Why getting teams back to the office works: OMG CEO Peter Horgan
Within 48 hours in March 2020, Peter Horgan went from a Hunter Valley fundraiser to discussing an impending Covid economic collapse. He says the disruption has meant more exco meetings, more strategic planning and projects, and greater focus on getting people back to the office
“We felt staff were missing the human interaction and idea generation that comes from the office environment and feared the cultural malaise that could result from prolonged separation.”
From charity to crisis
Most of us will have memories of when the strange but distant virus suddenly became close and frighteningly real.
For me it was just after returning from a Cerebral Palsy fundraiser in The Hunter, which has long been well supported by the media fraternity, in mid-March 2020.
There was a sense, sitting with 300 industry colleagues that this would be last such gathering for many months. Talking to CP Alliance CEO Rob White, we discussed it was a miracle we had been able to come together to raise funds, but we had done so by the skin of our teeth, and at risk of becoming an early cluster statistic!
This sentiment was confirmed two days later, sitting in the Austereo reception & waiting to participate in an MI3 podcast, on the market implications of what was about to hit. The Prime Minister was on screen talking in terms of pandemic and speaking of impending lockdowns that would stretch well into the year. This had suddenly got very real.
We were discussing marketing spend contractions of 50% and depression era unemployment.
It felt like forty-eight hours from wine country charity to the apocalypse!
"We made heart wrenching cuts to staff, but we did it quickly and in one go. Importantly we communicated openly with staff on the imperative of business sustainability in our ambition to protect as many jobs as possible.”
The initial response
The first thing we did was to pull our executive team tight and align on what next.
There would be three clear stages to this crisis: First, the tactical response to what was unfolding. Clients pulling activity, changing messages, some sectors going dark, others upping the reassurance to their customers; Next, the new normal, as businesses set themselves up for lockdown and survival through the crisis; Finally, preparation for the bounce, and looking to the many opportunities that the disruption would offer.
At OMG, we were lucky that a UK staffer had visited in February, on an exchange program and had instigated meetings with almost everyone in the building.
On returning home, a scratchy throat had instigated a full office shutdown that we were obliged to replicate in Sydney.
We had our first WFH dry run, which meant when the real thing hit, we were able to pivot quickly from home office set up to focusing on helping clients through the tactical first phase, and that cadence has barely let up since.
“The urgent can get in the way of the important, and while client teams were flat out, the leadership team, from mid-year, had less of the bustle of travel and pitches and were able to look at the longer term.”
New ways to lead
The meeting frequency of the Exco group increased significantly through 2020. It allowed us to get absolute clarity and alignment on client needs, business reality, communication, and staff safety.
As I mentioned, we were able to pivot to client deliverable very quickly, but we had to make fast decisions to protect the business.
We made heart wrenching cuts to staff, but we did it quickly and in one go. Importantly we communicated openly with staff on the imperative of business sustainability in our ambition to protect as many jobs as possible. Within a month we had right sized the business, set up 1000 home offices across the country and been there for our clients.
Amid the human tragedy there have been unexpected Covid dividends, one of the most significant has been planning time to undertake strategic projects across the group.
The urgent can get in the way of the important, and while client teams were flat out, the leadership team, from mid-year, had less of the bustle of travel and pitches and were able to look at the longer term.
Our challenges with RTW
Whilst the improved flexibility of remote working has been an important boon for the business, we were quite progressive in encouraging return-to-work (RTW) post lockdown in Sydney and Brisbane.
We felt staff were missing the human interaction and idea generation that comes from the office environment and feared the cultural malaise that could result from prolonged separation.
Our priority was team safety, and RTW protocols proved much more complex than sending staff home. Once we got over 50% from July/August, there was strong RTW momentum, which we had to balance given our Melbourne colleagues were doing it so tough.
The lessons have been many, and we aren’t out of the woods, but act fast and trust your staff to respond well to the reality of what you all are navigating together, and you give yourselves a fighting chance for what’s next.
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