AWAdvance: How to Be Creative While Working Remotely

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In partnership with TriNet

Click here to watch the panel.

As people have been physically isolated from each other for almost a year, the workplace has undergone dramatic changes that could extend beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

A study by TriNet, an HR solutions provider, estimated that 63% of employees were now home-based and that 58% of the workforce wanted greater flexibility long-term, suggesting that some of these WFH adaptations businesses have devised this past year, could influence how we work long term.

Advertising Week’s Ruth Mortimer, managing director, global education, talked to three marketing leaders about overcoming the hurdles of remote working, inspiring creativity, onboarding new talent and creating corporate culture from home.

In AWAdvance: How to Be Creative While Working Remotely, a webinar presented by TriNet, Mortimer interviewed Jason Harris, co-founder and CEO at Mekanism, a leading independent advertising agency, Jessica McGlory, head of growth at Verb Energy direct-to-consumer protein bars, and Kevin Hunt, SVP of global marketing at video advertising platform SpotX.

How Creative Teams Can Overcome Challenges of Remote Work

For better or worse, Zoom meetings, check-ins, socializing and brainstorms are commonplace—and also pose some of remote working’s greatest challenges.

“Creativity doesn’t happen on demand. It doesn’t happen because the meeting is scheduled and that is when a good idea pops up,” said Mekanism’s Harris about brainstorming by Zoom. “The best ideas really are not going to surface from a “Brady Bunch” grid and a bunch of talking heads.”

At Mekanism, Harris has introduced a number of workarounds that make 9-5 video calls a little more relatable. For example, the agency schedules “Mek Off” open time blocks across all of its offices, so people can get off camera, go out for some fresh air and come back mentally refreshed.

“If you pile meetings on top of each other, which we did at the beginning, the creativity is going to suffer,” he said.

After the lockdown began, Hunt’s initial focus was to identify the best technology for his global team.

“Soon after March, when the pandemic hit and we were all huddled at home, there were a few things that came to light right away that we needed to address,” said Hunt. The first one was speaking a common language for communicating decisions and getting campaigns launched as a marketing team.” For Hunt and the SpotX team, the Asana project management platform became the early “language” of his department.

McGlory had recently started working at Verb Energy before the lockdown and she leads a team of mostly new hires, who have never met in person. Getting to know each other and not feel self-conscious sharing ideas was their greatest, initial challenge.

Picking up tone and nuance always requires effort, especially when team-mates have never met in real life. “A lot of us didn’t know each other, we didn’t know each other’s mannerisms,” said  McGlory of early Zoom calls. “Someone could think someone didn’t like their idea, and really they were probably just checking their email and might not be paying attention.”

The ice-breaker came when McGlory and her team were putting together a major campaign shortly after the pandemic hit. The idea was to get Verb Energy bars into the hands of worn-out first responders, a goal that was warmly embraced by all. This helped bring the group together. “We were able to work out these [communication] kinks for this campaign because we felt so aligned and wanted to make an impact,” she said.

Boosting Morale During Tough Times 

Poll respondents said morale  was an important challenge in the remote workplace so Mortimer asked her guests how they got their teams to play well together without too many awkward social moments.

Hunt said he has helped to elevate morale by adapting his management style to be more of a cheerleader to his team.

“It is important to be pragmatic, but it is also important to be positive about what we can do and achieve together and to remind people about what we have already achieved and what we are going to go and do,” he said.

Hunt also has learned how to inspire via Zoom, to weave narratives, as a way to inform and motivate his at-home teammates. “Lead through inspirational storytelling to make up for the lack of in-person interactions,” he recommended. “Leaders also have to develop a sense of being comfortable in front of the camera.”

Onboarding New Team Members

Mortimer asked these leaders how they had adapted to the remote onboarding of new employees.

McGlory said that Verb’s co-founder and chief people officer holds onboarding sessions for new hires that include the sharing of inside jokes. Within McGlory’s own team, she assigns “little buddies” so people have an immediate personal connection.

We are not telling someone you have to be their buddy,” she said of the opt-in program. “We usually try to find those with common interests that are passion points—sports, music. We really want it to have nothing to do with work.”

Because SpotX marketers are digital-first, Hunt discovered that the company’s onboarding process smoothly transitioned to virtual, a good thing considering his team is dispersed across the United States, London and Singapore. Employees hired since the lockdown pursued similar orientation programs and achieved the same benchmarks as those onboarded before the pandemic. SpotX’s extensive, 30-60-90-day program includes virtually meeting important stakeholders and learning about the company and its customers, he said.

“The pandemic was an opportunity for us to lean into all the digital tools we have,” added Hunt.

Maintaining Company Culture From Home

Harris, Hunt and McGlory agreed that maintaining a sense of company culture improved both morale and creative output.

Verb Energy held a pizza night at home, shipping the ingredients to employees. “We even had a mentalist and my team got a bunch of screenshots of me which were funny,” said McGlory, adding that all social events were optional. “We make sure people still have a choice,” she said.

In addition to Mekanism’s Mek Off company-wide breaks, Harris has introduced two other agency-wide gatherings that are helping to maintain culture. Mek Mondays tee up the workweek. “It is run by a different person each week and is a half-hour snapshot of what is happening that week,” said Harris.

Fridays, Harris reviews the three Cs of the week: COVID, our clients and what’s going on at the company. “It is casual, you can be eating lunch,” he said. “It’s just a way for people to feel connected.”

Mekanism’s annual summit, which typically gathered the agency together for a few days together camping or at the beach, could not be held in person in 2020. Instead, Harris built team spirit by sending everyone on staff pajamas to wear while they listened to summit speakers from home.

“It certainly wasn’t the same, but I think trying to keep up with the traditions that you have in your company, but modifying them, is important to help with morale,” said Harris.

As the pandemic endures, the three leaders said that creating space for employees to pause and scheduling one-on-one check-ins to allay misunderstandings and create team harmony was perhaps the most important advice of all.

Harris has opened up his calendar to include time for individual conversations.

At SpotX, an employee experience manager schedules regular virtual meetings about mental health and emotional-intelligence training.

“We have company-wide mental health days, we give employees time off if they need it,” said Hunt.

Through the Zoom brainstorms, remote projects and virtual team-building sessions, McGlory advocated leading people with extra care and understanding. “We all need a little grace during these times,” she said.

Best Digital Finds During the Pandemic

Jessica McGlory: Notion all-in-one workspace for project management. “We introduced it a few months ago and it caught on like wildfire.”

Kevin Hunt: A subscription to a streaming service. “The amount of video content that has been created and what we can learn is mindblowing.”

Jason Harris: Slack and the Headspace app. “We switched over to Slack, we were behind the times. The amount of time it has saved on emails is amazing. Headspace has been a game-changer.”


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