Connection, culture and keeping people together

As we operate in a world that is remote working, quarantined with families or housemates, Amanda Farmer, MD at VMLY&R London asks, what can leaders do to adapt and energise their work culture?

Amanda Farmer

Managing Director VMLY&R London


As an agency, what happens in the world and around us is always the canvas for what we create for our client partners. We pride ourselves on understanding how people feel and what motivates them. This attitude also defines how we communicate with our team. And communication with our people has never been as vital as it is right now.

In the last few weeks, the global context has transformed rapidly as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. MS Teams calls have replaced our daily meetings, after-work drinks now happen on Houseparty, parents face the competing challenges of full-time work and full-time childcare and daily commutes swapped for morning yoga if you're lucky.

This naturally has disrupted our working cultures. And culture is such a fundamental part of an agency. Fostering a collaborative, positive, creative culture is key to agencies' business success and a huge part of what keeps people happy and motivated.

In any crisis, our number one priority is our people, as most of us will agree your agency is your people. So, as we move to a world that is remote working, quarantined with families or housemates, blurring the lines of all our activities, what can leaders do to adapt and energise their work culture?

Always assume good intent

In an office, there is a level playing field. Everyone is in the same space with the same accessories and rooms. Working remotely is a different experience for everyone. Some will be with housemates, some with families, and some will be on their own. Each experience has different stresses and pressures. And physical distance can make communication more complicated.

Thankfully, we have the right technology to communicate instantly, seamlessly and allow a better understanding of each other.

Instant messaging is excellent for over-the-desk chats; video conferencing allows us to see clients and colleagues’ friendly faces and facilitates wider get-togethers too. Our weekly agency meeting now happens on MS Teams; our whole agency gets into one ‘room’ and we feel closer together. There is always good banter and comments in the chat during the meeting.

The current situation is giving us a new window into the lives of our colleagues. It’s fantastic to see homes, families, pets, housemates and more. It reminds us that we are all human, we are going to make mistakes, there will be misunderstandings which is why always assuming good intent is essential. It will foster greater collaboration and more agile work.

Use, adapt & steal

Things are moving fast, so we’ve had to adapt our tools to make sure we get a good sense of how people are adjusting and get a clear picture of the mental wellbeing of the team.

We’ve been using OfficeVibe to track positive and negative sentiments amongst our staff for a couple of years. And for the last weeks, we’ve adapted the tool, moving from weekly surveys to one board question with a free-text response. We received honest, open and insightful feedback, invaluable in informing how we communicate and engage with our team. 

We’re also making sure people know about the support networks that are already in place. Such as our employee assistance programme, which offers a free 24/7 wellbeing support service by phone, online and an app. And organisations like NABS which are incredible and offer invaluable support for our industry during these times. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to steal. We’re always looking outside of our agency at our peers and clients, see what they are doing and if you see a good idea, take it. What matters is finding the things that help. 

Grace and flexibility

It’s easy to say we care. It’s much more important to show it. We are empowering people to communicate what they need, how we can support them and to create a schedule that works for them and their particular circumstance.

We’ve always supported all staff in working flexibly around their needs. And at this time, in particular, we want to make sure we allow each other grace and flexibility.

We’re encouraging people to reflect this stance in their email signatures or an OOO, explaining that they are emailing or messaging at a time that suits their new routine and allowing others to respond at a time that works for them.

We’re also currently exploring the idea of ‘focus time’, where we block out a couple of hours every day in our diaries. No meetings, no calls, just time to think clearly and deeply, do work that needs to be done or spend time with their family.

Trust and transparency

These are challenging and changing times which naturally creates anxiety. People are thinking and asking difficult questions, and unfortunately, these difficult questions do not have simple answers. Much is unknown, and the situation is in flux. All we can do is communicate with transparency and empathy. People also turn to leaders to provide motivation and inspiration through these unpredictable times.

The context of the world has changed, but our responsibilities have not. Those in leadership positions need to be available, approachable and honest. Business leaders must use every tool and trick available to facilitate communication and keep their team safe, happy, together and collaborating, no matter where they are.

Your agency is your people. Doing what is right for them is doing what is right for the business.

Guest Author

Amanda Farmer

Managing Director VMLY&R London


Amanda Farmer is the Managing Director of VMLY&R London. She led the agency through some of its most forming times and has worked relentlessly to build a happy culture, a new collaborative process and strong client relationships. She is an active member on the WPP UK Inclusion Board and a proud sponsor and supporter of Creative Equals. Amanda has worked at some of the UK’s leading agencies across digital, integrated and creative, helping top local and international brands to connect with people including Nestlé, Diageo, Sony, Scottish Power, Cadbury, Heineken and ASDA.