In the context of the global coronavirus pandemic, the world of work has entered a dramatic new phase. Whereas daily life was focused on working in offices and face-to-face meetings, the need for social distancing has created a new normal based primarily on remote working.
However, a recent analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on businesses – conducted by Marketing Week and its sister title Econsultancy – reveals some alarming findings about marketers’ attitudes towards, and preparations for, remote working.
Only 40% of the 887 UK brand marketers surveyed say their business is “very proficient” at enabling remote work. Half of marketers believe their company will be compromised by an increase in remote work, while 68% of senior marketers are concerned that creative collaboration will suffer.
Asked if there will be any significant long-term changes in working practices once the threat of the virus has abated, just 32% of UK marketers think their working life will return to normal entirely.
Remote working has long been a regular part of working life, but it’s clear that doubts remain about its validity, particularly when it comes to issues around trust and productivity. Some 92% of senior marketers admit that remote working is not suited to everyone, while 37% believe it is not well suited to junior staff.
This is the first time we’ve seen large organisations adopting the policy at scale and new formats need to be found to keep people motivated, spark ideas and stimulate communication.
It’s a perfect storm for leaders and particularly for leaders in marketing, given that the role of the marketer is to bring insight into the organisation.
Mark Evans, Direct Line
Technology, video conferencing, webcams and messaging services can all bring greater engagement, but it’s how marketers communicate and interact in a meaningful way, not just with work colleagues but with their wider networks, that will be key.
Former Adidas and Diageo marketer Leila Fataar is the founder of consultancy Platform 13, which helps brands connect with a new breed of agencies and creatives. Having always had a flexible mindset that comes from working with startups, the events of recent weeks have not presented too much of a culture shock for Fataar.
However, she believes larger companies and big brands will have to change their ways of thinking and shake off entrenched ideas about staff working from home being too disconnected and distracted.
“People talk about this being an age of experience, but actually it’s an age of uncertainty,” she states.
“You have to be able to flex around these changes as they come. You need to shift your plans according to what’s happening in the world, to be able to quickly pivot and identify what needs to change in order for you to still do good work.”
Fataar calls this enforced wave of remote working the “new normal”, and it is tempting to view this as a pivotal moment that will usher in an age where the old employment structures no longer apply.
“Corporate people like structure and security, but this is a different way of working,” she says. “These are transformational times, everything’s changing and it’s exciting.”
As firms navigate their way though this transition, staying connected and motivated is vital. Managing director for marketing and digital at Direct Line Group, Mark Evans, believes that a lack of clarity about the dangers of the virus, coupled with mixed messages about what people can and cannot do in their everyday lives, is making it harder to motivate people in their work.
“This is a huge leadership challenge, because people are in a threat state, there’s so little that is certain,” he says.
“Basically, they’re scared. It’s a perfect storm for leaders and particularly for leaders in marketing, given that the role of the marketer is to bring insight into the organisation, to see what’s going to be happening down the road, to future-spot and get the organisation future-ready.”
On a practical level, Evans recommends keeping some sort of routine to working days to help maintain energy levels and keep minds thinking creatively. “People still need to feel that sense of achievement, it’s in all of us. It’s not performance management per se, just about keeping people motivated through achievement,” he adds.
Communication is an obvious, but still crucial factor in keeping team spirit alive, especially anything that lifts the mood and gets everyone back into a familiar routine of relaxed interaction.
Corporate people like structure and security, but this is a different way of working.
Leila Fataar, Platform 13
Neil Perkin, founder of digital consultancy Only Dead Fish which specialises in organisational agility, believes that informal virtual get-togethers and catch-ups are just as essential – if not more so – than a formal conference call.
“Things like virtual coffee breaks, where people can just sort of hang out together, have one-to-ones and have that kind of connection are as important as any formal meetings,” he says.
It’s all about creating an atmosphere of connection and trust. It is important also to think about a different way of measuring achievement, away from clock-watching and the rigid framework of the 9am to 5pm.
“The leadership attitude has to focus more on outputs, rather than presenteeism,” Perkin adds. “I think over time this will naturally play out and we’ll see more flexibility.”
Equally, there’s a need to prioritise and be realistic about what people can achieve, at least in the short term. Evans believes that the current situation will lead to a more productive way of working, mainly because we’re going to see a major shift in how we communicate and how we relate to – and look after – each other.
“I think it will further cement the mental health agenda,” he says. “There isn’t going to be an individual in the world who isn’t going to have some sort of mental health impact as a result of this.”
TSB CMO, Peter Markey, stresses the need for developing a more engaging, familiar dialogue with staff.
“Now’s a really important time for any business to recognise people in the entirety of their lives. As leaders we have to find the opportunity to bring teams together,” he advises.
“How do we inject a sense of fun into our interactions? What will make up for not going for that beer after work, or dinner with an agency?”
The leadership attitude has to focus more on outputs, rather than presenteeism.
Neil Perkin, Only Dead Fish
In the traditional office set-up people were used to spending more time with their colleagues than their families. Those sort of work connections will still need to be strengthened and developed, even in an increasingly virtual world.
Markey talks about companies arranging online gaming sessions during lunch-breaks and predicts we’ll soon see more ways of keeping staff connected beyond their working hours.
“You do lose a bit of camaraderie when you’re not together,” he states.
“We shouldn’t make everything transactional; it shouldn’t all be about asking if a certain task has been done. It’s more asking how things are coming along, how are we all feeling? Each person will have their own story to tell and we have to provide the support and the listening ear. And we’re learning the best way to do that day-by-day.”
Structure your day
Plenty of people are already used to working remotely, particularly in creative sectors where freelancing and flexible approaches have long been established.
Colin Watkins is UK country manager for language-learning platform Duolingo, a US company with offices also in China and Mexico.
Watkins works from his home in south London and has to negotiate tricky time differences with the rest of his team. “Working remotely was a massive change. I was so used to having people around me, but now I structure my days and turn things like the time difference into a positive,” he explains.
By freeing himself up from the usual time-frames, he can adapt his working day accordingly. Watkins readily admits that he’s lucky; he loves his job, believes in the brand and has a good working relationship with his boss in the US. Now familiar with remote working, he sees the value in structuring his day in the most productive way possible.
We shouldn’t make everything transactional; it shouldn’t all be about asking if a certain task has been done.
Peter Markey, TSB
“At Duolingo they’re really comfortable with the idea that you might need some extra time in the day for personal reasons and then work a little later in the evening,” Watkins explains.
“You really value your time when you work from home. I don’t think anybody who works from home does a traditional 9am to 5pm. It doesn’t happen.”
Watkins likes to use the hour or so he saves on commuting for taking a walk, listening to podcasts and letting his mind empty.
Evans agrees that how workers structure their day away from the laptop is just as important as how they plan work time, as it helps people to feel fresh and energised.
Meanwhile, Perkin urges marketers working remotely to think about how they make it work for them.
“You’ve got to create your own space, a dedicated workplace. How you schedule your day has to work for you, including how you take breaks and switch off. You’re going to get work blurring into life, so there’s a danger of overwork,” he explains.
There’s also a need to look beyond the team bubble and get an outside perspective. Staying in contact with clients doesn’t just make good business sense, it also stops cabin fever and can give a different angle on a particular project.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes the UK will have got a grip on the spread of the coronavirus within the next 12 weeks. So when the Covid-19 pandemic eventually abates, will everyone simply return to their regular working day?
Questions about the nature of work are already being asked. “Whenever we come out of this, things won’t ever be the same again,” says Markey.
“We have a huge capacity as humans to learn and hopefully this will move us in a direction of some positive things, that will help us work in a more productive way.”
Perkin is also optimistic that good things will come, for the benefit of both employee and employer. “Longer term, I would hope that work becomes more focused on the needs of the individual, as much as the organisation, and that there’s a rebalance that works for both,” he says. “This is a gigantic experiment.”
Evans is equally confident that this watershed moment will signal at least one hugely significant turning point in our working lives: “The greatest gift from all this is that it will finally smash the taboo that home working is home shirking.”