Editor's note: This article is part of the "Profiles in Productivity" series featuring insights from finance leaders across industries about the tools and techniques they used to motivate and lead their teams to productivity in 2020.
Back in 2019, Minneapolis advertising agency Colle McVoy engaged in an ambitious project to develop a new workflow structure for the entire staff. Getting everyone on the same page wasn't easy, but the company's leadership believed that it would ultimately pay off.
And it most definitely has. No one could've predicted then that a pandemic would send all 240 employees home to work remotely for the indefinite future, potentially causing uncertainty and chaos. But those new directives outlining the shape of communication and creative work have been enormously advantageous, keeping productivity high and interactions smooth.
It's not perfect, of course; employees sometimes suffer from burnout that can't be alleviated by water-cooler jokes and chitchat in the break room. But with a little creativity, leaders have found ways to maintain personal bonds and keep morale high.
Getting everyone on the same page
Founded in 1935, Colle McVoy is a full-service creative agency that produces advertising, design, and public relations content for clients like 3M, Johnson & Johnson, UnitedHealth Group, and General Mills. In 2019, company leaders spent several months planning for and developing the new workflow structure before introducing it to the whole staff.
"To get everyone doing things the same took a lot of energy and effort," explained Lisa Miller, CPA, CGMA, Colle McVoy's CFO. She's been with the company for two decades and describes her job as the "classic CFO role," pitching in on human resources, administration, and IT tasks, as well as straight finance.
But the training on the new workflow was worth it. Today, everyone at Colle McVoy belongs to one of five teams, and each team meets first thing in the morning for a 30-minute check-in. The meeting has an established protocol, with members systematically — and using the same formalized language — acknowledging their attendance and listing the percentage of tasks completed the prior day, the work in front of them, any blocks preventing their progress, and questions they may have for other team members. With a predictable roll call that allows for very brief input by staff, the check-in meetings move briskly and smoothly.
"What it does is it gets everyone connected," Miller said. "It's really allows us to focus on keeping in touch with what everyone's doing."
The rest of the day is tightly structured. When the meetings end at 9:30, employees have another half-hour for "collaboration time," to check in with others. Then come long blocks of what Miller described as "flow time" — uninterrupted hours during which meetings are discouraged; that's considered employees' time to deeply focus. And then at the end of the day, there's room for necessary calls and meetings before everyone disappears.
"Talk about fortuitous timing — it made the transition much easier," said Miller of the reorganization. And many months into the pandemic, it remains beneficial. Breaking the staff into smaller teams hugely facilitates communication: "It's almost like walking around saying, 'How's it going, what's everyone up to?'"
During what could be a very unstructured time, she said, "it's allowed us to continue to be very efficient."
Sometimes there's no substitute for meeting in person
Still, despite the smoother structure and tech tools that the company is using to their full potential, employees have experienced some burnout. In part, that's been due to lost vacations over the spring and summer; they're particularly important in Minneapolis, as a relief after brutal winters. Miller said she had to actively encourage workers to take time off, even if it was just to go camping or spend time at home putting in a garden.
The various teams have also found creative ways to bring staff together in person. Several members of the finance team, for example, have been working on a software upgrade; it has required meetings every month or so to brainstorm and collaborate on configuring the system's requirements. But everyone is tired of staring at a screen.
So instead, during the warmer months, they met outside in parks or a colleague's garage. "We brought our giant pad, hung it up on a wall at a pavilion, everyone with their own marker," Miller explained. "It was very energizing to be together again, to really spend time together. And in terms of collaboration, being together is so much more efficient; we could accomplish so much more than on a Zoom call."
When the coronavirus began to surge in the fall and Minnesota further limited public gatherings, the team had to put those in-person meetings on hold. But Miller said they've maintained a sense of community and connectedness through digital activities like virtual meetups, happy hours, book clubs, and online yoga sessions.
She and her colleagues have also tried to replicate some of the serendipity that occurs when employees are physically together in an office. "We're taking this a step further to re-create more spontaneous encounters that we had in our open office space, to keep our culture alive," she said. "We host a weekly virtual coffee shop where everything but business is discussed, as well as a virtual meeting roulette when employees are randomly assembled to simulate moments like lunch on our rooftop."
She acknowledged that nothing beats meeting in person, though. When some of the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, she and the finance team plan to meet outside again despite the cold, engaging in activities like ice skating, long walks, or gathering around bonfires.
Ultimately, Miller said, she's surprised and impressed by how well the company has coped with the many long months of remote work during the pandemic. "I'm amazed by how we've been able to perform at a very high level," she said. "We miss being together, and we look forward to when we can go back to the office. But now we know it's nothing to be afraid of."
— Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.