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In this monster of a blog post, I wanted to take the time and reflect a bit on the global pandemic that is still ongoing and how we approached it as a business.
And actually, first and foremost as people, not just as a business. I know this might sound like an age-old cliché, but it’s far from it.
To me, two things have taken us through the old and new normal, which will lay the foundation for the future ways of working. And those are culture and communication.
In this article, I will talk about how we reacted when COVID first started, what we learned during the remote working times, and what the future looks like for us. And throughout all these times, how open and honest communication has been the true foundation of it all.
And yes, I know, I have worked on enough employer branding initiatives to safely say that all companies talk a great deal about openness, transparency, and honesty. But this time I have concrete examples I would love to share with you.
It’s going to be a bit on the longer side, so better grab a juice box and a snack before we go. 🧃 Ready? Let’s do it!
How it all started 🦠
Like for many other companies, the pandemic initially started when we heard the news of this new virus. At the time it seemed like a very vague and distant problem. It’s hard to imagine from today’s perspective.
However, we decided early on to send all our employees home. We’ve always had a flexible work policy that allowed everyone to work from wherever they wanted. There were no guidelines on how often one had to be in the office.
And we felt, since our employees’ health is important (in general but also for the business) it’s best to send everyone home. That in itself didn’t change our work too much.
However, what did impact our work was how things were going on our customers’ side. The situation was so difficult to predict that we lost quite a few customers during March and April 2020.
It was especially difficult because there was really nothing we could do about it. Typically when we lose customers, it’s related (at least in some way) to our work. But in this case, it was beyond our control and there was nothing we could do to fix it.
We made the business decision that we should avoid layoffs and temporary layoffs at all costs. For an agency like us, our employees are the most critical part of the business.
It’s maybe not the shiniest comparison, but our people are our product and the heart of what we do. It’s their knowledge and skills that our customers benefit from. And if we’d resort to temporary layoffs, the chances would grow that we’d lose some great talents, which we obviously did not want to see happen.
We also made the business decision to keep the numbers green but not aim for any growth. We cut all unnecessary external costs. We monitored the situation closely and communicated clearly how much more we’d need to sell to break even.
This created a shared goal for the whole company, and it was great to see how everyone worked hard to do their part in selling and pulling on the same strand.
And here is the first concrete example: open and transparent communication re-united us around a common goal (breaking even) and making sure we’d not have to resort to temporary lay-offs. (A screenshot from our monthly meeting shows an example. 👇)
This situation actually had a silver lining, too. It was great to see this house full of marketers take on our own marketing.
On our side of the table, customer work is always a priority and this often leaves our own marketing as a passion project for a few.
During 2020 we did, however, have less customer work and more time to improve our own marketing. This then, in turn, attracted new customers. Quite the win-win, I’d say. Even though we made the decision to be happy with a net-zero result, we did grow +18% and made some actual profit in 2020.
Another thing that we did back then was that we made it easy to work less. Actually, we always had quite a few people that didn’t work a full 100%, and we just continued with this. But this brings me to the second point of this post.
What we will keep from remote times 📚
I think it has become evident how artificial it is to try to separate work life from your “other life”. Kids, pets, and no-make-up-faces have become a part of our working lives.
With home schools, home kindergartens, lonely times in your apartment and all, it has also been clear that we need more empathy and understanding rather than cold business talk.
Some of the practices we introduced during the pandemic also deal with how we care for each other. We always took care of these things, but I think they have become even more important in remote times. 🤗
When everyone is in the office, it’s easy to spot early warning signs of people struggling, but how do you do this when there’s a screen (or two) in between? This is where a lot of emphasis is also placed on our team leads and managers.
Everyone in the company has one-to-one discussions, and one of the core questions there is about how people are doing workload-wise and if there is anything non-work-related that they need help with.
As odd as it may sound, asking this question repeatedly creates an incredibly important psychological safety. In 99% of the cases, the answers will be ‘All good!’, but it’s for this 1% of the time when your colleague will actually tell you they are struggling.
It is totally okay to struggle. We are humans, there are things in our private life that happen, and our workload can be intense. This is where it is for us as a company to create a net that catches everyone before they fall.
And especially in remote times.
Some people might enjoy being alone, but for others, it’s incredibly hard. Whether they are balancing their family and children with work or whether their inner workaholic just doesn’t have a reason to stop working anymore.
We learned how important it is to create this psychological safety for our people. And this is something that we will continue to do, regardless of what the world around us looks like.
And you guessed it. This is another example of how open and honest communication is essential in our lives with the pandemic and the tremendous shifts in the world that we are used to.
Next, let’s talk flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, we were always quite flexible in the way we work, but there are two concrete examples that even a progressive place like ours didn’t even consider.
First of all, a function like sales can be remote. Our sales guy, Samuli, is actually about to head to Mauritius for six months from October onwards.
Just two years ago it would have been impossible that our sales would be fully remote. ‘You need to meet people in person before they buy a 15K EUR retainer from you!’ I would’ve said if someone suggested this.
Think of how much business travel there was pre-pandemic. People would go for just one meeting to another country. It seems so insane right now. The world continued to turn, and companies continued to sell services even though we didn’t meet in person anymore.
And this creates a tremendous amount of flexibility that I think will benefit us all. Work can be made to fit into our lives, not the other way around. It’s up to us to independently plan our work week and figure out the best possible ways to work.
Some like to start late and work later. Some like to work from home, some from Mauritius, and some simply like to take a longer lunch break.
And about those breaks: We really encouraged everyone to take a proper lunch break and try to get outside for a bit. (We even have a time slot reserved for “Remote work sports time” in our time-tracking system to underline this! 👇)
The other thing that I think is interesting here is the reasons for going to the office and how these have shifted.
Before the pandemic, Monday would be a traditional office day at Advance B2B. But when I think of it now, it doesn’t make so much sense anymore.
Not only do our Mondays start at 8.45 (!!) — which is incredibly difficult for anyone with small children or who likes to sleep in — but Mondays are our scrum days. It basically means the whole day is one endless meeting. Why on Earth should we rush to the office to spend the day in meetings? 🌍
Instead, I think the office will become a special place where we go for a good reason.
Think of traditional off-site events: They will soon become on-site events. Why not have the Christmas party at the office, or a company kick-off, or just gather the whole team to work together in one place?
This, too, goes back to communication. Our teams are discussing with each other how they want to work and if there should be set office days.
Office days in the future, at least I hope so, will become days when everyone looks forward to going to the office because it’s just this little extra special thing.
This reminds me of another thing we will keep as a valuable learning from our remote working times.
Before Covid, we’d have about four in-person job interviews per recruitment process.
During the pandemic, we have now hired 17 people. And none of these had any in-person interviews. Now that I think of it, it makes a lot more sense to have at least the first interview via an online meeting to save time for everyone involved.
But with all the positive things there are a few things I am happy to let go
Let’s just say it; remote parties just don’t work. I guess by this time, everyone who reads this has sat through an awkward remote afterwork or coffee session.
These work in small groups, but if you are more than ten people, they just don’t. We tried to have our traditional bubbly Friday remotely, and it was just sad.
You’ve got 40 people on a call, and the natural, bubbly conversation flow just doesn’t happen because, in this unnatural setting, only one person talks, and literally everyone else has to listen.
I can’t wait to get together for afterwork drinks, lunches at the Malmi police station, or mundane things like Christmas parties. Work can be done remotely, but fun is best in person.
Another thing I am happy to let go of is the loneliness this situation creates for some people.
I think early on in the pandemic, I saw this Instagram post that said something along the lines of: “Hi introverts, you might enjoy social distancing, but please check in with your extrovert friends.”
And that is very true. What for some people might be quite a reprieve; not having to take in the constant hustle and bustle at the office might lead to much more isolation and loneliness for others.
And while I did mention the importance of taking care of our mental well-being already earlier, I look forward to those people who want to be with others getting the chance to do this as often as possible. Both in a work context but also in our private lives.
What does the future look like?🔮
I took a look at how the past and present of working with the global pandemic has looked like at Advance B2B.
Now it’s time for some crystal ball action and taking some educated guesses about the future.
Or well, maybe not so much guessing but one question that we have discussed a lot is if we will hire fully remote teams. Today, we already have a colleague from Oulu, which is still in Finland but around 600 kilometres away from our company headquarters.
But how about other countries? I think here it comes back to us figuring out what it means to have those fully remote employees and how we can best work together to create an inviting work environment for those fully remote.
I think many companies are excited about the prospect of tapping into global talent pools, but we forget one thing in this excitement.
It might be quite easy to hire fully remote employees when everyone is remote, but what will their reality look like when at least part of their team is back at the office?
It’s easy to visualize. Just think of the one time you joined a meeting remotely, and a big part of the team was at the office. I’m going to boldly assume it was probably not great.
And this is where it, once again, comes back to communication. We need to have those open lines of communication with remote employees to learn how we can facilitate their work experience in the best possible way.
It will take some learning time, but I think if everyone wants to learn, it will be a great benefit for us. We just need to try it out with an open mind and very open communication.
What’s the verdict? What does the new normal mean?
So, this is where we are. We have and are still living through a situation that has been one of the most seismic shifts of our generation.
The world we thought we knew fell apart, but we are at the brink of something new. That is a greater amount of flexibility built on mutual open communication and trust, which will facilitate new ways of working at a much greater scale than before.
Maybe this pandemic has also shown us our own fragility and how what we think is normal and taken for granted can so easily be taken away from us. There is more to life than just work, work, work, work, work — even though Rihanna made it sound so catchy.