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Managing Remote Teams During Covid-19

Tricia Harte

By Tricia Harte

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of everyday life. But the biggest change for many is how and where we work.

Last March, millions of workers were sent to work from home “indefinitely.” Days became weeks, weeks became months, and months are inching closer to a year of WFH for many companies.

The marketing industry is no exception. As non-essential workers, agencies across the country were left to work and run their business from home with the help of laptops, temporary work stations, and programs like Zoom. We reached out to marketing and agency executives across the country to learn how they’ve adjusted to remote work and how they’ve kept their team dynamics intact.

  1. How did you handle the transition to remote work?
  2. What’s your biggest concern with managing remote team members?
  3. Do you have a plan for returning to the office?

Meet the Contributors

We spoke to more than 25 executives about their experience managing a team remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Headshots of contributors
Headshots of contributors

The Transition to Remote Teams

When our team left the office, one of the biggest concerns was getting everyone the supplies they needed to succeed. Luckily, as an agency of digital marketers we do most of our work on computers. We’ve always relied on Slack for inner-office communications, but it took some time to adjust to virtual meetings rather than in-person communications.

Question: How have you handled the transition to remote work?

“Our staff is largely working remotely and we anticipate that trend continuing into 2021. To compensate for the lack of face-time, we are holding daily 15 minute stand-ups to ensure everyone is aware of priorities and that we are all working in sync. We have continued our weekly in-depth account meetings, and are focusing more on personal bonds.”

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

“Our internal meetings and external meetings have the same structure they did before, however, now we lean more towards video. There is a video burnout, though. Our team prefers not to be on video for internal calls, which is fine. That said, for external calls, the policy is to take cues from prospects and clients. Some of our prospects [and] clients prefer to be on video, while others never use video. So internally we say, be prepared to be on video for clients calls and if the client does not have video we do not have to use video.

Zachary Wilson, Partner, Gulo

“We transitioned very quickly and smoothly. Our server was already set up to handle remote work, with speed and capacity for large files, office supplies were supplied as requested. We also maintained our morning “huddle” meetings via Zoom to establish daily priorities, and continued with email and text communication to stay in touch real time.”

Lynne Robertson, CEO/Owner, Fame

“Since everyone has a unique home environment, we offered to pay for any supplies and/or equipment that people needed. For instance, if you live in a studio apartment with your partner, you need noise cancelling headphones, if you are in Ops, you need a printer, and if you are working out of your IKEA dining room chair, you need a proper desk chair for your back. 

Communication overall stayed the same via email, chat, text etc.; however one form of communication we have been encouraging and utilizing more is the good old fashion phone call — its more efficient, clear and personable. Through virtual everything, we have noticed there is more mis-communication and confusion around roles and next steps due to the lack of in-person drive-by chats; therefore meeting recaps and email trails are our best friend.”

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency 

“We were already working remotely on occasion, for the lockdown we made sure our team had the proper tools and software to transition to full time remote work. We asked each person to indicate if they had a proper area to work as well as if they had a reliable internet connection. We then helped with the setup on a case by case basis.”

Carlos Obregon, Co-founder, Bloom Digital Marketing

“At the start of Covid, no one really knew how long we would be out of the office, so to overcome this, we encouraged staff to set themselves up with a work space away from the office that would assist their productivity. With reference to office equipment and supplies at the beginning, staff were reimbursed for expenses that related to their new home office, [including] desks, chairs, [and] printers. As we realized that this would be a longer term scenario, we introduced a monthly stipend that was directly deposited in their accounts, which they could spend on whatever they liked. We encouraged them to use these funds to replicate the things in the office that made them productive.”

Chris Belli, VP Marketing, Studio Science

“Prior to Covid-19, we were allowing employees a flexible schedule, working remotely 3 days a week and in office 2 days a week. Because of this, we already had a lot of processes in place – we ensured that any technology we would need (video chatting software, project management, time tracking, etc.) fit our needs. The primary change is that we’ve given each employee a stipend to set up their home office in a way that fits their needs – whether that’s ordering a second monitor, a chair, or even ergonomic tools.”

Laura Cain, Director of Business Operations, Perfect Search Media

“As a manager, it’s more about keeping an upbeat environment and taking into account how everyone is feeling. Right now, work is not as important as it was pre-Covid; people’s eyes have been opened to that and therefore it’s important to not always be talking about work but to spend time chit-chatting and making jokes [and] water cooler talk during meetings because if work isn’t fun, then it’s not worth it. Same goes with mistakes, because people may be more on edge due to the constraints of not being able to travel, be in groups, or do regular things (cabin fever). Managers need to remember this and take the edge off of conversations that might be heading in a not so good way. One day, in the not so distant future, this will all be over and you want to remember this time as a positive time that your staff will look back on and say ‘that wasn’t that bad’ or ‘we definitely made the best of that.’

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

“Our experience was remarkably smooth, seeing as we were already accustomed to working remotely with most of our team members in other offices. It was just a question of acclimating to a life full of Zoom calls! Email, Zoom chat, and online software for proposal production have allowed us to stay in touch with each other and with our clients. Meetings still happen regularly over Zoom, and for the Marketing team having a group chat has been invaluable in keeping in regular touch with each other. It’s the long-distance equivalent of being able to ask a question out loud to the group, knowing that someone is bound to have an answer.

Kyla Astley, Marketing Director, Neoscape, Inc.

“We already had a pre-existing system to handle the transition so outside of making our homes part of our work space it wasn’t as challenging as we would’ve experienced had we not been prepared. Our company-wide chat system, BlueJeans video conferencing, and cloud sharing protocols for project-based work allowed it to be relatively pain free. 

We gave everyone a $100 budget at the start to make sure they had simple day-to-day office items at their disposal from home in order to continue working successfully and have done our best to continue to check in and support everyone from their own home (sometimes makeshift) office.”

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

“Engagement and collaboration effectiveness has fluctuated, but since the marketing team has worked together for a few years, productivity has stayed relatively constant. We already had meetings to coordinate weekly activities and a company wrap up on Fridays so that has also kept culture rolling. We’ve played more virtual games as a team than before, but no significant changes in meetings or other communication. [The] biggest challenges have been onboarding new team members and the roller coaster of client work. Personal anxiety and uncertainty appears to have impacted productivity more than any new team coordination challenges.”

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

“Now that we’re working remotely, I video conference with my team at least once a day so we can see each other there face-to-face. I try to mimic the routines we had established back while we were in person so that we’re able to keep up the momentum we had earlier this year. We’ve also established a Slack channel just for our team to keep in touch.”

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

“With the pandemic and lockdown, there was so much that we were not in control of. However we looked at what we were in control of, and that was our communication. We took steps to increase our internal communication significantly; with weekly all-hands Zoom calls, monthly company-wide updates, recorded videos from our CEO, and we have developed a happiness committee who has put on several events like pumpkin painting and picking a restaurant chain that best describes you. We got feedback from the team that there was some Zoom fatigue, so we pulled back on the weekly all hands, and changed them to meet every other week.

Chris O’Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

Managing Remote Teams

Before the pandemic, working from home was a treat or “perk” many companies offered their teams for increased flexibility. But now that many agencies remain remote, the natural question arises: How do you know if your team is staying productive and on-task?

Of the leaders we spoke to, a majority said that their team’s productivity has either stayed the same or increased during the pandemic.

Question: What’s your biggest concern with managing a remote team? What steps are you taking to overcome that concern?

Some of the younger members of the team remarked how they miss the mentoring aspect, especially the ability to reach out casually for tips or help. We also use Slack to help with some of those casual interactions. Our more seasoned staff are giving more scheduled demos and tech/tool sharing sessions.”

Richard Shanks, President, UpShift

“We have a great team and we are always throwing ideas around when we are at the studio. We lost this working remotely and compensated by having a morning Hangouts meeting.”

PJ Haarsma, CEO, Valid Resource

“Our team has been stable and productive during COVID, but we worry that adding new staff members would be tough given the lack of in-person interaction and training time. Hiring and integrating new people into the team could be a difficult proposition right now. We are also taking great care to stay connected to each other and maintain creative energy, which has been challenging given the physical separation since March.”

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

The biggest concern is mental health. My opinion is that limiting communication to people within your household for long periods of time isn’t healthy. Similarly, now it’s very easy not to talk to some team members for extended periods of time. Therefore, I try and make a point to have audio or video touch with every individual at least once every 10 days. With remote work, it’s hard to separate work life from personal life, so that touch tends to lean towards water cooler talk and be social-leaning.”

Zachary Wilson, Partner, Gulo

“Retaining our empathic, humorous culture.  We have hosted several Zoom celebrations like our “Party in a Box,” to celebrate our 5th year of independence and most recently a “Quarantine Halloween” Happy Hour with costume contest included. Our daily huddles include a question of the day, caption contests and show and tell et. al., to keep connected and laughing.

Lynne Robertson, CEO/Owner, Fame

“I think it’s challenging to manage any team, but with various time zones, a pandemic which has its own personal and emotional implications – it’s three times as difficult. My concern has always been for the wellbeing of my team both physically and mentally, and ensuring everyone still feels like a collective unit despite being very much apart.”

Jolene Delisle, Founder, The Working Assembly

“It’s definitely a slower process to get people up to speed. I’ve done a few hires in the last few weeks and it felt like several meetings were needed to ensure everyone is aligned with what and how they need to be doing things. Regardless of this, I believe remote work is more efficient in the longer term, so we plan on continuing with this modality.”

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

“I am not concerned because my team (fortunately) has a work ethic that in my estimation is unrivaled. They are as committed, if not more committed to each other and to the success of our business.”

Sharon Ainsberg, Co-Founder, SHO+COMPANY

“Now that we are all virtual, we’ve had to find new ways to collaborate and manage a process for ideation and workflows. We are now more structured with briefs, team responsibilities, timelines, and internal check-ins; this allows for a smooth process. For ideation, we still involve everyone by giving each team member the opportunity to provide ideas virtually and / or send through other examples of work that inspires us. Our diverse team inevitably produces diverse ideas – even from our own homes.”

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency

“Distance Bias is something that we have been cautious of from the very beginning, and developing a culture that is resistant to distance bias is imperative to our business. Ensuring that everyone continues to be able to contribute in a meaningful way regardless of their location has been top of mind.  

One way to assist overcoming Distance Bias has been to create a habit of asking for the opinions of remote workers first in remote meetings to ensure those voices are heard and valued in the conversation. By creating the opportunity for immediate involvement giving remote workers the ability to find value in more readily engaging in the meeting.”

Chris Belli, VP Marketing, Studio Science

“Our biggest concern is employee morale and team culture – many of our employees are understandably feeling isolated. We have a weekly Thursday all company meeting where different employees present or we play games, but we are constantly looking for more cultural initiatives to boost morale.”

Laura Cain, Director of Business Operations, Perfect Search Media

“My biggest concern is less to do with the “work” and more to do with building team relationships and culture. We have tried to do some virtual hangouts and fun online activities, but we need to do better. We are running a Masters office pool this week for those who are into golf.”

Kevin Pike, President, Rank Fuse Digital Marketing

 “I have definitely spent more time “reminding” the team of priority tasks that we can’t wait until the last minute to do because we are WFH, which we might have been able to do in the office because everyone can rally together in-person. This is not the case when everyone is WFH–things need to be done well ahead of time to allow extra time for internal reviews, edits, and feedback before deliverables are approved and sent to the client.”

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

“I think we’re missing the personal, face-to-face interactions and casual side conversations that happen when physically together. Video conference calls are helpful and necessary but can be awkward at times when trying to have regular, normal conversations. In order to overcome this, we’ve made time to get together remotely for happy hour, and regular video conference calls and chatting throughout the day is critical. We also started having in-person Team Days once per month to re-engage the team, collaborate and be together. At Brew, the benefits of remote work, far out-weigh the challenges. So we are planning to reinvent, again, our already flexible work environment.”

Marie Powell, CEO, Brew Agency

“In-person interaction is key to fostering trust, methods of communication, and camaraderie. To overcome this, we created a group chat for Marketing so we can quickly be in touch with questions or comments. I have bi-weekly one on one meeting with each of them, which, while we do discuss work, are really meant to be a time when we can chat and I can check in on how working from home is going for them. We also have a weekly team check-in, and now that we’re able we all go into the office once a week to get some face to face time.”

Kyla Astley, Marketing Director, Neoscape, Inc.

“Telling where people are at is the biggest challenge. In a lot of ways, emotional intelligence has been thrown out the window. When we don’t get the one-on-one in pockets throughout the week in office, we miss those moments to truly know where someone is at. 

We’ve done more, especially recently, to increase communication and truly take pause when it feels like a project or even a person is slipping and needs time. Repeat assurance that it’s “”ok to take time for you”” is just a part of our ongoing mantra. We’ve also begun taking additional steps to limit the amount of OT needed outside our normal business hours and are looking to soon implement a time of day each day where no meetings are to booked in order to give folks guaranteed time each day to get work done, take a break, eat a meal, go for a walk.”

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

“Burnout & continued team collaboration are equal in concern.  We’ve had a very liberal policy on allowing people to take a day here and there — this is getting more challenging to allow with the increased volume of work that is currently coming in.  Collaboration across disciplines has been harder virtually and we haven’t landed on tools that have completely resolved this issue.”

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

“My team is focused on social media, and so when we were working in-person we could share information and updates as we chatted in the hallways. Now, meetings are more intentional which is good for productivity, but my concern is missing out on that more nuanced knowledge-sharing and team-building. To help overcome it, I give each of my team members time in our status calls to share work they’ve seen that inspires them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to a specific client or project, but giving each other the spotlight allows us to stay in touch with that’s new in social media that we may not have seen ourselves.”

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

“My biggest concern is lower morale due to the lack of “live” human interaction.  The best way we have found to address this is by having open discussions about the issue and leveraging the value of video based interaction via Zoom and other platforms to spend time talking about non-work topics.”

John Zoppi, Founder & Managing Partner, Method Engine

“The balance of autonomy and collaboration: Our work is highly collaborative but we’ve found people are cautious about pulling in team members they assume to be too busy to help. There’s a lot happening at a macro and micro level in everyone’s lives. That means people are more likely to suffer in silence. We instituted new kinds of check-ins and continuously discuss the importance of asking before making assumptions. Most importantly, we’re investing in more freelance support role to take a wide range of tasks off someone’s plate so they have one less thing to worry about.”

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

Going Back to the Office After Covid-19

The choice between having everyone rejoin a physical workspace and continuing to stay remote looms large. While some businesses have begun the transition back to office life, many said they’ll continue to look to government officials for guidance. Many others are letting their employees decide what’s best for them moving forward.

Question: Do you have a plan in place for returning to the office?

Trish Thomas

“We allow several team members to work in the office at a time as long as they are wearing masks and maintain social distance. Many employees are working from home regularly and have adapted a new remote setup that works for them. We talk through all decisions about workflow, the office status, and communications together, and are very transparent about decision-making and policies.”

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

“We have had monthly meetings where we discuss company updates, including recent projects that have launched, or new business that has been won. We use this time to also take a temperature check on whether people feel comfortable to return to the office or if they are doing ok working from home. For now our team has decided to stay remote through to Summer 2021 and reassess sometime in the Spring a more definitive timeline.”

Jolene Delisle, Founder, The Working Assembly

Pia Celestino

“We continue to maintain the office address and space for holding client meetings, however, we have not used it since early March 2020.  Our team has always been remote, so they are very aligned with this decision. In addition to this, COVID-19 has allowed us to become more transparent about our remote culture with our clients, who would traditionally expect everyone to be working from an office environment, and now see it perfectly fine to have everyone collaborating remotely.”

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

“We started going back to the office for customer meetings in August and found that prospects and new customers were anxious to get out of the house. However, most of our team is still participating on Zoom.”

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

“During this time, we, of course, have been open to people changing locations – whether it’s visiting their parents, going to a friend’s farm or working from an Airbnb, we understand the importance of being flexible so people are happy and productive. As we approach 2021, safety will be our top priority; we will continue to have open discussions with our team and the office building to ensure everyone is comfortable.”

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency

I’ve been very transparent about finances and the challenges ahead—our performance is a shared responsibility. Management is committed to maintaining their health, professional growth, and job security. As long as we continue to collaborate and produce quality work, we won’t require anyone to return to the office at a certain date.”

Richard Shanks, President, UpShift

“We are planning based on the guidance from our health authorities. Our team is always  informed about logistical decisions.”

Carlos Obregon, Co-founder, Bloom Digital Marketing

“We currently do not have a plan to return to an office – we actually got rid of our office in May, but have communicated to the team that any decision to go back to some kind of office environment will be contingent on a vaccine.”

Laura Cain, Director of Business Operations, Perfect Search Media

“Currently, we are fully remote which has saved us on overhead, and we’ve been renting and borrowing other offices to get together when needed. Our new office space, currently under construction, will be designed to support remote work indefinitely. The new building will feature meeting rooms of all sizes and will not have any private offices. We plan to allow our team to come and go as they choose, and use this new building as a place to meet, collaborate and innovate!”

Marie Powell, CEO, Brew Agency

“There are limits to how many people can be in at any one time, and we follow all protocols put in place by both the Commonwealth and building management. I am completely transparent with these decisions when it comes to my team. My first concern is for their safety and comfort and part of that is being as open and honest with them as possible. At the moment we do come into the office once a week so we can meet and work in person, but I don’t require it and I leave it to them to decide what is safest for them.”

Kyla Astley, Marketing Director, Neoscape Inc.

“We have had people back in the office (at their discretion and no more than half capacity) since June.  We have been completely transparent about our office decisions. We’ve done surveys to evaluate moving to a fully remote model or how to modify our use of space. Feedback has ranged wildly and therefore we anticipate a mixed model well into 2021 and possibly beyond.”

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

“We do not. The savings is worth it and our team appreciates managing their time to incorporate more wellness and balance. This has been a win for us. We talk very openly about it.”

Johanna Grange, Co-Founder, Oak Street Social, Inc.

“As of today, we are now a 100% virtual agency with no plan on returning to a physical office space.  Not everyone thrives in this kind of environment, though, and we realize it will be more of a challenge for certain team members. Even those who previously thought they would love working from home have found that they miss the occasional face-to-face connection with their fellow team members. Plus, even the most dedicated person can find distraction when they’re at home, so it’s not without its challenges and does require a degree of self-discipline to stay focused some days.” 

Matt Bitzer, Managing Partner, Blue Magnet Interactive

“Our plan is impacted directly by pandemic conditions and will be adapted accordingly.  We are extremely clear with the team about this approach and recognize the need to be flexible and adaptable as conditions change, improve or worsen.  Everyone is onboard and clear about this approach.”

John Zoppi, Founder & Managing Partner, Method Engine

“We have been very transparent with our team about the office. We have continuously pushed back the ‘go back to the office’ date to the point now that we are indefinitely remote and will re-evaluate the office and our plan only after spring of 2021.”

Chris O’Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

“We inform the team every time a policy is updated and get feedback on the language. We’re not here to make things harder than they need to be. Decisions about how and when to return are handled on a one-by-one basis with the local team members.”

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

We want to give a big “thank you” to all those agency executives who participated in our questionnaire and offered such thoughtful insights about their experiences with remote team management.

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