Looking back over the past year, we can all single out a moment when the pandemic really hit home. For me, that moment came on a hot day last July.
My assistant and I were heading into PAN’s downtown Boston headquarters to shoot a video about the company’s DEI Journey. I was excited. It was the first time I would set foot in our 8th floor office since we closed March 12, 2020, and I had missed the place. I was looking forward to seeing familiar surroundings – team members’ personalized workstations, the tasteful splashes of orange, the views of the Greenway and the Harbor, my fish tank and its seven inhabitants.
When I opened the glass door, the scene looked downright spooky. Signs were still taped to the cabinets celebrating a VP’s March 8 birthday. Heavy sweaters draped over the backs of chairs. Holiday lights were strung up across pods of desks. Piles of pumps and slings were scattered in the corner of an EVP’s office. A couple of half-filled (and expired) Pepperidge Farm cookie packages sat on the counter in the “PANtry” kitchen.
It was like time had frozen in place. As I looked out on 255 State Street, I was brought back to one of the epicenter outbreaks in Boston – the Biogen conference where our neighbor, the Long Wharf Hotel hosted their event in March. A bit eerie. As the outside world moved on, adjusting to harsh new realities, inside this once vibrant office, time had refused to march forward.
“As the outside world moved on, adjusting to harsh new realities, inside this once vibrant office, time had refused to march forward.”
As we approach the one-year anniversary of our full-time shift to remote work, we all find ourselves looking back at what we’ve been through and looking ahead at what, we hope, will be better times to come.
It’s been a tough year – no getting around it. Some people close to PAN lost family members and friends to COVID-19. Many in our circles know people who’ve caught the disease or lost jobs. My heart goes out to all who’ve been severely affected by this terrible pandemic. I know people say “time heals all wounds,” but for some that just doesn’t seem like reality.
I also feel sad about all we’ve missed. We’ve gone without day-to-day physical interactions with people, starting with our colleagues. That’s been a big loss. Personally, I miss traveling between PAN’s five offices, talking with new hires about their experience onboarding with our teams, strategizing with account supervisors and directors and hearing the excitement about the latest engagement or media hit. I miss having dinner (and a bottle of cab) with my VPs, GMs and the entire leadership team throughout the year, getting to know them better and hearing first-hand what’s keeping them up at night. I know colleagues long for that in-person connection as well. Some of our newer employees who’ve been limited to virtual interactions haven’t experienced PAN at its best. But they will – and it will be as magical as ever.
“Some of our newer employees who’ve been limited to virtual interactions haven’t experienced PAN at its best. But they will – and it will be as magical as ever.”
At the same time, I look back with happiness and pride, thinking about how we’ve all pulled together and navigated our way through this difficult time. I’m amazed at the strength of our 150+ employees, tackling all the challenges that came our way. None of us saw this coming, but we’ve stepped up and made the best of it. We’ve made changes that have made us stronger going forward.
I’m also proud of how our integrated marketing and PR community banded together in the days leading up to the office closings. In early March 2020, members of my Executive Team were unsure about what steps to take with the virus coming our way so quickly. Would disinfecting the offices provide enough protection for employees? Should we consider closing? How? When? Should we purchase and stock-pile masks, disinfectants and items to protect our staff?
Since I have relationships with leaders of our agency peers, this seemed like a good time to hear what they were thinking. It became clear that PAN shared the same concerns about the pandemic as they did. We felt it best to go 100 percent remote sooner rather than later to keep the health and safety of our employees as the number one priority; that’s exactly what we did on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Even when it seemed like offices were starting to reopen months and months later, we knew that we would return only when it felt comfortable, safe and right. The collaboration, spirit and fight my colleagues in the PR industry showed (and continue to share to this day) remains one of my personal bright spots throughout these difficult times.
“The collaboration, spirit and fight my colleagues in the PR industry showed (and continue to share to this day) remains one of my personal bright spots throughout these difficult times.”
The next 12 months were a struggle for all of us, but I can say definitively that our agency has changed for the better. We’ve learned to communicate in a whole new manner. We’ve adapted to a new way of doing business. We’ve become more flexible and more empathetic, and kept our people-first values close to home. We’ve rolled out new programs and new policies that will help us evolve in the future. I’ve learned to LOVE working from home and leading by that example. I know it can’t replace the in-office experience of greeting new faces, embracing a team member on their journey to promotion or just sharing in personal moment in time (weddings, pregnancies, weekend recaps), but we’ll sure as hell try.
Collaboration has always been a critical tool in our industry, and that was put to the test during the pandemic. We didn’t have the luxury of corralling colleagues physically for on-the-spot meetings, so our teams had to become more nimble with schedules, document sharing and communications. Zoom, 8×8, and TEAMS became integral parts of our lives. Replacing the office intercom (which I frequented often), employees learned to tap all the channels at our disposal – phone, email, video chats, text, FaceTime, IM, you name it – mastering the art of reaching people the right way at the right time.
It became clear early on in the pandemic I wanted to lead out-front and be visible. I wanted to level with my staff and share information and decisions in real-time. I took this to heart. The first four months of remote work, I sent out daily all-staff communications, updating our plans, offering honest assessments of the business climate and sharing a simple thought of the day! I wanted my team to feel my presence. I encouraged two-way feedback through an ask-me-anything, anonymous email channel. We held more frequent staff meetings, and I’ve kept up a steady cadence of communications throughout the year about everything from business to DEI to the staff’s social posts celebrating “Take Your Dog for a Walk Day.”
“The pandemic has also taught us to put a higher priority on mental health. The fear of getting sick or spreading the virus to a vulnerable family member has become a major source of stress throughout society. So has the feeling of alienation workers experience without direct human contact.”
The pandemic has also taught us to put a higher priority on mental health. The fear of getting sick or spreading the virus to a vulnerable family member has become a major source of stress throughout society. So has the feeling of alienation workers experience without direct human contact. Our management team has made a point to encourage teammates to talk honestly about how they’re doing mentally as well as physically. Just like you’d ask someone how a fractured knee is progressing, you can ask, simply, “How are you feeling?”
Click below to learn about the mental health webinar series that our agency offered this fall.
As we look toward a return-to-work date, we’ve reached the same conclusion others have – that work itself is going to need to be more flexible. We’ve been forced into new work patterns, and we’ve adapted. Employee surveys we’ve conducted show that some like the 100 percent remote set-up while others prefer full time in the office or a mix of the two. So, we adopted a new model we call HyFlex: a hybrid structure, augmented with flexible schedules to allow for more of a work-life balance. This model is designed to empower our employees to plot their ideal work environment, and I am excited to provide this benefit across all levels at PAN.
“We adopted a new model we call HyFlex: a hybrid structure, augmented with flexible schedules to allow for more of a work-life balance. This model is designed to empower our employees to plot their ideal work environment.”
Seeing the state of the office that day in July drove the point home that nobody expected this pandemic to last so long. Employees left the office on a Wednesday, thinking they’d be coming in the next week or so. When we closed the office “until further notice,” we all thought it might be a few weeks, maybe a few months before we could get back to normal. Nobody took anything home. Now, one year later, we’re still working remotely, looking forward to better times.
One year from now, where will we be? I’m hoping on March 12, 2022, to see a vibrant office that recaptures its old spirit. Workers will still be doing Zoom calls, but hopefully from small conference rooms, connecting with colleagues who work remotely a few days a week. I can envision scenes where pre-pandemic life comes back into focus – where birthday hugs are being exchanged, fresh bags of cookies are being shared, and after-hours gatherings are being planned. That’s something to look forward to and I for one can’t wait for that day.