Running a Healthy Digital Agency Despite COVID-19 Concerns

With the recent news of the COVID-19 officially reaching pandemic status, many digital agencies with physical offices are moving quickly to implement social distancing measures help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The new coronavirus is the scariest JIRA ticket ever created.

Social distancing measures, defined by the Canadian Government, “are approaches taken to minimize close contact with others in the community and include: quarantine and self-isolation at the individual level as well as other community based approaches”. Businesses are implementing social distancing in the form of voluntary or mandatory work-from-home policies for on-site staff.

At this point it seems realistic to say that working from home is quickly shifting from being a mere perk for “digital age” workers to becoming an absolute necessity for all types of businesses, in all industries.

But transitioning an entire workforce from their ritualistic coffee-fueled, daily commute and meeting-filled workdays, to this new-fangled work-from-home lifestyle, will certainly take some adjusting. Employees at levels and roles— including developers, project managers, creatives, management, and operations staff alike—may experience levels of uncertainty and anxiety during the transition to a fully-remote or remote-hybrid workplace. For some employees, this will be their first time working from home, which means figuring out how to stay productive in an environment which is not meant for work.

It seems clear that the near-term goal for most services businesses like agencies is to maintain the a high-level of service (or simply the status quo) by continuing to respond and service client requests, meeting project deadlines, regularly meet with the team, provide friction-less options to collaborate within the team—even during this tumultuous time.

Digital agencies, due to how they operate, may be one of the best-equipped businesses to weather this storm:

  • Typically projects and resources are managed using online tools, meaning most, if not all, deliverables are digital in nature.
  • Digital workers often require only a small set of tools to work online (laptop, mouse, headphones), and their tools are generally portable.
  • Remote meeting with clients are already common. Agencies know how to run online meetings with clients, the how often you should check in, who should be involved, etc.

Preparing employees to effectively work from home

While teams at digital agencies teams may already be expert-level at working-from-home, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Communicate your company work-from-home policy to everyone, as soon as possible. Uncertainty breeds anxiety and fear. I don’t know too many programmers who are productive when they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed—except when the fear is deadline-related.

Outline expectations for reviews and delivery clearly. You may not have the ability to review work over-the-shoulder like usual, so make sure you have a process in place to clearly outline what “done” looks like, and when to check in during projects. Speaking of checking in…

Check in often with your team members, but not TOO often. Morning stand-ups and end-of-day checks can be important, but be careful not to overwhelm your team. Make yourself available on Slack, phone, email, etc.. but don’t over-communicate with constant status updates or check-ins with your employees. It may actually lower productivity.

Trust your team to complete the work. Companies may be hesistant about working from home due to uncertainty about the quality of deliverables, or how much time things will take. “To combat this belief, set up work-from-home guidelines, such as emails must be responded to within 24 hours, use text for urgent matters, and no calls between certain hours to make sure teammates are not working around the clock.” (Forbes)

Measure employee output, not hours. Even if your business already has employees time, it’s important to realize that working from home presents a new and interesting set of challenges for your employees. It will take take time to adjust. Productivity will be lower—at least for a time. Consider that your team members may be working along side their spouses who are also working from home, or they may be attending to their children who are home from school and bored because they’ve used up all their screen time for the day.

Empathy is extremely important. Maybe the most important of all. Be understanding and sensitive to your employees needs, now and after the crisis. Once the imminent threat has passed, many families will be impacted financially, while others will have personal or travel plans upended on a moments notice, or families may be dealing with an illness or worse.

Hardships may actually be caused by the social distancing.

Social Distancing measures are likely to have secondary consequences for individuals, families and communities, such as loss of income, an elevated need for support services, and potentially reduced availability of certain services. Some measures require extensive preparation and engagement across sectors. During a pandemic of lesser severity, the infection control benefits of implementing some community measures (e.g., proactive school closures) may not be offset by the cost and societal disruption caused by these measures.

Community-based measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Canada [link]

Help your clients though the hard times

While your business may be effected by COVID-19, your clients’ businesses may be hit even harder.

As an example, perhaps two of the hardest hit industries are events and tourism. Every major news outlet is posting lists of events which have been cancelled or postponed. And cancelled events are not just hurting event planners, promoters and sponsors. Communities hosting events were counting on tourist dollars, and many small businesses who provide event services (t-shirt printing, catering, etc) will also be affected.

But just about every sizable tech company, including Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon. Salesforce, and Shoppify have, in the last few days, rolled out mandatory work-from-home policies amid the spread of COVID-19.

With all the upheaval, I’ve been starting to think that digital agencies are one of the few business types that can roll with these unexpected viral punches.

In fact, many digital agencies have existing tested and proven policies for successful remote working within their organization. This leaves them uniquely positioned to help their clients and partners with upcoming remote-work-related challenges, like filling in the gaps for the client’s workforce/team, or providing suggestions for tools, workflows, or presenting best practices for online meetings, communicating with their team, online-based project management systems, etc.

What remote-work best practices could you offer your clients?

What are other agencies doing?

I spoke briefly with Zara Kwok, the Director of Delivery at iamota, a digital agency based in Vancouver, BC, one of the hardest-hit provinces in Canada.

Zara reminds us that, “understanding what is going to work best for individuals is important, as is being prepared to be flexible for schedules, working environments and varying levels of concern.”

iamota is prepared to help clients move their digital operations online.

“Certainly all of the tools we have to be able to coordinate and work remote are going to come in the play”, Zara adds, tools like Trello or JIRA for project management, Zoom for video conferencing, and real-time chat services like Slack will continue to be key channels for managing work-from-home for their agency.

Could this spark a revolution?

Many are talking about how COVID-19 could spark the “work-from-home revolution“, while others have a less positive view of working from home.

If mandatory work-from-home policies are in place for extended periods, previously resistant employers will be forced to explore remote work in earnest. Eventually we may begin to see the real benefits of an at-home workforce. On the other hand, new sets of psychological well-being and health issues may begin to pop-up within the workforce.

What do you think?

Is your team prepared to work from home? Can you offer resources to augment your client’s internal teams to replace gaps in talent due to illness? If so, consider reaching out to see how you can help.

Idle computers in the office?

Help fight the virus with your otherwise idle computers by installing the Folding@Home application on the computers.

The download for Folding@Home is fast, and can be installed on your workstation quickly. When selecting how to target your computational contribution, choose “Any Disease” to work on COVID-19.

HPCWire has a great article that details how you can help:

More resources for COVID-19 in the workplace

Mike Walker

Mike is a full-stack web developer with 15 years experience. I focus on PHP & Javascript development, and work with platforms like Shopify Plus and WooCommerce eCommerce. The Agency Developer is a weekly curated newsletter with a mission to inform and educate developers working with digital agencies.

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