Last week we held the second Virtual Avocado Club and this time we had the pleasure of being joined by the newly appointed Managing Director of Fountain Partnership, Alice Rose. Fountain is a digital marketing agency based in Norwich city centre. Their mission is to raise the standard of marketing worldwide and aim to do this through education and thought leadership.
James chatted to Alice about what COVID-19 has meant for them, where they have struggled, what they have learnt and what it’s been like starting a new role during lockdown.
We’ve summarised some of the key points below from the conversation which we hope you will find interesting.
Alice: We had a good setup for remote working anyway. In practical terms everyone was on laptops, we use a tool called Slack which is like Microsoft Teams. We use Google Calendar and Google Drive – so all our document storage uses the cloud. So really there was never any reason for us to be in the office other than the fact we liked it.
From a culture perspective, we have a flat structure – which is quite a new thing, you don’t often come across companies that have a structure like ours. What this has allowed us to do is setup a COVID Task Force which we did in the second week of March. We got a group of guys together and said okay here are some of the challenges we think the business is going to face over the next couple of weeks and can you help us solve them? We basically let them come up with Fountain’s reaction to COVID.
We had a lot of cultural and practical things in place already which meant we were set up well to deal with this but also put greater focus on it. We were offered flexible working anyway, everyday 2 or 3 of us out of the 40 people who work for Fountain would be working from home, but it wasn’t the norm. Now I think we are going to get to a place where working from home is the norm, but it is also completely fine to come into the office. We would like to get the teams back into the office, especially on a Monday when we do our company kick off. We see a massive benefit of everyone being in the office, but also, we have proven that we can work from home and that we want to take some of the benefits out of this.
James: Absolutely, we very much want to be in the office because we like being in the office, but there will be more flexibility for people to work from home. We were not set up to work from home, we were still working on desktops – so we had the whole challenge of dealing with that. It’s making people aware that it is okay to work from home but also coming into the office is okay, whatever works at that time.
Alice: One of the biggest challenges over the next couple of months for businesses is getting to grips with everyone’s reality is very different now. You’ve got some people who are still shielding, we have some people who are finding lockdown really difficult from a mental wellbeing and actually if we say next week we’ve put up some plastic dividers in the office, we think it is safe go back in there actually that’s the worst thing we can do. Although we may have 5 or 6 people who are raring to get back in, probably 75% of our workforce isn’t sure yet. People don’t want to rush back because they aren’t sure. We’ve been inside the house for 100 days or so, that is going to have an impact on our mental wellbeing even if you are the strongest cookie and you can handle anything. There’s so much we haven’t had to deal with over the last 3 months it’s going to be a shock in one way or another.
Alice: We have a coaching program at Fountain. We rolled it out last year and every person at Fountain has a coach that they meet with every second week for 45 minutes. The aim is to understand how they are doing from a wellbeing perspective and everyone is asked to score themselves, 0-5. These get logged and Rebecca keeps track of them. We have a really hands on approach to understanding where the team are with their wellbeing. We have carried on doing this virtually and we have made sure they happen because there is so much going on. It’s important we understand whether people are having a good or a bad day.
One of the other things we have started doing, is at the start of the meeting we ask everyone to rate how they are feeling today on a scale of 0-10 or as a percentage. This then means you know you are probably going to have a very different meeting with someone if they are only feeling 10% then what you would if they were 100%. It’s important for us as employers to understand that things are going on in the world right now which are more important than what’s going on at work for people. This helps us to understand that.
In terms of engagement and keeping culture alive, we do the beer o clock, we’ve done pub quizzes and we have done a scavenger hunt. We’ve also sent a care package to the team with a photo of everyone just to keep them going. So, we have done a few things like that as a company, but it has been nice to see things happen organically. One of our team members set up a channel on Slack called ‘small nice things’ where everyone shares random stuff everyday and it is basically a love in for cats and dogs and Bread Source, because I think Fountain collectively spends the most amount of money at Bread Source then anyone else in the county. If you haven’t been yet definitely go and check them out, their cinnamon buns will get you through lockdown.
Alice: I mentioned before about our new COVID task force. We are going to change that into a new project at Fountain called Innovation Teams. We have a whole 2020 projects roadmap which is all the things we want to improve at Fountain over this year. We run it on a Trello board and with incoming projects we work out who is going to be the owner of them and then we see them through. We’ve identified that our employees are much better at running these projects, so we are going to keep that going. There will be varied projects which we might ask them to run. It might be things like where we have clients who are looking to rebrand, so we want to get together some people who don’t usually work together on that client and have a strategy meeting and get their input. One of the other projects we have is reducing the number of internal meetings we have at Fountain and I don’t want to run that, I’m not best placed to run that! I know that it is a challenge that we must face, so I can put that to the guys and ask for volunteers and ask who wants to get involved in running this project and let them come up with ideas. We will of course gather feedback and see how it goes. At the end of the day, they are the ones on the ground everyday and they are the ones struggling with the fact that so much of their day is spent in these meetings, so they are best placed to solve it.
Alice: Not yet, but one of the things we haven’t done since lockdown started is appraisals. We do our appraisals every 4 months for everyone and it takes a lot of time. So, 40 people either Rebecca, Laura or I are involved with every appraisal and we do 360 feedback. We were midway through them went we went into lockdown and we just put a pause on them. There was so much going on we just couldn’t get to it, but this is something we are going to have to tackle now. I don’t know how that is going to work! Things like body language is so important in appraisals and just having a good heart to hear, so I think face to face will always trump video calls. I’m not sure how that is going to work. Indigo Swan are like appraisal masters, James maybe you can share some advice.
James: Do you know what we haven’t done appraisals since lockdown, so I can’t say if we are doing anything right. It’s an interesting one, for me whilst appraisals are highly important at the moment, it’s more about the constant contact with the guys who are working and aren’t on furlough. What are they achieving, how productive are they being, are they happy are they settled, are we making enough contact with our clients – all that sort of stuff! Then for the guys who are furloughed, are they using that time to pick up new skills, like Alex who works for us; he has been furloughed and he went off and did a leadership online course. He became a line manager just before lockdown and wanted to go and develop his skills and learn new stuff. So, it’s more about encouraging that sort of thing I would say. The appraisals will come, but I don’t know if they need to be formulated at this moment in time. The stuff that you include in your appraisal, make sure you are doing, but more organically on a weekly basis.
Alice: We ask everyone to time sheet and we have done that since Fountain started, so we have been doing that for the last 10 years. The reason it started is because we are an agency and clients pay us for a set amount of time. When we work with a prospect they might say ‘I want to be first place for these 5 keywords’ and we say okay we think that is going to take 6 months and we will allocate internally a certain amount of time to that which we feel it will take each month. The reason we do that is so that we can manage our capacity, how many staff we need, the number of clients we have got etc. Because of that everybody’s timesheets and we are flexible with our working hours, so whether you start at 8 and finish at 4 or start at 9 – everyone timesheets. This meant we already had a system monitoring productivity built in. We aren’t rigorous about it we don’t check every day to see what people are putting on their timesheet, but it is a good flag especially working from home. If we didn’t have this system, it would be a lot harder to monitor and for me it’s more about checking people aren’t working long hours.
James: If I am honest productivity has probably gone up since lockdown, but we want to make sure people aren’t working longer hours because it is easier to just lose track of time. It’s important to make sure people aren’t burning themselves out.
Alice: It’s a good question. I don’t think we have fundamentally changed much about how we work or what we are doing. We’ve got a 1 3 5, which I know you have at Indigo Swan and it’s our sort of vision statement for the next 2 years and we have stuck to it. We have seen a slowdown in the amount of growth we are seeing, and it might push us back a couple of months on a goal but fundamentally I don’t think we will have changed that much. One of the things we have really been encouraging the guys to do is to get more face to face time with their clients. Get to know them even better than you have done before. We’ve just done our Net Promoter Score survey so that we can understand who our promoters are at Fountain, who is scoring us low, what can we change, how do we improve things. Having started with I don’t think we have changed I support we have changed in that we are more customer centric than ever before. That’s the key thing for us in terms of retaining clients and growth.
James: I agree. I think it’s interesting the word blaming as I think there is a lot of blaming going on for lockdown and COVID. From an Indigo Swan point of few, we might have been guilty of that in the early days but I would go as far as saying COVID-19 has enhanced our culture and made us stronger as a team. Even with the guys who have been on furlough, it’s been an opportunity for them to miss work and Indigo Swan and we’ve kept in contact with them and I have calls with them at least every other week, but as a unit I would say we have strengthened over this time. We’ve had to go through this crisis and pandemic all together, whilst at the same time still having to be strategic and say look, we do still have business goals don’t forget that and don’t be embarrassed by the fact that we have business goals. We may not achieve what we set out to achieve this year, but we are going to have a dam good go and get as close to it as possible! Let’s not ignore the fact that we have had a global pandemic but at the same time we should all want to strive to achieve what we set out to achieve this year or as close as possible. It’s made us take a good look at what we do and how we do it.
Alice: COVID has forced me to take on new challenges which I didn’t think I would have to do this early on in my MD career. From a reality perspective, one of our directors got COVID quite early on and was hit down badly with it. Overnight I was thrust into client negotiations and spent about 3 weeks looking at the way this was affecting our way of working. It was probably one of the most stressful periods in my life, but also it was enjoyable once I got over the fear of having to do it because actually I got to know our clients better than I would of before and I got to position myself to the teams and our clients as right I am taking the reins on this. It’s also been beneficial when it came to the time of making the announcement, as I felt happy and ready, raring to go. Plus, the team had already seen me leading. So, it’s been a good opportunity just slightly surreal.
James: Absolutely. We will all face more challenges throughout our careers but hopefully nothing as challenging and all the skills and things that we have learnt during this time can only be beneficial.