Published on October 15, 2020, at 12:08 p.m.
by Katey Quinn.
Imagine that you log onto Facebook Workplace to watch your CEO give his monthly address to employees across the globe. You expect a routine meeting reporting on what is going on throughout the company. Instead, you see a woman in a pink wig, DJing her heart out to flashing lights and EDM music to kick it off. Welcome to company meetings in 2020.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the workplace, perhaps in many ways forever. It has become an assumed new fact of life — like death and taxes. While the work-from-home culture is brand new to most and may not end any time soon, it does not mean that work life has become nonexistent or is somehow ineffective and boring. Creativity is the very nature of public relations, and the field is full of inventive folks who now must find new and unconventional routes to maintain the best of their former collegial cultures via Zoom.
With 59% of agencies reporting that they expect about half of their staff to return to offices globally, reality has set in and the conversation has shifted from “when this is all over” to “this is not going away.” So how do companies bring that same workplace energy over a computer screen? It takes innovative strategies and tactics.
Genuine fun versus forced interaction
Following the shutdown in March, many agencies and companies tried to continue to host some of their most beloved workplace traditions virtually. From trivia nights to Friday bar carts, these events were transitioned to the comfort of employees’ home offices. But the greatest challenge that work-from-home culture faces may be less about how to get co-workers together and more about how to keep people coming back.
“The thing about virtual events is they help people feel connected to each other the first few times, but then just about every meeting idea loses its novelty almost immediately,” said Kelly Kenny, an associate creative director at Ketchum. “Everything has a rapid cycle of deterioration during COVID, so it’s been really hard to maintain event culture.”
Kenny has made it her personal mission to be a force for fun throughout Ketchum’s transition to working remotely. She has put on costumes, wigs and glittery glasses, thrown dance parties, and DJed Ketchum’s global meetings. To say the least, she does not just attend meetings, she performs at them.
“A week into working from home I invited 10 people who I knew would want to dance with me to a 15-minute dance party — just to have a little fun. Then people just started forwarding it and forwarding it, and the same day it had spread all around the New York office with 55 people dancing it out on a video call,” Kenny explained. “Because it was such a hit, Ketchum asked me to do one globally, and there were 125 people on it. What became a weekly companywide event, started as just a way for me to get some of that anxiety out.”
Larger agencies and companies are now counting on their individual employees to bring their creativity and personalities to the job and foster the same communal connections they once had virtually. While any company can throw an online dance party, it’s that special connection to the people at the dance party that engages them and commands attention.
“There are always those people in your office or organization that can authentically bring people together and have that magnetic pull — where people will think, ‘I want to see what she is going to do so I’ll join for 15 minutes,’” said Kenny. In Ketchum’s case, she is a gleaming example of someone who can keep people coming back.
New hires joining remotely ask, “What culture?”
As this “new normal” transitions to what is now just “normal,” more people will join a fully remote company without ever meeting co-workers or bosses in person. Understanding the playing field becomes more difficult without the benefit of side conversations where people can see and relate to a co-worker as a person, not just a face on a screen. While it may be more challenging to onboard virtually, there are many positives to teaching culture online than some would expect.
Nora Wahlbrink was brought on as an associate at Breakwater Strategy in April right in the middle of the pandemic’s phase-one shutdowns. She may have been one of the first at her company to be onboarded remotely, but it has surprisingly been a very positive experience for her.
“When I first started it was a very confusing time because it was only the second week into quarantine, so I hadn’t heard of anyone else onboarding virtually,” said Wahlbrink. “They had a virtual happy hour to welcome me to the team, and every Monday we have an internal meeting with everyone just to level-set. Because we do so much with Zoom and have a lot of internal calls, it has actually seemed more normal than I ever would have expected.”
Companies are putting more effort than ever into culture-building among their ranks. In fact, the harder and more actively a company works to nurture its culture, the more likely it is to see an overall return and improvement in the workplace. 88% of employees have even reported an increase of satisfaction in their employers as a result of the pandemic.
“You have so much control over your own schedule now. I can wake up and work out before going to work. I’ve gained a lot of my time back. The flexibility of working from home has been such a positive,” said Wahlbrink.
But she also mentioned how if a company tries too hard, then employees will not be as interested. “Zoom is not a replacement for human interaction,” underscored Wahlbrink.
For companies to thrive as more people continue to work from home, employers must resist the temptation to compare the new working environments to the way things used to be. What worked before might not necessarily work now.
As time goes on, expectations of the workplace are evolving, and employees are discovering the common ground between what physically being present once felt like to now being virtually present. Adjusting to this new era will take time, positivity and creativity, but the upside is that everyone is battling one common enemy: the screen that separates us.
Unquestionably, the most forward-thinking companies and agencies will rise above the challenges to invent intriguing and rewarding new ways of working and collaboration through interactive technologies.