“Let’s get in front of this and reevaluate in a few weeks.”
This was the final decision our management team made during an emergency meeting that I called around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, 2020. An hour later, I was sharing these sentiments to our team, explaining that this was not the time to work remote from a coffee shop while the office is closed. Rather, everyone needed to take this seriously and work from home. While I was hoping for the best with a (now overly optimistic) two-week initial work-from-home order, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was different than other past pandemic scares. Cases were in the U.S. and rising quickly and there was no discussion on containment. It felt, in a way, like we were about to take cover on an incoming tsunami.
One year later, our workforce is still 90-95% remote.
It’s hard to think back to that afternoon last March without feeling some sort of pang in my chest. On the one hand, I can say confidently that we made the right decision by sending everyone home that day; on the other hand, it’s hard to look back on what I can see now as being such a definitive moment when the world completely changed – or, at least, our company’s world changed. We had no idea what was in store for us, and in many ways, we still don’t. I can’t help but wonder that if we had known, would we have hugged each other goodbye? After the past year of isolation, I think the answer would be a resounding “yes.”
When we went 100% remote on March 13, 2020, it was one week prior to unveiling our new space at Essex – a renovation and expansion project that had been in the works since late 2018. The new space was designed to address our team’s emotional and mental wellbeing in the workplace. Interestingly enough, our newly designed space held up through the changes the pandemic brought forward. It offered more space for people to scatter throughout the entire office footprint, and provided meditation booths to calm or center yourself during your day. During the pandemic, we rolled out more health and wellness initiatives, which now bridge nicely to the work we’ve done on our new space.
But beyond the clear importance of addressing health and wellness in the workplace, the pandemic showed us a few other things. Namely, we are lucky to be in an industry where we could keep working remotely if we need to. Remote work hasn’t impacted our team’s ability to collaborate and produce relevant, strategic and creative marketing campaigns and content for our clients. Importantly, it became clear that a critical need for our team was to remain flexible. Each team member was in a different place in their personal lives; some were suddenly home-school teachers to their children while others were in complete isolation from the outside world. Everyone had their challenges that they were dealing with during the day, and flexibility and understanding were key components to getting us through the worst of it. We actually don’t see this changing any time soon and we know that remaining flexible and understanding will continue to be part of our culture.
One of the most important takeaways during this time is that you can’t replace the culture you build in-person with people. We’ve done our best to stay connected in meaningful ways, from my continued one-on-one coffees with my team members (now done virtually) to delivering the occasional meal kit to people’s doors, to turning virtual happy hours into engaging activities that beat Zoom fatigue. While all of those pieces are still relevant and appreciated, they don’t replace the in-person connection we feel with one another. Convening brainstorm collaborations and putting up Post-It Notes on the wall. Having spirited impromptu discussions around food. Seeing each other during the day in passing – even if you don’t talk with one another. It’s made me realize and appreciate the culture we’ve built over the years and how important that culture is to our day-to-day existence and work output at 19 IDEAS.
One year later and we’re doing okay. In fact, I’d say we’re doing pretty well. As much as things have changed, the values that brought us together remain steadily intact. They’re not going anywhere, and neither are we.