It’s interesting that since we went into lockdown in the UK back in March 2020, our business has grown significantly. Thrived, you might say.
That’s not an idle boast – more of an observation.
When it all kicked off, there was a relatively short period of time when the business world seemed to stop functioning – and marketing was the last thing on anyone’s mind. In the space of a week, we received news from a number of clients that their marketing budget had either been put on hold, or removed altogether.
We looked outside and saw tumbleweed. It was eerily quiet out there.
This was at a point where talk of furlough schemes, grants and loans were just talk. Nothing concrete. What had previously been a very healthy, rosy-cheeked financial forecast, started to look, well, pretty peeky actually. Not quite so healthy after all.
Covid was a virus attacking not just bodies, but bank balances too. It was a pretty scary time, and not all agencies came through it intact.
You could say we were lucky.
We didn’t have clients in the hospitality sector, or in travel, or the arts. And as the Zoom boom kicked in and our clients got used to using Microsoft Teams, things started to get back on track, back to ‘normal’.
The team was brought back from furlough and we quickly reached capacity again.
But it didn’t stop. The work kept coming. We started growing, we started recruiting. Even during lockdown, and second lockdown and regional lockdowns, the business kept coming in.
Why was that?
Probably a number of reasons.
We’d used the ‘quiet’ time to reframe our offer. We updated our website. We invested even more in marketing ourselves (yes, it does work).
But (possibly) more than anything, we all changed the way we work. Not just us – everyone. And we changed the way businesses interact with each other.
All of a sudden, it was OK for an initial meeting to be held as a video call. In fact, it was the only way to do it.
Planning a meeting became easier. No need to work out how long it was going to take to get to a destination, or where to park, or what train to catch. No need to add in extra travel time to allow for traffic and delays.
No need to spend time in cars, on station platforms – dead time, unproductive time.
Everything became more efficient. It didn’t need someone to walk down from their office to meet us at reception. We didn’t have to make sure we were there 15 minutes ahead of the meeting (more dead time). We didn’t have to fanny around signing in, obtaining security passes and then hang around as the coffee machine made 4 plastic cups of ‘not coffee’ before heading to the meeting room.
We didn’t have to spend 15 minutes trying to sign in to the guest WIFI and hook up our laptops to screens with connections and adaptors we didn’t have. No need to call IT.
Meetings started on time and ended on time. The thankyous and goodbyes were super quick – they had to be, because we all had another meeting lined up minutes later.
Pre-lockdown, trying to fit in 2 external meetings in a day was often a logistical conundrum. Once we were up to speed on Teams, 4 meetings or more per day became a breeze.
Which actually meant that we were seeing our clients more often, building better, stronger relationships. And it also meant that new business meetings didn’t get in the way of delivering what our clients needed. A real bonus there.
And another thing about meetings; they became less formal.
Particularly those first ‘we don’t really know each other’ business meetings. The ones where the agency turns up to a building they’ve never been to, to meet a bunch of people they’ve never met, dressed in the attire that they hope won’t offend the dress culture of the client.
There were always certain conventions surrounding face to face meetings. Start with small talk, try and find some common ground, establish a connection. Remember handing out business cards?
Does anyone do that now?
Small talk is easy on a video call.
How’s the weather where you are (we are British, after all)? Oh really – whereabouts do you live? I’ve never been to <insert town>, is it nice? Or, wow – I went to college in <insert town>, is the <insert name of pub> still there?
You can’t just come out with ‘Where do you live?’ the first time you meet someone in a meeting room. It just sound weird and stalky.
During lockdown especially, we were (virtually) meeting in each other’s homes. Apart from a short period of time when everyone was using ‘funny’ virtual backgrounds, we were all getting a sneak peak into each other’s daily lives. We’d meet their dog. Their cat would sit on their head. We’d find out what they were having delivered today from Amazon – we’d get to know them better.
Of course, they’d get to know us too. The wonky pictures on the wall would show them our family, the books on the shelf would reveal our interests, or our football allegiances. The record collection in the corner would tell clients whether we were punk, new wave or new romantic.
We’d build rapport, find out what it was going to like working with each other.
And another thing. When we’re in a video meeting we’re all on home territory. We all know where the toilet is. We’re all feeling comfortable in our surroundings. We’re dressed the way we would normally. We might even be wearing trousers*.
There’s no pretence. It makes for a more relaxed atmosphere. And when we’re relaxed, we all tend to be more open and transparent. We build trust.
OK, there are some downsides to the working from home / video meeting culture we’ve developed:
During a presentation, it can be difficult to gauge the reaction of the audience, especially when it’s a big meeting and half the attendees are on mute, or have their picture turned off because they’re eating a Big Mac. It’s easier to ‘feel the room’ when you’re face to face. And even if you can see the faces, you can’t read the body language.
And of course, the tech doesn’t always work. Time lags and WIFI instability can make some conversations a bit painful. And videos always freeze during your most unflattering facial expressions.
Nothing’s ever perfect.
It’s not just about meetings.
The pandemic forced us to rethink a lot of things. Working from home wasn’t completely new to us at Really Helpful Marketing; we’d done it before, but generally in exceptional circumstances – say if we were up against a deadline and needed some focused, quite time. Or if we were travelling to a meeting that day and it was pointless heading to the office first. Or if the plumber was coming to fix the boiler.
But we were largely of the impression that we mostly needed to be in the office together to be a team, to be efficient.
That was clearly false.
Certainly, there are advantages to being together in an office environment – you’re more likely to hear conversations – you might pick up on someone getting stressed, someone who needs some help or advice. It’s easier to ask a quick question as someone’s walking past your desk. It’s easier to look up and check if someone’s ok.
And you can sort out a difference of opinion with a quick chat rather than a lengthy and time-consuming exchange on Teams or Email. Sometimes it’s good to get into the office for a change of scene, mix it up a bit.
But the attitude displayed by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg when he urged ministers to ‘send a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office’ reflects a dinosaur mentality.
The world has evolved.
During the pandemic, the world was forced to evolve quicker than we might otherwise have expected, but the change was coming anyway. Working people have adapted to new ways of working and they like working that way.
Of course, we’re not all so lucky. There are many, many jobs that can’t be done remotely – not yet, anyway. For the most part this flexibility is restricted to us white-collar and creative types. In the future, who knows?
But there’s no doubt that the ability to work remotely has helped to give our business a boost – and we’re lucky we have a team that’s been able to make it work.
I think they appreciate the flexibility in their lives. They can deal with a problem at home and not have to lose time at work. Or if they have to lose working time, it’s much easier to make that time up. Parents can get their kids to school, and see them when they get home. No one’s getting stressed because they’re late for work.
And when you remove those kind of unnecessary stresses, when you give people more flexibility – they get more work done. For us, that’s just good sense.
Either Rees-Mogg is living in a time warp (which would explain a lot) or he’s failing to appreciate the benefits of home working. The working world has evolved – and in a good way.
*For the record, we were wearing trousers. And pants. Or were we?