Six Things We’ll Keep from Our Pandemic Year

Mar 22, 2021 Ed Harrison

As with any notorious anniversary, there has been much written about our year of remote work. It is difficult to process this much collective and individual loss and change because our default is to look toward a return to normalcy. And even if we’ve acknowledged that the workplace won’t ever be the same, I think most of us are expecting something that is broadly similar to the offices we quickly left a year ago. 

I am reminded of our accelerated exit every time I visit Inkhouse’s empty headquarters. The plants are mostly gone (Beth and I hastily removed the most delicate ones last March and the few that remained were not as hearty as we imagined them to be), our kitchen whiteboard proudly states that the counters were last wiped down at 8:45 a.m. (back when we thought such hygiene theatre would save us all) and a sign next to a table once filled with Lysol sprays and wipes optimistically states that Inkhouse was “kicking COVID’s butt.”

We did not kick COVID’s butt — no one did — but in many ways, we’re stronger for it.

Last March, Inkhouse made a series of adaptations as we went virtual, working to balance employee wellness, community building and productivity while continuing to live our values

It allowed me a greater opportunity to work with my counterparts Dan O’Mahony in San Francisco, Kate Riley in Seattle and Tiffany Darmetko in New York to align our responses while creating some new best practices. Some of these changes were planned carefully, some largely improvised and even others best forgotten (but as our COO Alison Morra said frequently, “there’s no right way to do a pandemic”). 

And from this, there are a handful of changes I want to keep in place once we go back:

#1: Thoughtfully considering Zoom (as in, does this meeting really need to be on video?) I didn’t know about “Zoom Fatigue” in 2019; oh, we all know it now (a Google search on the term brings up more than 1.2 million results). Like most companies, we likely overcorrected when we went virtual and quickly learned that every meeting does not need video — even those that don’t fall on our “no video Fridays,” which we began at the start of WFH. Yet for others, moving a weekly client conference call to Zoom has allowed us the greater connection that comes from seeing faces and acknowledging nonverbal cues. We’ve gotten better at questioning the value of every meeting and ensuring that we choose the proper venue for each.  

#2: Democratizing event planning. Our surveys found that employees craved more social interaction, yet our whimsically-named “Forced Office Fun'' events held over Zoom weren’t a big draw. In person, it’s easier to draw folks if you’re providing drinks and refreshments, when the “quick pop in” is possible. Zoom events needed a hook and after hearing crickets at a handful of FOFs, I learned that hook is neither “online 2 truths and a lie” or “let’s just all hang out.” Stealing an idea from our San Francisco office (thanks Dan!), we now take turns planning these bi-weekly events, with 4 hosts chosen at random. Over the last six weeks, we’ve played Family Feud, had a “Who’s that Inkhouse Baby” photo-guessing game and enjoyed a round of “Name That Tune.” 

#3: Creating more affinity-based Slack channels. Admittedly, we had these when we were in the office; remotely, we’ve embraced a more micro-targeted approach, with channels for everything from astrology to true crime aficionados. We’ve also added hyper-local, neighborhood-specific groups to allow people to easily meet up for socially-distant walks or coffees; I want to keep that going. We’re still figuring this one out; so far the channel for Premier League Football supporters (Go Fulham! Come on you Cottagers ...) is just me and two other people, so some topics may be too niche. 

#4: Conducting Small Group Breakouts. During our weekly Boston and New York check-ins, held on Zoom, we now end with a breakout, randomly assigning 3-4 employees to answer a single question, from “What is the first place you’ll visit once we can go places?” to “What’s the last show you binge-watched?” We were able to match up colleagues who otherwise wouldn’t connect — I can see us modifying this for the hybrid all-staff meetings that will continue once we’re back in the office. 

#5: Holding Virtual All-Employee Events. When we are all at home, place matters less — so we seized opportunities to build ties between our four offices by bringing our holiday party and offsite (now our “insite”), which had each previously been office-specific, to a unified, virtual event.

#6: Taking promotions on the road. Earlier this month, in an interview with Boston’s WBZ-TV, I spoke about the importance of recreating “moments of joy” in person for our dispersed team and used this as an example: a group of us would travel to our colleague’s home to surprise a to-be-promoted employee. This was easily my favorite adaptation. I met a few proud parents, spouses and partners who were able to share in these important moments. My favorite: the mother who proudly shook a tambourine, banging out a beat honoring her daughter’s promotion (no, she didn’t know we were coming and yes, she just happened to have a tambourine handy, which is absolutely amazing.) Yes, it makes no sense to replace poking my head into a conference room with a 2-hour drive round-trip to see an employee over the border in New Hampshire. I don’t care, I want to keep doing this.

I am incredibly proud of the work our entire team did to help us navigate this “new normal” while strengthening community and inter-office relations. We did it with humanity while living our values — we even remotely onboarded more than 40 new employees remotely to the Inkhouse way. I can’t wait to meet these new people in person for the first time, whenever that is.

I look forward to the day when we’ll be together again: clearly, it won’t be the same as it was before. 

I think it will be better. 

Topics: workplace, Culture, COVID-19, Work From Home, Inkhouse Employees
Ed Harrison

Ed Harrison oversees Inkhouse’s growth in the eastern U.S., including Boston and New York, building company culture and ensuring client-service excellence while helping drive the agency’s expansion into new markets and geographies.

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