Ireland’s phased roadmap for reopening dictates that workers who can work from home should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, despite this new way of working having been in place for over two months now, some businesses are yet to find their groove with it. Meanwhile, other businesses have rolled out a productive – albeit makeshift – system of working that has proven to be a success.
Understandably, different industries, sectors, and job functions may naturally be more suited to remote working than others. However, we can all stand to learn a lot simply by looking at what others have been doing. We checked in with Rachael O’Shea, Head of Employee Experience at Fintech multi-national, the Taxback Group, and Louise Flannery, HR Manager at the animation studio Lighthouse Studios, to find out how two very different businesses have been coping during Covid-19.
Rachael, the Taxback Group employs around 1600 people in office locations across 23 countries. What did the switch to working from home look like?
Rachael – “The last few weeks haven’t been easy by any means. But from the beginning we had a very proactive approach. In February we already had in place a Contingency Management Team consisting of Senior Management, HR, IT, Communications, Operations, Compliance and Risk, that met daily to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 globally. We first prioritised health and safety in the workplace before transitioning to a fully remote workforce in March. However, by then we were prepared and had computer set-up guides and other resources readily available to assist our employees.”
Sounds like a busy time! Lighthouse Studios meanwhile is an animation studio based out of Kilkenny, employing around 160 crew members from all over the world. How did you guys find the transition, Louise?
Louise- “Covid-19 really changed how we operate in an extremely short amount of time. We had our crew set up to work remotely in a fast turnaround, which included not only the IT set up but also the delivery to their homes of IT equipment, office chairs/desks, right down to the minor but important computer mouse! Little did we know then that it would be for more than a few weeks.”
All of this must have come with a fair few challenges. What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Louise – “Our HR department has always had an open-door policy. Our crew members come from all over the world. Some are living away from home for the first time or are straight out of college. Keeping that two-way communication was extremely important for us, so we’ve set up daily check-ins with different crew members via Microsoft Teams to see how they are getting on and rolled out all kinds of different wellbeing initiatives”
What kind of initiatives?
Louise – “At the start of lockdown, I set up a collaborative “COVID 19 -Fun & Wellbeing Document” to gather various ideas for keeping the crew all connected. Some of the ideas we rolled out included a weekly remote working guide which has been covering various articles related to remote working such as how to keep online meetings short and productive, how to look after your physical and mental wellbeing while working remotely, why we should be taking our annual leave even if we can’t travel – that kind of thing. We also put together a number of motivational/upbeat videos for crew. For instance, our Studio Manager showed us all how to make delicious soda bread and homemade jam while our Series Director delivered a lovely video on the importance of keeping a journal! Being a creative company, we tried to channel our creativity into all we’ve been doing to keep crew motivated.”
Rachael – “We have a really robust company intranet that has been at the core of all we’ve been doing. So, in order to spread positivity, we have been encouraging employees to share a photo / video of the little something that they look forward to every day using the hashtag #FeelGoodEveryday. Posts have included everything from dog agility training to stunning beaches. We have also rolled out Zoom-In Leadership Talks. These are 45-minute masterclasses whereby employees volunteer to give an informative session on a topic of their choice. Topics have included everything from The Power of Storytelling to Lights, Camera, Action – how to make the most of shooting videos with your phone.
As always, we have been placing a huge focus on the mental wellbeing of our employees. This has included everything from mental health webinars to meditation for newbies! In addition to this, we had a very engaging mental resilience talk with professional golfer and Immedis Brand Ambassador Shane Lowry where he shared his own struggles, tips and methods to cope in this challenging environment. We have taken our quarterly #OneTeam Awards, where employees have the opportunity to recognise a colleague for a job well done, online too, and ensured winners receive their award via post.
And because a lot of our employees are parents that must look after kids while working, we have also rolled out #TBGKids, where we try to provide our employees with some valuable resources and initiatives that will involve their kids too, including an Easter Colouring Competition and an activity guide for the whole family.”
Louise – “And it’s actually been really refreshing to see how well crew have been communicating with each other, and how easily studio activities have taken on a new form in the online world. For instance one of our crew members usually shows cartoons in the studio crew room every Friday for his colleagues. He very quickly took that online and every week we look forward to whatever wacky ride he’s going to take us on next. We also hold a regular show and tell with Cartoon Saloon in our studio where crew members get together and showcase some of their works in progress over some drinks and snacks. Taking that online was an absolute treat! These kind of interactions are really important to us, and maintaining these is crucial for our culture.
What do you think are the most important factors for any team working remotely?
Louise – “Two words – ‘communication’ and ‘support’. I think it’s important to be always on the lookout for unique deliverables as we try to support and lead our crew through this storm. After all – we are all in the same storm, even if our boats are different!”
Rachael – “Absolutely, communication is key, especially when not working face-to-face, because you’re missing most of, if not all, of the context of each person’s situation. If you’re in an office with your teammates, you’ll notice right away if someone is acting differently or if something in the environment has changed. Regular behaviour patterns allow you to see if a person is stressed and needs a chat, or if they’re super focused and don’t want to be disturbed. In a remote team, you lose a lot of that context, so you need to find ways to make up for it”
How do you think we can keep those connections alive when working from home?
Rachael – “There are several ways to build strong connections while working from home but ensuring we are using the correct communication tools is imperative (email, phone, Zoom or Teams). For example, while it’s incredibly important to check in on your colleagues, if an issue can be resolved in 10 minutes, don’t schedule an hour-long Zoom call to discuss it. I believe ensuring we communicate effectively with the right tools is key to any team working remotely now. With that being said, remember we’re all human. Try to put some time aside to check in with people to see “how” they’re doing as opposed to “what” they’re doing.”
Do you have any advice for anyone that is struggling with working from home?
Rachael – “Routine is key – try to keep it as close to what it would be if you were working from the office. Set yourself a dedicated workspace and plan out your day. Put aside some time for your 11am coffee break and if a colleague is free for a chat, all the better!”
Louise – “Exactly. Keep to a daily schedule. From getting up and showered and dressed as if you were going to the studio to setting out your break and stretch times throughout the day, while also including some outdoor breaks or exercise. Plan your meals as you would normally. It’s also important to create an office space in your home with no distractions.”
As we begin to look towards returning to work, do you think you will bring any learnings from this time back to the office or studio with you?
Rachael – “Not to take anything for granted; the Friday feeling, McDonald’s for lunch, or your colleague arriving to work with your favourite coffee. I believe the current working environment has given us a new level of appreciation for the people we work with and I for one certainly can’t wait to be back in the office with my colleagues.”
Louise – “It is always hard to keep to a daily schedule in HR with our open-door policy, so we have been setting out core hours whereby important tasks are to be actioned. This leaves time for ad-hoc items that pop up daily to be managed. The plan is to keep this mindset as we return to the studio.”
Although dates when businesses will be fully operational are not yet defined, do you have any plan in place for when you do return?
Louise – “Aside from all the health and safety guidelines, policy updates and other measures, we will really be looking for ways to keep up the engagement and culture we had in the studio prior to COVID-19. Returning to the studio will need a settling in period, just like crew required when setting up to work from home. Crew will be returning to a studio that is unfamiliar to them due to the restrictions that will be in place in order to keep crew all safe and healthy. Some of these measures will no doubt be strange for crew to adapt to, so the great engagement with our crew and our studio culture will be more important than ever.”
Rachael – “Our people are what make us, and their health and safety always comes first and therefore, we will not be returning to the office until we feel it is entirely safe to do so. We understand that some employees might not be able to return to the office from the get-go due to school closures, living with someone high risk, etc. I think the important thing for us as an employer is to be as understanding as possible and to be flexible with our return approach. Also, in order to maintain a 2metre social distance, it’s unlikely that we will be able to welcome all of our employees back to the office simultaneously. For that reason, we are considering implementing staggered shifts / lunches in order to prioritise our employees’ health and safety.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we’re extremely lucky to have such an adaptive workforce that have continued to collaborate and innovate as they always do. Our people continue to inspire us every day, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so when things return to normal – whatever “normal” will be.”
Rachael O’Shea is Head of Employee Experience at The Taxback Group, the parent company of Ireland’s most successful and ground-breaking Fintech brands – including, TransferMate Global Payments, Immedis, Taxback International and Taxback.com.
Louise Flannery is HR Manager at Lighthouse Studios, an animation studio based in Kilkenny that delivers high quality, multi genre animated content for production partners such as Amazon, Netflix and Cinesite.