prioritize health and family above all else. “Knowing that our teammates sincerely care about each other has made working together so much more meaningful,” says CEO Carolyn Walker.
At a time when everyone is looking for some level of comfort, being able to step into that role as a manager can make a big impact. “I don’t have all the answers, but I find talking about issues human to human helps,” says John Peto, U.S. head of Deloitte Digital. “I try to focus on individual connections and look for opportunities to help people find purpose and meaning in what they do.”
Crafting listening skills has proved equally important to agency leaders. “We haven’t speculated on what our people need; we’ve asked and listened to them,” explains Christofer Peterson, senior VP of people and culture at Dagger. “We’ve heard straight from the source what’s not working—‘too many meetings’ or ‘too much screen time’—and what we can do to help—‘more human connection activities.’”
What is keeping your team up at night? What excites them to come to work in the morning? Take those cues to create your approach,” says Brianna Toscano, senior manager and HR business partner at UM. Part of putting that empathy into action also involves getting behind the social causes that mean most to team members.
“After the George Floyd murder, our employees asked us to do more as a company to drive diversity, inclusion and belonging,” says Chris Sinclair, VP of people and culture at PMG. “We responded with a significant organizational effort to drive an aggressive D&I roadmap, including employee donation matching and joining 600 & Rising's ‘Commit to Change’ campaign.”
Keeping things interesting
One thing is true in any business: People have had enough Zoom meetings to last several lifetimes. For some, the antidote involves finding different ways to communicate. At Guru, leadership instituted a program called ‘Dynamic Duos,’ which pairs employees for 20-minute offline conversations, meant to strengthen relationships outside of the office. “It’s a supportive and confidential space within which to openly discuss challenges, offer support and share collective wisdom,” says Kevin O'Leary, director of business development. “It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it has helped maintain that important collegial relationship we’ve missed outside the office.”
Elsewhere, agencies have mixed things up by finding new and engaging platforms for teams to explore. “There are so many programs coming to the fore that are not only a fun alternative, but actually improve the WFH process,” says Sean Ahearn, senior manager of client services at IPG Media Lab, UM’s innovation arm. “Ever wonder what it’s like to conduct a meeting in Fortnite? We sure did!”
Part of that means putting a bigger emphasis on the fun quotient. “We’ve found that remembering to have fun and creating an environment where internal cultural initiatives are prioritized has helped the virtual employee experience,” says Mark Manning, president of Huge West Region. “Things like Peloton groups with #TogetherWeAreHuge hashtags, Slack shenanigans like personalized spirit animal readings, food delivery so project teams can enjoy lunch together, and celeb shoutouts on Cameo for anniversaries.”
Open lines of communication
Whether at home or in-office, there’s no replacement for good communication—something that people have had to seek out more actively and offering up more freely in recent months. “Communication, without question, has been the most important element in this, and our leadership team has been very deliberate in checking in with our teams to make sure they are being seen and heard,” says Emmy Hartley, chief operating officer at Cornett.
“During some of the most challenging times of 2020, I’ve forged deeper relationships through one-on-one conversations with my team about what’s going on in the world, in their life, and in our business,” says Night After Night’s Phear.
Weekly check-ins have become a key strategy for managers to make sure team members are not only checking off tasks, but also finding time to get outdoors, taking lunch breaks and managing stress in a healthy way. “I try to check in with my group throughout the week, not just about work stuff, but to say hi. I think about it the way I would swinging by their desk during the day to chat,” says Laura Small, people director at RPA.
For some, that sense of connection is part of their company's DNA. “We push frequent connection on the human level,” says Kenny Nguyen, CEO and co-founder at ThreeSixtyEight. “Slack integrations like Donut have allowed team members to schedule virtual coffee dates with one another—little events that have allowed people in different departments to keep stay updated with one another's lives.”
At Day One Agency, initiatives to open lines of communication have included a program called ‘Fresh Thinking Mornings’ every Wednesday, aimed at giving employees “dedicated, meeting-free time to think creatively, connect to culture and encourage each other to bring fresh ideas and perspectives to their work.” “Whether it’s writing in a journal, breaking up the workday to check out a museum (virtually), mastering a new skill or getting moving, our employees are finding their own ways to fuel their thinking,” says Josh Rosenberg, Day One co-founder and CEO.
Putting the right technology in place was a first step for many agencies when WFH reality set in. “The combination of resources like Slack and Monday.com, along with the receptiveness of team members in exploring new ways of thinking, has instilled comfort and fueled success in working from home,” explains John Forsyth, brand strategist at ArtVersion.
The now-ubiquitous Zoom Happy Hour has been just one way companies are using those platforms not just for productivity but in service of team-building. “Company-wide Zoom happy hours have helped keep everyone in our organization connected,” says Matt Null, co-founder and partner at Human Design.
At Jack Morton, happy hour became a permanent fixture, with its own dedicated Teams channel. “One of our offices opened the Teams Tavern—slogan ‘Where everybody knows your initials’—and I’m proud to say it’s still open,” says Chief Creative Officer Shelley Elkins.
Less booze-centric initiatives have also worked to keep morale up and teams engaged. “We all experienced fatigue from working such long hours in the pandemic,” says Gina Michnowicz, CEO and executive creative director at The Craftsman Agency. “We added a Craftsman Day every third Friday to help people take care of themselves and a ‘Fun Friday’ where we play games for a small prize.”
Virtual events like these have helped agencies preserve a sense of togetherness without the physical aspect our highly social brains are wired for. “Energy is the most treasured resource we've had to preserve, like a holy fire in the middle of a storm,” says Jalila Levesque, head of global communications and partner at FRED & FARID, where managers make an effort to ensure their staff is taking regular lunch breaks and clocking out on time. “This pandemic period created an opportunity for companies to cultivate their culture around deep communication, a sense of community and creative sharing.”
And when all else fails in life, chocolate is always a good solution. “I’m from the UK and always have a stash of British chocolate at home, so I mail a team member a chocolate bar a week,” says Katie Martin, senior VP and managing director at ENGINE. “Receiving mail is like winning the lotto in these times.”
Activities, games and events
There is no substitute for the company-wide retreats and events of the pre-pandemic reality, but virtual versions have proved to be the next best thing. “This sudden shift to remote working made everyone a bit queasy, so we focused our efforts on converting our customary in-person experiences into virtual ones,” says Ted Alcarez, chief people officer at Fig, where happy hours evolved into interactive entertainment shows with games, dog shows, virtual pats on the back and more.
“We have game captains that help us break from our days with virtual games, such as team Scattergories, or playing rounds of Name that Tune,” says Amie Owen, senior VP and head of shopper at UM.
The goal for several agency leaders has been to replicate the magic of in-person connection on a virtual scale. “We’ve translated a lot of the in-person touchpoints that foster our inclusive, purposeful and inspiring culture,” says Sara Anhorn, chief talent officer at Critical Mass, whose Spirit Weeks (“a blend of workshares, training and social activities”) have been a hit with team members.
Beyond the virtual, agencies are also making the most of socially distant get-togethers. At RBA, events have ranged from pumpkin carving to cookouts—all at safe distances—have helped keep the social side of work alive. “It's not the same as seeing everyone every day, but it's a step toward removing the isolating feeling of working from home,” says Partner Kace Phillips. Retreats have also gone virtual over the course of the pandemic, too, with highly successful outcomes for some.
“We brought in professional help to accomplish one of the most successful retreats to date,” says Colette Gardner, director of people and culture at Movement Strategy.
Similarly, at Voltage AD, a virtual retreat—complete with goodie bags dropped off at each team member’s house—was a way to help everyone refresh and connect before the new year. “We mapped out two days of content, sources for inspiration, and blocked time for personal goal-setting,” says Julie Overby, senior content producer. “Thanks to the magic of the internet, we got to hear from Seth Godin, Donald Miller, and Jonah Berger. It gave us all a common experience without having to be together.”
Keeping mental health top-of-mind
The pandemic has resulted in a sharp rise in mental health challenges, with symptoms of anxiety and depression increasing significantly in 2020, disproportionately affecting certain populations—Black people, Hispanic people, young adults, essential workers, unpaid caregivers and those with pre-existing psychological conditions. “As it became clear the pandemic was going to be a long-term challenge, we shifted our attention to mental health support and provided a robust online portal with a wealth of information and resources,” says PMG’s Sinclair.
“As a high-stress industry, we needed to talk more about mental health pre-pandemic. Now it’s mission critical,” says Jack Morton’s Elkins, who has led efforts like designated mental health champions in offices, as well as an online resource-sharing program called “Balance Your Inner Orange.”
Efforts aimed at curbing feelings of loneliness, isolation and overwhelm have taken root at a number of agencies, where clear boundaries have been key. “We have implemented initiatives to help safeguard employee well-being, including meeting embargoes during lunch Monday to Friday, a general reminder to cut meetings where possible in order to avoid the dreaded Zoom fatigue, and flexible working,” says Kris Tait, managing director of Croud US. “We also trained staff across offices as mental health first aiders and provided training for all managers so they are able to support employees with their mental well-being.”
Now into year two of this pandemic, people are more vulnerable to the pitfalls of work-related stress than ever, and positive office culture must factor it into the equation. “Given the events of the last year, let alone the last few days, keeping an active eye on our teams' mental health is really important,” says Rolando Cordova, co-founder and chief content officer at L&C NYC. “We all have different home situations to manage while we do our best to thrive in this high-performance business.”
For some team leaders, taking active measures to show up emotionally for coworkers and employees means practicing a level of personal vulnerability. “As a leader I always try to be a pillar of strength but the reality is this pandemic broke everyone in some way. I’ve shared my struggle to balance parenting and work commitments during the pandemic,” says Kallana Warner, UM senior VP and group partner of portfolio management, who has made an effort to encourage the same openness from her staff. “They’ve all met my screaming toddler and in one case, seen her strip her clothes off in the background of a global call with 30-plus people on. I’m human. They need to see that. We all are.”