Finding ways to keep culture alive will be how we stay creative throughout COVID-19

The Hallway's Jules Hall reflects on the past week of running his agency remotely, and says the key to protecting culture (and therefore, creativity) in an uncertain, isolated period lies in small moments of humanity.

The week that was.

Eighteen months ago I set a personal goal of competing in the Masters Sailing World Championships. It was due to start just over a week ago. Of course it’s not happening now (as it shouldn’t be). Instead I was back in Sydney learning how to run an advertising agency when your staff all work in their own (home) offices.

Some of The Hallways ‘Pics of the Day’

First thing’s first. This is all new. Yes, we had a business continuity plan. But we didn’t have one that said the whole world would be contagious with a virus that was only discovered three months ago. So we’re very much learning as we go. Which is scary, but also a massive opportunity.

I do think one positive from this crisis is that it will force us to find a more flexible, more effective, way of working. And that’s pretty cool.

In the spirit of collaboration, I thought it might be useful to share my learnings so far.

Managing communication

On Sunday 15 March, we convened an emergency leadership team meeting. We agreed it was our duty to protect our people and to do what we could to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We sent an email asking all those that could to work from home and invited everyone to attend a Google Hangout at 9am Monday for more updates.

This was our first stroke of luck. We migrated the agency onto Google’s G-Suite five years ago. In 2016, we opened our Melbourne office. Since then we’ve very much worked as one agency with two doorways, avoiding duplication of resources wherever possible. That necessarily requires a lot of collaboration between our two offices. And we’ve gotten reasonably proficient at it.

The first all-staff Hangout went well. So we decided to make them regular.

We set up two daily Hangouts for everyone to attend. 9am and 5pm. These are 15-minute check-ins where the whole agency gets together. Major news can be shared and anyone can raise any issues or concerns.

Having one person acting as host is important. Rather than being a newsreader, their role is more one of a compere. There probably won’t be major news announcements twice a day, but there probably will be lots of things people want to raise in the group forum (there has been so far anyway). Using the chat function in Hangouts means it’s easy for people to ask questions and then the host can curate who talks when.

So far, so good.

Protecting the culture

Agencies over-index on culture. They do it for a reason. Creativity flourishes in certain environments and dies in others.

One of the big things we’ve been wrestling with is how to transfer the culture that oozes through our buildings into everyone’s virtual offices (aka sitting rooms).

We’re definitely experimenting here.

One of the comments that came up early on was the loneliness of working from home every day. It’s not so much the lack of dialogue – email, chat, and Hangouts are going all the time. It’s more the ease of making every conversation a functional conversation.

That’s not how humans like to live. The casual chat is super important. We want to understand each other as individuals; it’s how we empathise, contextualise and understand.

On Wednesday morning, my colleague Jess shared a picture of some chillies and flowers she picked from her garden. She asked others to share a snapshot from their days and, suddenly, ‘Pic of the Day’ was established. We’re doing it on all staff emails at the moment. This isn’t ideal, so we are going to experiment with Google Chat Rooms (similar to Slack, but keeping it in our known ecosystem).

Channel aside, the power of this type of communication is undoubtedly strong. Just seeing a glimpse into each other’s worlds is really heartening.

One of The Hallway’s ‘fancy dress’ Hangouts

The next thing that happened was the rapid evolution of the daily town hall into a fancy dress extravaganza. It’s funny. It gives you something to think about as the call approaches (gotta have a good outfit). But most important of all, it’s human. And that’s probably my biggest learning: Having and using the tech is but step one. It’s the less obvious, but arguably more important, human interactions that you need to recreate. They really matter.

On Friday we had agency drinks at 4:30pm. Virtually of course, over a Hangout. I raised a glass with a team that has done a brilliant job of moving so smoothly to a virtual way of working.

Jules Hall is CEO of The Hallway


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