How Do We Maintain Agency Culture in the Time of COVID?

Prior to March 2020, everything was grand. The agency was profitable, and employees were collaborative, focused on the task at hand, and working together in harmony (okay for the most part, we are realists here).

Fast forward to the arrival of the pandemic, shelter in place orders and a new normal of working from home for most of us. Suddenly there is no poking your head in your colleague’s office to ask a quick coverage question, wandering to accounting to research a billing issue and maybe shooting the breeze for a minute or fifteen, or taking part in the carb-laden birthday and holiday celebrations. While tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom have thankfully allowed most agencies to continue working with some semblance of normalcy, they don’t replace the day-to-day camaraderie that can be difficult to establish and then maintain. As we enter a new period of increased uncertainty with cases increasing and the winter months looming, what can be done to preserve this?

Get Creative

Our office is relatively small, and this means individual birthdays are always a big deal. In April, we were all relatively frozen at home as there was little real knowledge about spread or prevention during that time. It was still important to make sure those celebrations weren’t lost however! So a local, gluten-free bakery was contacted and a big box of treats was delivered to our colleague and her son for her special day. Later on, we opted for birthday parades and dropping off treats while staying outside, wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing. Yard signs, mailed cards and gift certificates to local restaurants and retailers are also great ways to come together and show appreciation for co-workers. These gestures can easily be personalized to let each person know they are a valued and appreciated member of your team.

Allow and encourage everyone to use Instant Messenger as a more conversational tool. This will promote a more collaborative work environment despite the physical separation as well as provide a space to maintain personal camaraderie among staff who enjoy sharing different aspects of their lives, including family events, hobbies, and the like with each other.

Team meetings on Zoom have become the norm, but if you have a big group it can get hectic quick! Less assertive employees may feel left out, and the moderator could have a tough time staying on track (much like some of the in-person meetings I’ve attended!). Consider breakout sessions for different departments such as sales, commercial, personal, admin, etc. This way each person gets a chance to communicate their successes and challenges. Build in some extra time for less formal, and even non-work-related discussions! Additionally, managers can put aside some time to check in with each staff member that reports directly to them to further keep the lines of communication open and have a more complete picture when it comes time for annual reviews.

Maintain Expectations

Some people are built for working from home, and well, some aren’t. To be perfectly honest, I have found that I fall into the latter category and much prefer the structure (and escape!) of going into the office, sitting behind an actual desk, and pounding out eight hours of work. It took the whole first week of remote working to realize that changing out of my pajamas had a major psychological impact on my will to work, and while I confess that I’ve become somewhat addicted to having the news on all day, there are times where it is simply more productive to mute or turn off the TV.

To combat such unseen issues and distractions with your team, make sure that all deadlines are clearly communicated and verify that performance expectations are still being met. This gives the more independent team members confidence that everyone is being held to the same standard and allows those who have a harder time in an isolated situation to feel both supported and accountable.

Respect Boundaries

The most frequent complaint I’ve heard from those who suddenly have found themselves working from home is that their workday never seems to end. As many of us have been forced to become accustomed to both living and making a living within the same four walls, lines have been blurred and we may find ourselves working more hours than normal simply because the tools are readily available, there are always tasks still to be completed, and why not? There’s not much else to do anyway.

While some of this can and should be resolved with self-discipline and scheduling, everyone must be cognizant of the fact that if an email is sent at 6:00pm, when staff would normally have long shut down and left the office for the day, the recipient may now feel obligated to immediately review and reply, cutting into personal time which has become all the more important. And simply because Person A is a workaholic, doesn’t mean that they should expect Person B to be, or to even aspire to it. If you enjoy putting in 12-hour days, six days a week and have never felt so enthused about your job, great! But the individual who is careful to maintain a reasonable work-life balance that works for them is equally as valuable.

Also keep in mind that most people have not had any meaningful time off during these months, much less a real vacation. This adds to the stress and possible depression that many find themselves feeling right now. Being careful to observe regular hours and even allowing additional flexibility during the week for personal endeavors can do wonders for both morale and productivity. COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of life as we know it, and now it is our job to change with it, while still providing the most collaborative and cohesive team environment as possible.

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