In the old normal, my relationship with the physical office was mostly positive.
The office was a place where I had nearly immediate access to my team, making a quick brainstorm or huddle just a short walk to a meeting room away. It also meant lunchtime conversations – a welcome break before the second half of the workday.
On occasion, this easy access also meant a lack of focus time thanks to ongoing chatter and a regular stream of “quick questions” from teammates. I found myself regularly bringing home heavier pieces of work that required focus, digging into them only at night after my children were asleep.
For me, a hybrid work model was the dream – a way of combining the daily interactions that supported the culture of any team with segments of time earmarked for me to truly concentrate on a piece of work.
Cue a global COVID-19 pandemic. Almost overnight, my old problems were supplanted by new ones.
In-person interactions used to be an essential part of my professional toolbox. Pre-pandemic, most of my professional relationships were built on the foundations of in-person interactions – and in true Singaporean fashion, with a beverage or a meal involved. Onboarding a new client? Call a meeting. Want to get insights from media contacts? Buy them coffee.
This face time also translated into our client work. We took pride in consumer launches accompanied by eye-popping consumer activations at the trendiest malls. We held media briefings to introduce a new executive spokesperson, treating journalists to breakfast with a charm offensive.
COVID-19 brought with it a hard stop to such in-person interactions. In March 2020, the country went into a two-month lockdown, and we embarked on what is now heralded as the biggest work-from-home experiment in Singaporean history. We pivoted traditionally offline experiences to online versions. Quality content took the driver’s seat, working even harder than before to deliver messages that resonate. And we did our best to sustain professional relationships through virtual social hours – BYO coffee chats across screens, with the certainty of making it to the next client call in good time.
I found myself more productive. Throw out the commute to and from work, “show-face” events and superfluous meetings, and I reveled in my new superpower of toggling between a client WIP call and an op-ed that needed to get out before EOD. In-person engagements, rare as they now were, became more deliberate affairs focused on enhancing relationships – rather than casual interactions that were taken for granted.
And then, I changed jobs.
When new beginnings take place virtually
Joining A+P during a pandemic was unlike any previous onboarding experience. For any new team member, walking into a busy office is the fastest way to understand nuances and synergies – the team vibe, if you will. As an account director looking to build trust and begin relationships, I fretted about the loss of such casual workplace interactions.
Then there was the A+P value proposition. Prior to joining, I heard of a culture where people truly had each other’s backs. Of one that saw strength in numbers, rather than the “me-first” mindset typical of corporate Singapore. I wondered if this culture had been sustained through the often-disjointed nature of fully remote work.
My concerns turned out to be unfounded.
While not outwardly visible, given that we remain for the most part at home, the A+P culture of banding together to do our best work has also transcended virtually. Six months in, I’ve developed a firm respect and admiration for the team I work with. I’m glad to have joined an agency that works both hard and smart, the absolute antithesis of the stereotypical work-from-home slackers that skive off while no one is watching. The scarcity of face-to-face time has also made our occasional meet-ups all the more valuable to connect us as a team.
The reimagination of teamwork
The biggest culture challenge I’ve faced during remote work is facilitating team-based collaboration. In the process of working out creative ideas and messages for our clients, I’ve come to detest the common pitfalls of virtual brainstorms: awkward silences are as common as the equally awkward “no, you go first” moments. I have on occasion been nostalgic for the days when we each gathered around a whiteboard to hammer out a big idea with a marker pen.
This challenge has come with a silver lining. Collaborating remotely has forced many of us to adapt our mode of teamwork, often for the better. Extroverts have learned not to dominate virtual meetings. Quieter or more introverted team members have developed strategies that help them to be heard – including judicious use of the chat window in a Teams call.
The increased democracy in team discussions has also helped flatten what remains of the traditional agency hierarchy. Juniors who would previously defer to more senior colleagues have become more active participants in discussions. I have found it less intimidating to respectfully disagree with my manager over text, or when the time is running out on a virtual meeting.
Where do we go from here?
Someone once told me agency culture is one that is live and constantly evolves. I believe an increased respect for time – our own, and that of others, will have the most impact on our culture.
As we continue honing our judgement calls on whether a Teams meeting could be an email, agency professionals have finally attained some of that control I once craved: where we are empowered to find the balance in being available to each other, while retaining control over our productive time as individuals. At the same time, the immediacy of “jumping on a call” is still tempting enough for my calendar to resemble a Tetris screen (and not a very well-played game at that).
Until we get the balance figured out, I’ll continue to embrace the positive aspects of pandemic team culture: greater mutual respect and mindfulness, and the renewed importance of being fully present – even virtually.
Cassie is an Account Director in Singapore driving integrated communications strategies across Singapore and the wider region. Outside of work, she can be found working her way through the world of Brazilian JiuJitsu and is an avid UFC and Warriors fan.