A couple of weeks ago we held our first Virtual Avocado Club where we were lucky enough to be joined by the Co-Founders of Foolproof, Peter Ballard and Tom Wood. Foolproof is an experience design company who help businesses optimise their digital presence. Founded in 2002 starting out as usability experts, the team has grown over the years and now supports businesses with full end to end design and deliverability of websites.
James had an interesting conversation with Pete and Tom around COVID-19, preserving their company culture and some of the challenges they have faced during lockdown. We held the Avocado Club event during Mental Health Awareness Week where the theme was kindness, so they also touched on that and employee wellbeing.
We’ve summarised some of the key points below from the conversation which we hope you will find interesting.
Tom: Before COVID-19 we were in the habit of having leadership group meetings once a week, so we changed the frequency of those to once a day when lockdown started. We used this as an opportunity to discuss ‘what have we learnt about the world and what do we need to communicate to our people?’. This has been the focus for the last few weeks so that we can digest the information from the government and in the media so we can decide how it will affect the team. We then look at forming a plan of how we are going to communicate this to everyone, could be just a casual conversation or something more formal. Increasing communication has been key!
James: Completely agree, keeping the team well informed is vitally important. Being honest and basing decisions on facts has been our focus at Indigo Swan as well.
Pete: We’re probably quite lucky as we have 3 offices in different locations, London, Norwich and Singapore – so projects are quite used to dealing with people working remotely. We also encouraged people to work from home if they needed to before lockdown and have found effective ways of collaborating remotely. The change for us was it being the only option, which has been difficult. We have around 110 people spread across our locations, so remote working and culture works fine with the people in your team, but it’s the people you don’t work with directly – that’s the bit you have to work on.
We have cake Friday where everyone from each location sits down at the same time and eats cake. This worked well before the lockdown as we invested time into making it work. We’ve tried putting this into a virtual setting and found it quite difficult. We are learning as we go and found it hard when there are so many people for everyone to get a bit of face time so we’re considering splitting into smaller groups.
We have several anchor points in our calendar which normally help with our culture as they are an opportunity to get the whole team together. One of those is in June or July when we bring everyone together on a beach in Norfolk. Obviously, we aren’t going to be able to do that this year so we are having a think about how we could recreate this in a virtual or remote way. We’re always on the lookout for things we can do!
Tom: Our ability to adapt. We know we can do the work remotely, but the difficulty is selling, and this is the area we are having to develop the most. From a people point of view, using different digital or online tools as methods of communication is wearing a little thin. We’re spending an awful lot of time using it to keep in touch with family, friends and then also in the working environment. Although it’s a very useful and a valuable tool, it can be very tiring. Right now, we are thinking about how we can invigorate the way in which we are communicating and have a sense of community without burning each other out.
Pete: Being in digital is normally a good thing, so I think we are lucky! This weird period as it is, has thrown the emphasis onto businesses accelerating their digital agenda so there is a lot of work to do and for us to help with. When it first happened, everyone’s initial reaction was to stop spending, budgets were frozen, and no one wanted to make any decisions. Now we are seeing some of our clients get on with the ‘new thing’ they must do and are scrambling around to put this together. They may have to look at doing things differently for the next year or so, so whilst we may not get the scrambling work, we will get the fixing work once they realise this is the way it must be for a while.
Tom: There’s quite a bit of strategic confusion and tactical focus for our clients at the moment. This is a period where our client base needs to think about what is really happening, how it impacts them, where are they investing and what are they prioritising. When that agenda is known and starts to filter down through the business it typically falls on digital services and propositions as a priority. We are all going to have a tough few months, but eventually clients put themselves back together, get a plan in place and start acting on it – if you can, just hang on in there! Many of us will have to put our longer-term strategic plans in a draw for a while and come back to them later, but you may be dusting them off sooner than you think. Look for new opportunities which have been created by all the mayhem.
Tom: Be nice and hire nice people – that really helps, and long term will stand you in good stead! If you are nice all the time, when you must do tough or ‘nasty’ things people will understand the context in which they come from. Also shared experiences are important and the things which allow us to get to know each other as people. Could be social events, client pitches, an activity off site – anything where you can get to know someone beyond their role and tasks within the business. Use these shared experiences as much as possible to flatten your organisation, so that you don’t allow the functional groups in the business (for example the developers or the designers) to simply cluster together and reinforce their groups. Deliberately break them up so they can cross pollenate understanding and knowledge with each other. The way in which you cultivate these shared experiences is a key angle!
Pete: Showing a bit of vulnerability and encouraging leadership to talk about things we don’t know or the things that aren’t in our control resonates well with people because its relatable. One of the things that I am proud of is that you go to anyone working at Foolproof and they will say that it is a very safe environment to talk about concerns or worries with anyone in the company, including myself and Tom. We’ve invested heavily in a HR functionality and part of that is looking after the mental health and well being of staff. Openness and authenticity are important values to have within organisations.
James: I completely agree. I’ve met several people who work at Foolproof and each of them have been extremely genuine in saying it is a great place to work. It’s the same with Indigo Swan. When the Swans are out and about and get asked ‘is it really like that?’ they reply absolutely! Authenticity is a vital part of our business.
Pete: Be ready to move quickly and reengage with your strategic agenda as soon as possible when business returns – don’t leave it too long. There have been a number of occasions where we have been able to act quickly and even change the nature of the business which has given us a fantastic opportunity to present ourselves differently to clients with an expanded proposition. We are going through a period of change so take advantage of it.
Tom: Hang in there, figure out what is happening and try to communicate that honestly and openly to the people around you. This includes your family, friends and clients – just share as much as you can. Once you get through it, reflect on the things that did and didn’t work and then act, implement new routines. Find new habits and rituals, leave behind the things that didn’t work so well for you.
Meg Greenacre, Head Chef at Erpingham House also joined us for the event and did a live recipe demonstration of an avocado, black bean and mixed veg quesadillas. Find the recipe here.
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