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Agency leaders look to amp up employee comms from the home office

OMD adds entertainment value to Zoom calls with guest stars like Nelly

It’s been nearly a year since adland left the office behind. As the pandemic continues, agency leaders have had to develop new ways of engaging their remote workforces and keeping staff motivated. Here’s what’s working.

Remember when Zoom cocktail hours were a fresh, new thing? While those get-togethers and other efforts were much needed, many motivational tactics have grown stale. This has meant that agencies known for spark and creativity in their client work have had to apply those principles to internal communications.

Much like other agencies, OMD USA’s chief executive, John Osborn, was holding two all-agency Zoom calls a week to cover the media agency’s response to the unfolding pandemic. Now, these Zooms are twice-monthly, and the content has shifted to a mix of agency news and headline guests. Nelly, Sloane Stephens, Al Roker and Dennis Quaid are just a handful of entertainment and sports stars who’ve appeared – each on their own dime – OMD USA execs point out, to discuss new projects and how they’re adapting to lockdown life.

“We are not telling everybody they need to tune in but if we are going to make a policy shift, people will hear about that for the first time on these calls,” says Osborn. “It is sort of like a gumbo we put together that has turned it from people thinking, ‘Oh God, another meeting I need to go to,’ to somewhere they really want to be to stay up with the times. There’s a little bit of FOMO that’s built in.”

Attendance peaked alongside uncertainty in spring 2020, with some 1,200 of the 1,600 OMD USA employees dialed in. It’s now stabilized at around 900 employee connections per call.

Recognizing the isolation and uncertainty that comes with working from home, Osborn opened up part of his calendar each week so employees can skip the usual chain of command and speak directly and confidentially with him. “People are calling to get to know me as a person or to bring a problem to my attention,” he says. “Or maybe someone has a personal issue they are dealing with and they need help, and they want someone to listen to them.”

Is it 1:37 yet?

Connecting individually is a foundational belief of VaynerMedia chief executive Gary Vaynerchuk. He makes a point to listen in on Slack, drop in unexpectedly during new employee Zoom orientations and initiate text chains.

“Look at your calendar and see how many meetings you have about finance, how much around client situations and how much time you have allocated for your employees, because I am fascinated about just that,” he says. “The answer to keeping employees engaged is to actually be engaged with your employees.

“Tactics like sending fewer emails, that is all secondary. I argue that most of the people in my industry care more about P&L meetings that they do about employee meetings.”

Still, as the lockdown has endured VaynerMedia is introducing optional, employee-wide virtual gatherings. This month, it is kicking off a daily, 15-minute video at 1:37 pm that will be about anything but agency news. Guests will range from celebrities to artists to Vayner employees who want to share their passions outside of advertising. “I am trying to create little culture bubbles,” says Vaynerchuk, who plans to host a few segments a week.

The awkwardtimeslot was selected to break up the back-to-back Zoom calls and prompt staffers to open up the whole 30 minutes and take a break.

Lean into the topics of the day

At Observatory, casual Slack channels are one way employees stay engaged. “We encourage everyone to share anything they think is cool,” says Brendan Shields-Shimizu, managing director at Observatory. “It might be some awesome Bernie Sanders memes, a new advertising campaign or an interesting read. Those things you’d usually chat about around the espresso machine now get sent via Slack.”

The day after the presidential election, Day One Agency scheduled a few hours off for staffers to decompress. “Given the polarization and uncertainty surrounding the election and what we assumed would be a long night of watching election returns, we decided to give all employees a few hours to reflect and recharge in their own way the next morning,” says Victoria Gates-Fleming vice-president of digital strategy and creative insights at Day One Agency.

The response was so positive that the company decided to make it a weekly occurrence and renamed it ’Fresh Thinking Mornings.’ Mandating meetings-free Wednesday mornings gives everyone a chance to step away from their screens for a midweek recharge.

“It’s a few hours in the middle of the week that give our people time to catch up on emails, workout, go for a walk outside, think creatively and bring back fresh ideas and perspectives to our work,” she says.

Meanwhile, mass emails aren't going anywhere just yet. They are still the quickest way to quickly blast out news to employees. Since the pandemic, Deutsch NY added a standard Friday email from chief executive Val DiFebo, to unite the dispersed workforce around a closing theme. “She caps the week on Friday with an email about something that happened during the week and shines a light on the world,“ says Celeste Bell, executive vice-president, director of human resources at Deutsch NY. “She talks about mental health, staying safe, making sure you are taking care of yourself.”

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