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Creating a more adaptive, empathetic team

We can anticipate many things that could go wrong during a production shoot, but melted chocolate was definitely not first on our list. 

As shelter-in-place orders swept the U.S. in March, we relocated our production studios to the homes of our studio leaders. Our newly hired creative in LA started on a shoot for a candy client, but it didn’t take long before we needed to make more quick adaptations. A blistering heatwave had hit the region and we realized he had no air conditioning! 

We had to move fast. We purchased an AC, and he turned his kitchen into a temporary candy land. His TV stand became a home for his gear, and we even hired his girlfriend as a hand model. We got some great shots and escaped a messy confection fate.

Our agency has made other adjustments, too. And most weren’t as easy or obvious as buying an AC. We built our agency to be nimble, which has proved to be critical to our survival in this challenging environment. Here's what we’ve learned over the last few months that has helped us become more adaptive for evolving client needs and more empathetic toward one another: 

1. Shift team structure to enable speedier sprints

Beyond altering how we produce social content or evolving with a rapidly changing news landscape, we’ve changed in meaningful ways organizationally. We reimagined our structure, switching from a few larger teams to more teams composed of fewer people. 

For instance, to get an activation up and running in the past, we might have had 15 people across different departments involved in a variety of meetings. Today, we need to move more quickly and be more responsive. Paring down those teams to around five to eight people — we call them ‘WFH pods’ (i.e. work-from-home pods) — has empowered each person on every team with clear and direct responsibility.

Ultimately, breaking down our organizational structure early on amid the chaos of COVID-19 has allowed us to be even more agile. We’ve clarified more ownable roles for team members and bolstered our creative process through a more defined structure that enables speedier sprints, increased flexibility, more efficient cross-collaboration and better work.

2. Appoint a ‘directly responsible individual’ for more efficient virtual meetings

Things are going great with one of our newer clients whom we’d met only once before our mid-March kickoff came just as COVID hit the US. Our second meeting for the integrated team with all the clients? It happened over Zoom. Since then there have been a lot of unexpected pandemic-related obstacles to maneuver around. 

Sure, everyone is meeting virtually now. But rather than simply trying to recreate via video what would happen normally in-person, we’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to modify how we meet in ways that have helped us do our jobs even better. 

Virtual leadership standups are one of those changes. We’ve set things up so our senior-level pod leaders filter information to and from internal meetings. From there, they drive work and ideas through to our clients. It’s a more streamlined process. Especially when we’re dealing with inevitable video meeting hiccups, there’s far less friction than there would be with larger teams.

We’ve been able to define clearer roles for team members, ensuring there is a directly responsible individual for the work.

3. Reduce meeting sizes for meaningful inclusion

There’s another thing worth noting about the virtues of smaller WFH pod meetings. During larger video conference calls, sometimes people can get lost in the crowd. As a creative agency, we want to hear from everyone, including our most junior people.

By reducing meeting group size, our team members can listen to colleagues with more empathy and have a clearer role that provides more opportunity to directly contribute. Now, with only five Zoom participant windows up on the screen, there’s a lot better chance everyone’s opinion is noticed and recognized. 

4. Enable a dialogue to create a more empathetic culture

This has been a tough time for all of us, and we’re each experiencing our strange reality in individual ways. When we were no longer face-to-face, understanding how team members were feeling became a challenge. 

Internal communications have become more important than ever. And admitting we don’t have all the answers during the now cliché phrase, ‘these uncertain times,’ is sometimes the correct answer. Our people want to hear from us and know that we’re in this together.

We’ve also encouraged more active listening, regularly checking in with our team members and creating safe spaces that enable our employees to share their voices. This allows us to ensure that all our team members are heard with the empathy they deserve. 

For my team, the challenges of this era have helped us sharpen our mission, connect with our people and realize the importance of being nimble as we enter the ‘next normal.’ And I hope that we all emerge from this time as more empathetic leaders for our colleagues, clients and communities. 

2021 Relevance Report Results

Josh Rosenberg is Co-Founder and CEO of Day One Agency, a creative communications agency with the ambition of "stopping the world in its scroll" with stories that earn. He is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.