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Founder and CEO of market research consultancy, Alter Agents; believer that powerful insights can change businesses.
The Covid-19 pandemic hurt in a lot of ways. It hurt us deeply with such tragic loss of life, the interruption of our children’s youth and what I’m sure will be lingering effects on our collective mental health. These types of pain take time and work to subside, if they will ever fully subside at all. In human terms: We’ve just been through so, so much.
But the pandemic also challenged our core systems in ways that tested strengths and exposed flaws. We saw this in our proprietary research on consumer fear and anxiety, which found that the mental onslaught hammered Americans’ confidence while the economic lurch sent food insecurity skyrocketing. It also came through in our company’s internal conversations about what in life had changed and how the way in which we operated was or wasn’t working. The flaws in our systems — societal and corporate — have been exploited by this virus and, in some cases, they were broken down. Preexisting trends were also accelerated, as we all scrambled to adapt after last March’s abrupt shutdowns.
We need to learn from all of this and adapt. Being adaptive is a core value at my company because it keeps us agile and accommodating. But the need to learn from the challenges of the past year isn’t just an imperative for good business. It’s an imperative because of all of the pain and frustration and heartache we’ve felt at the shortcomings of our traditional systems and ways of working.
That’s why I’m not trying to lead my company back to where it was in December of 2019. That place and time are gone. I want a renewal — not a recovery — so that our people are equipped and prepared to handle the challenges we’ll face today and tomorrow.
MORE FOR YOU
How Trust Guides Our Adaptations
Trust between colleagues is the foundation of a truly great workplace. At Alter Agents, we’ve practiced a management style called “ultimate agency” for years now. We don’t track vacation hours and we offer flex time for each employee to handle their business, even if it means they need to take an hour out of an afternoon’s work. All’s fair as long as our work gets done. But the pandemic taught us that we hadn’t really fulfilled that promise as much as we could have: People weren’t taking as much vacation time as I wanted them to, even though their life challenges had dramatically increased.
So we experimented with a four-day work week, which we knew would be challenging since our work revolves around our clients’ deadlines. Through elaborate scheduling and note-taking best practices, we managed to have a four-day work week for a few months. Ultimately, our days off started slipping as people joined meetings or “finished up this one thing” and the program quickly lost its appeal. In a way, it is harder to know you have a day off but feel like you can’t take it than to have never had that day in the first place. After some internal surveys and lots of conversations, we converted to a “one day off per month” program in addition to paid holidays and unlimited vacation.
Trust became even more important when we went fully remote. We don’t use monitoring software to track employee activity or time sheets to log hours because doing so displays distrust that the work will get done (without Big Brother watching). The approach has worked: We’re busier than ever, growing faster than ever, and the work is still getting done. In fact, we don’t even plan on returning to a 9-to-5 office. Our team likes working this way and it’s working for our clients, and we trust that this will continue.
As we’ve doubled our staff since the pandemic began, much of this experience has revolved around onboarding new team members and getting them accustomed to our working style. Everyone we interviewed loved the concept itself. The challenge lay in breaking old habits learned in previous jobs, where work was more monitored and time was regimented.
How Learning Trust Helps Our Clients
A lot has been written about empowering employees to take ownership over their work in order to motivate them toward improvement. I think the first step is trusting them and letting employees take ownership of themselves. By allowing people to set schedules that work and take time when they need it, our employees have primed each other to be engaged when we’re working. That engagement is what enables researchers to take ownership over data and insights, and clients benefit in the process because the outputs are stronger.
We’re fully candid with our partners about how we work, and they support it because they’ve experienced the results. They’re happier because we’re happier, and our business relationships gain strength and depth as project after project rolls on. After completing a project, we always send out a short survey to our clients about their satisfaction with the work. We are researchers after all! Every survey to date has come back with us “exceeding expectations” and clients telling us what a joy we were to work with — dedicated, flexible, responsive and always in a good mood. We firmly believe that happy employees make for happy clients.
None of this is without challenges. We’re not quite through this pandemic. And as we continue to grow our team, we’ll need to work extra hard to integrate new members into our company’s virtual fabric. But when new trials come up (and they will), I’m not interested in trying to revert back to a traditional office-based working paradigm, rescinding the trust we’ve built and pretending like no good lessons came out of all the struggles we faced as a company and as individuals. As a small business, we’re going to continue to learn from the times and adapt to future-looking methods because that’s always been a key part of success. Renewal, to me, means reinvention — learning from our history, adapting for the future, and being not only open to change, but eager to do so.
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Author: Rebecca Brooks, Forbes Councils Member
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