John Sanders, Chief Operating Officer of PR agency McCann Central, talks about how the firm adapted to remote working, how it’s looking after its teams’ wellbeing, and what its future hybrid working model will look like.
Q: How have you dealt with working remotely during the pandemic?
A: We have found that our entire workforce has been incredibly resilient and adaptable. Crucial to the overnight change was the work of our IT team putting secure, remote working into practice as soon as possible and updating systems when necessary. We also put processes into place to help teams pick up items like chairs from the office safely and within regulations so that they would not get long-term back problems from working long periods in unhealthy conditions. To make these processes work we trained up covid marshalls across our network. This was a really important part of making trips into the office, when absolutely necessary, safe.
We have done some fantastic work during the pandemic with our teams winning several prestigious Cannes Lions Awards despite having to work remotely. We have also created various campaigns that react to the situation we are in. We’ve partnered with our clients to create work that has been delivered adapting to the climate we are in just as much as we have adapted ourselves.
This has shown us that even in incredibly challenging circumstances our team stays connected and collaborative, and there are benefits to the way we have been working in the pandemic that we would like to keep. However, there are certain functions that cannot wait to get back to working face to face with each other as part of the creative process. It’s this feedback that we want to use going forward.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges of having staff that need to work with large files for graphic design in a safe and secure system?
A: Because of what we do involves large film files or visuals we needed to have a system that could support that. Like many in our industry we went into lockdown overnight and had to completely change the way we worked just as quickly.
The work that our IT team has done to allow our teams to cope with that change has been invaluable. However, by putting in place covid safety measures when restrictions allowed, we were also able to allow a small amount of people into the office and keep them safely socially distanced if they had no alternative but to come into the office.
Q: Has the pandemic changed how you recruit?
A: Diversity, equity and inclusion is a key pillar of our philosophy and we pride ourselves on actively encouraging talent from all backgrounds. We’re always looking for passionate employees who can offer something different and recognise the value that diversity brings to our business. This has become central to our recruitment strategy, irrespective of the pandemic.
While the talent we recruit hasn’t changed, the interview process has. In the past we’ve done trial days in the office or given them a tour to show candidates what our working environment is like and to allow them to meet our people. It is significantly harder to do that over video interview, but we have recruited some fantastic people since the first lockdown.
We have to understand that while interviewing a candidate is difficult for us, it is even more challenging for them to get a grasp on the company and its people just from a video interview, so we sometimes have to extend interviews to do that. It’s vital that both parties are comfortable and on the same page!
Q: What is McCann’s plan for hybrid working once the pandemic abates?
A: We have been constantly looking at different ways of working and how we can flex the hours to suit the lifestyles of our people. Sometimes that is hybrid working and sometimes not, but we’ve used feedback from our own teams to make sure the plans that we have made work for all of us.
We have already put into plan our phased return to the office. However, we’ve made it well known across our company that going into the office is entirely voluntary. It’s important to us that we’re catering for all experiences of the pandemic and many people will be anxious about a return. We also found that socialising, impromptu collaboration and getting boundaries between home and work life were all frequently referenced reasons to get back in the office.
Q: What impact do you think hybrid working has on the McCann workforce? And what have been the challenges?
A: While there has been so much change to the way we work in the past year we feel that there are many positives to how we work, with our employees citing not commuting, saving money, fewer distractions, and flexible hours as some of the reasons they liked hybrid working. However, there are challenges that we have to come through, including a disconnection from the wider team and social isolation.
On balance elements of hybrid working have been positive, and we will continue in this mode as we slowly move back into the office, with choice and support key throughout. Yet while there have been positives, we must support those members of our team suffering from the negatives of isolation.
We have to balance the individual and collective business needs, as well as realising that our company is driven by the creativity and culture that thrives in an office situation. A hybrid construct of home-based and office-based work will be our model going forward. This to be an evolving process - we will test, listen, learn, and calibrate as we go.
Q: If you could give another employer one piece of advice about hybrid working what would that be?
A: Listen to your employees and communicate with them all the time. Every single industry is different, and every single person has had a different experience of the pandemic. We cannot expect a blanket policy to suit everyone, so we have to continue to listen, learn and calibrate as we go.
Q: How have you ensured your employees are engaged when working remotely?
A: With more than 500 people employed by McCann Central across our offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Leeds and London it could have been a difficult task to keep everyone in touch.
However, we’ve been constantly learning and improving throughout the pandemic. We’ve made sure that employees can express themselves anonymously through staff surveys and this has allowed us to react and create programmes that help employees.
We also wanted our teams to know that the great work they do is having a direct effect on the business and that the creativity they show every day is valued highly by everyone in the business. That’s why at regular department and company-wide meetings we highlight and celebrate these moments. It brings people together to keep in touch with people across departments in a more relaxed environment and to celebrate our successes.
It has also been important to keep our people engaged by still offering the same opportunities to train and develop their skills. We have done this through training sessions that are led by our learning and development teams and making time in our forward planning for continuous professional development. Distance learning shouldn’t just be a thing for those going through education, it has to be a continual process throughout our careers in order to keep ahead of the competition.
We also have an online platform which enables our people to stay connected with the wider business, via the sharing of news and great work, as well as the provision of creative inspiration and learning opportunities.
Q: What initiatives have you implemented to ensure employee wellbeing?
A: As a result of the feedback we had from our employees, we have created regular meditation and social events that allow people to meet without talking about work. We also ensure that we have regular drop-in sessions with employees to listen and ask about how they are coping with the current situation – as well as what we can put into place to help them.
During the past year or so we also noticed that too many of our teams were working late or through lunchtimes without breaks. This was unhealthy, so we started to empower employees to say no to meetings over lunch, go for walks to get time away from their desks and manage workloads more carefully than ever. And we have introduced a range of tools, systems and processes to support the team.