Building culture through COVID-19

Sally Kissane
By Sally Kissane | 25 September 2020
Sally Kissane

Sally Kissane, managing director, Ogilvy

Five years ago when we set out our Agency Vision we built a chart of the key pillars for growth.  We put culture as the foundational pillar that underpinned everything. 

We believed anything and everything is possible when you have the right culture in place.

It made a great deal of sense for me in 2015. It makes even more sense to me in 2020, a year dominated by COVID-19.

Do a quick survey about what people thought agency ‘culture’ was 6 months ago and there’s no doubt most would have said it’s the cool people working under the same roof, in a cool office, with a few cool parties thrown into the mix. So what happens when all three of those things are taken away?

Does your company culture disappear with it? I am sure that was a fear many had in March. But what we’ve realised is our values, beliefs and attitudes are still there. And in fact, as predicted all those years ago, it has become the bedrock holding us relatively steady as a team these last few months.

Most agencies have been faced with making terribly difficult decisions, balancing what is right for their business and what is right their people. Including us. Agencies have been faced with brutal calls of redundancies, reduced working hours, and in some cases reduced pay.

Your culture dictates the impact of these tough decisions. One of our key values has helped considerably here – transparency. As Brené Brown says, ‘It’s unkind to be unclear’. We are open and honest about the realities. We possibly overshare, but we do it to make sure everyone knows the landscape, what they can expect from us, and what we expect of them. So when tough calls are required, there is a good common understanding as to why, and importantly, our people trust we are putting them first.

If your people feel respected, know you’re being honest and decisions are not taken lightly, then in times like these, they are more likely to trust you and make a sacrifice for the greater good.

Which brings me to one of our other key values which has become more important than ever – trust. Your people have to trust you as a leader, but you also have to trust your people. In the past, many leaders have been hesitant to let people WFH, because the thinking was when your people are not literally present in the office, they are not present at work. How can you be sure they’re not skiving off?

We’ve found nothing could be further from the truth. We’re working harder than ever. In fact, it has become really evident our people don’t know how to shut off. The downside of being eternally connected via platforms such as Teams, is it is actually making it hard for people to know when to turn off.

As a leadership team, it is up to us to set the right example. Working from home does not mean working all night, or as I have heard it put, it does not mean you are now living at work. It is important your team knows they don’t have to ‘prove’ they are working hard just because they are working from home.

We have learned through this time that most of us thrive through flexibility. COVID-19 has proven to us we don’t need ‘rules’ around work hours. My belief is our agency is in a better place as a result of the flexibility we have been able to embrace during this time. And one thing is for sure, we will never go back to the strict 9-5 (laugh) work hours of the past. I think this is one thing most of us are excited about being part of the ‘new normal’.

I am positive about the outlook, but I am also realistic about the current situation. There is no doubt the world of COVID-19 has put an extraordinary burden on our people. When you don’t have the benefit of the water cooler check ins to know what is going on in someone’s life, it’s safe to assume everyone is going through something. Whether it’s struggling with being apart from family, friends and colleagues, struggling spending too much time at home with family, or much more challenging issues – everyone has a struggle of some sort.

Here are some things I have found helpful to support culture on a day-to-day basis:

Check-in regularly. And I mean more than just a phone call, but really check-in. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to share, but we need to find ways to genuinely start a dialogue. RUOK?, a foundation that is near and dear to our hearts, has great tips on opening up conversations that get beyond the initial question of RUOK?

Unify the teams around something that has purpose for them, beyond their day job. We have given our teams broad permission to use any downtime to pursue what means most to them. For our creative folks that means they have time to pursue creative opportunities that may not necessarily be prioritised. It’s given them a great outlet to explore their talents, but also has resulted in some really amazing initiatives including one to help shine a light on work-place sexual harassment, a project to help those with disabilities, and even one to encourage normalising the use of face masks. We survey our teams regularly (more so now) to make sure we have a good read on how people feel, and what they need to get through this time. We have been amazed our overall employee NPS has actually gone up during COVID.

Almost every week or so we try new things to get everyone connecting. This week is virtual trivia. 

We’ve had dog days, talent shows, and virtual drinks trolleys. Every time I’m amazed at how much our people get into it. Who would have thought a virtual talent show would work (and we had a seriously good pole dancer in our midst)? Building ways to connect is not a set and forget thing.

Keep it fresh and keep trying new things.
Now more than ever, culture is the basis for your success. As leaders we need to focus on it to help our agencies thrive because our people are our most valuable asset. This is the one thing that will make the biggest impact on our ability to navigate this crisis. Sure, we need to win more pitches, sure we need do more for our clients. But all that is impossible if our people are not informed, understood, respected, appreciated, motivated and happy. 

Good culture = Good business.

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