How do you build team spirit at a content agency during lockdown?

Victoria White

Editorial Director

At the Hearst Content Agency, it’s been business as usual (sort of) during lockdown, servicing existing clients as well as pitching for new business and growing our agency strategic proposition.

During this time, we’ve built a new website and redeveloped and redesigned our agency position and creds deck. We’ve also continued to pitch for business on Zoom calls with clients everywhere from Mumbai to Paris to Grantham.

Two people have gone on maternity leave, another has announced her pregnancy and one is returning has recently returned from mat leave. As a result, we’ve been recruiting, with six new members of staff starting during lockdown

Our team of almost 40 people has shifted, changed and grown – so how do we ensure we build a team atmosphere remotely when some have never even met their line manager or colleagues in real life?

As editorial director of the agency, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to, particularly for the creative side of the business. Unlike our colleagues at Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health, our editorial teams are servicing clients, which comes with its own specific challenges. Three of my direct reports started during lockdown and the other three I’ve worked with for many years, but that doesn’t mean they, too, don’t need to feel part of a bigger picture. So how do you ensure everyone still feels inspired to do good work - even if it is from their bedroom?

Communication needs to be scheduled

As a creative person I find organisation and structure incredibly dull. I’m always punctual but, apart from that, I prefer to have some elements of fluidity in my day. But now everything is remote – and spontaneity is not my friend. Even with our slow return to the office, desks and meeting rooms must be pre-booked and schedules coordinated. I have scheduled ‘catch-ups’ weekly with all my reports – diarised and booked on Microsoft Teams so we can look each other in the eye. And while I had these loosely before, often we’d shout across the desk that they weren’t needed as we’d done all the catching-up needed by sitting next to each other for seven days. Now, with some, this is the only contact I get. Even if we have nothing to say, that time seeing each other is critical to keep up a relationship – particularly with those I’ve never even met.

Don’t assume everyone will interact without you

Where before, people from different departments or teams would sit near each other – we hot-desked so you could sit next to anyone from the agency on any given day – now, they may only ever have met on all-agency Zoom calls. I’ve email-introduced new starters to others in the agency they may not work with, when I think they’d enjoy meeting or have mutually helpful skills. I’ve also brokered Microsoft Teams calls between various members of staff and not even attended at the risk of being like Mum trying to get their kids to play together. But in a sense, that’s what you’re doing – forcing the issue – because there is no water cooler chance meeting any more. It is hard to feel part of a team if the only people you know on that team are the same three you deal with day in, day out. This is also true for those who have worked in the agency for years – they still need the chance to meet new starters they may get on with. Cross-agency learning has never been more critical as we move and shift how we best deliver to client. 

Have more meetings than you usually would in different groups

To be honest, I’m drowning in meetings. But just when you think you have too many Teams meetings to bear, throw in another one or two as they could be the ones you really need. We have a fortnightly ‘creative team’ meeting for my direct reports, without any client services people, and they’ve proven to be really fun and great for remembering why we as editorial people love what we do. Sometimes we talk work or brainstorm pitch ideas collectively; often we just chat. People from different accounts or my central editors get to interact with other editors and art directors away from commercial or client pressures.

Evolve how you communicate all the time

At the beginning of lockdown it was all about the weekly Zoom quiz and drinks on a Friday night. But, as time went on, the Friday night drinks group diminished and it became clear that, for many, just finishing early and being with their family was more important than time with colleagues. It was no substitute for a quick drink down the pub, so we phased it out. We’ve held small group meetings in the office now things are opening up. For some people this feels daunting, while for others a chance to interact IRL has been welcomed. The point is, everyone is taking things at their own pace and we all have to adapt to make sure ‘team building’ doesn’t feel like forced fun.

Remind people what they are working for

Now, more than ever, your agency or brand needs its purpose – and how everyone plays a part in its success – to be reiterated. It can feel really tough to appreciate what you are logging on for every day when there’s less whoop and holler. In the case of the Hearst Content Agency, we had the added bonus of being part of a wider Hearst strategy, where just walking into an amazing office in Central London with copies of Harper’s Bazaar or Elle in reception acted as a daily reminder. So, we have monthly stand-ups where we showcase agency successes on Zoom for everyone and update on wider Hearst news. Along with our MD, I appeared on our CEO’s weekly Zoom all-staff talking about the content agency and what we’ve been up to during lockdown. And we try to ensure we don’t get lost within the wider Hearst comms so we always feel a part of the business, too.

Accept that things are different now

Hard as it is to accept, work/life balance has changed. Whereas in my younger days work was as much about friendships made, wine drunk (mostly but not exclusively out of work hours) and long hours, today some want something different from a workplace – and that’s OK. Many of us have realised that being at home when your kids get back from school – even if you are locked in a home office – is nice. Being able to do an online gym class and still be at your desk for 9am is great. And being able to live without a commute of two hours or more has massive advantages. We as managers have to understand and embrace that and somehow juggle it with those who still want office bants and drinks after work.

Latest articles