We Were Lucky

Friday, March 13th was supposed to be a normal work-from-Starbucks day for me. As an agency principal and father of three, every once in a while it’s nice to have a hot mocha, strong wifi, and a crowd to disappear into where no one knows you or needs you. 

Little did I know what was coming next. 

Like many companies, our team at 5HD went from 15 people sharing 1,200 square feet of open, sometimes raucous space, to 15 individual home offices, kitchen counters, bedroom nooks, anywhere there was an outlet and a few feet of open wall.

And while those first few weeks were scary. How in danger were we? What happened if one of our team got sick? If the economy shut down, how long would our clients continue to market their services? How quickly would the foundations of our business crumble? There were some long nights, for sure. 

But we were lucky. Not only that our education-heavy client base was filled with colleges and universities that are generally resilient in times of economic turmoil, but that we had invested a long time ago in using technology to work more efficiently. We were already Slack natives, managing projects in Asana, and happy to hop on internal or external meetings via video conference. We didn’t have the growing pains that so many of our clients and other partners felt in transitioning from paper and in-person to digital.

We were lucky, but that wasn’t enough.

Separated

It’s funny how the everyday things…laughing about 90s pop culture references, hearing about a teammates’ kid’s college search, or listening to my business partner read from the “box of words” our team lovingly gave him as a holiday gift (it’s an inside joke)…are the things you miss most. 

During the week, it’s common for us to spend half of our waking hours at work, so it’s only natural that the bonds formed on an effective team feel a lot like family. And as we can all understand after this year of social distancing, being separated from your family sucks. 

In the early days of the pandemic when everything was still up in the air—parents juggling remote learning, childcare, and work, our younger team members alone in apartments, or back at their parent’s homes, canceled trips, weddings, vacations—we were all putting our heads down and just grinding, happy to have work to do. 

But that grind it out attitude can’t last forever, and cracks started to show. Morale began to falter, and we worried that the long time horizon of this pandemic would put too big a strain on our group. If you’ve faced or are facing similar challenges with your team, here’s what we did to turn things around.

We miss Ben’s Box of Words

Listen to Your People

When it started, we didn’t see it. My business partner and I were heads down in the work, in denial ourselves about the changes we’d have to make in our own lives to get to the new normal. 

Thank goodness for our employee advocate. She’s one of our OGs, and widely considered 5HD’s den mother. We long ago realized that when team members have problems they aren’t ready to share with the bosses, they share them with her. So we made what was happening organically official and named her 5HD employee advocate. And she was the one who had her finger on the pulse and warned us that morale was degrading and anxiety was on the rise. 

Anyone who works with creative teams should know that you can’t do your best work when you’re stressed or anxious. So beyond the concern we have for our team’s wellbeing, we also have to be mindful of how issues may affect the quality of our work. 

Take Vacation

This one sounds simple, but especially early in the pandemic, when most folks were confined to their homes, it felt a little silly to take vacation. But burnout is a real thing my friends. And many of our folks had challenges with the blurring lines between work time, personal time, and frankly, sleep time. 

Agency leadership reinforcing with our team our expectation that they would take vacation and time off was a useful exercise in setting expectations and giving our team the permission structure for self care. 

Don’t Be In Charge of Fun

Many of us have turned to weekly Zooms with family or Zoom cocktail hours with friends to remain connected. Our team is no different, and our monthly 5HD game nights have been an oasis of laughter and fun. 

But early on we ran into bumps in the road when as an agency principal, I was the one setting and running game nights. Having the boss invite you to an informal fun setting can create awkwardness even in a really tight team. What if the time doesn’t work for you as an employee, but the boss is inviting you? Do you have to say yes and show up? What if a number of your team members cancel, so you cancel an event when one or two members of the team were really looking forward to it? 

We found that things got a lot better when we delegated the leadership of 5HD game night to one of our team members, who picked up the idea and ran with it—adding much needed fresh thinking and more informality to the invites, which we needed.

5HD Game night

Invest in Collaboration

Purchase Slack. Collaboration managed, right?

Too many team leaders look at collaboration as a software or tools problem.  Collaboration isn’t a tools problem. It’s a process problem. And when there isn’t an opportunity to simply grab a quick 5 minute huddle in the office, it requires agency leadership and teammates to think carefully about how to work together. 

For us that meant adding more formal structure to project kickoffs and hand offs between teams. Not only was a creative brief acceptable for starting a creative project. We had to set new expectations that a brief must be connected to a live meeting for context, conversation, and brainstorming.

The additional structure we added to this process has been critical to improving our work together during the pandemic and is an element we intend to bring forward to a post-pandemic world. 

Spend 1-on-1 Time with Everyone

My business partner who leads our project management efforts has reengineered his schedule to maintain weekly and bi-weekly 15 minute check ins with every member of our team. These 1-on-1s are invaluable to not only just see everyone’s faces and maintain human connections, but to identify and troubleshoot small issues before they become big problems. 

These are the kind of challenges that we’d normally handle in quick huddle or stop by your desk meetings. Without that in-person opportunity, making time for mindful conversations with your team are critical. 

While we have NOT done this perfectly, and there are still challenges our teams face on a daily basis, we believe these mindful adjustments we’ve made will carry our team through this weird time and be productive parts of our culture even after we’re back in person. 

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