How marketers can navigate the ‘perfect storm’ of remote working


From motivating remote teams to finding new methods of measuring success, marketers will need to navigate a ‘perfect storm’ as the coronavirus pandemic sparks profound changes to the world of work

By Matt Barker 

 March 24, 2020

In the context of the global coronavirus pandemic, the world of work has entered a dramatic new phase. Whereas daily life was focused on working in offices and face-to-face meetings, the need for social distancing has created a new normal based primarily on remote working.

However, a recent analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on businesses – conducted by Marketing Week and its sister title Econsultancy – reveals some alarming findings of marketers’ attitudes towards, and preparations for, remote working.

Only 40% of the 887 UK brand marketers surveyed say their business is “very proficient” at enabling remote work. Half of the marketers believe their company will be compromised by an increase in remote work, while 68% of senior marketers are concerned that creative collaboration will suffer.

Asked if there will be any significant long-term changes in working practices once the threat of the virus has abated, just 32% of UK marketers think their working life will return to normal entirely.

Remote working has long been a regular part of working life, but it’s clear that doubts remain about its validity, particularly when it comes to issues around trust and productivity. Some 92% of senior marketers admit that remote working is not suited to everyone, while 37% believe it is not well suited to junior staff.

This is the first time we’ve seen large organizations adopting the policy at scale and new formats need to be found to keep people motivated, spark ideas and stimulate communication.

“It’s a perfect storm for leaders and particularly for leaders in marketing, given that the role of the marketer is to bring insight into the organization.

Mark Evans, Direct Line

Technology, video conferencing, webcams, and messaging services can all bring greater engagement, but it’s how marketers communicate and interact in a meaningful way, not just with work colleagues but with their wider networks, that will be key.

Former Adidas and Diageo marketer Leila Fataar is the founder of consultancy Platform 13, which helps brands connect with a new breed of agencies and creatives. Having always had a flexible mindset that comes from working with startups, the events of recent weeks have not presented too much of a culture shock for Fataar.

However, she believes larger companies and big brands will have to change their ways of thinking and shake off entrenched ideas about the staff working from home being too disconnected and distracted.

“People talk about this being an age of experience, but actually it’s an age of uncertainty,” she states.

“You have to be able to flex around these changes as they come. You need to shift your plans according to what’s happening in the world, to be able to quickly pivot and identify what needs to change in order for you to still do good work.”

Fataar calls this enforced wave of remote working the “new normal”, and it is tempting to view this as a pivotal moment that will usher in an age where the old employment structures no longer apply.

“Corporate people like structure and security, but this is a different way of working,” she says. “These are transformational times, everything’s changing and it’s exciting.”

Stay motivated

As firms navigate their way through this transition, staying connected and motivated is vital. Managing director for marketing and digital at Direct Line Group, Mark Evans, believes that a lack of clarity about the dangers of the virus, coupled with mixed messages about what people can and cannot do in their everyday lives, is making it harder to motivate people in their work.

“This is a huge leadership challenge because people are in a threat state, there’s so little that is certain,” he says.

“Basically, they’re scared. It’s a perfect storm for leaders and particularly for leaders in marketing, given that the role of the marketer is to bring insight into the organization, to see what’s going to be happening down the road, to future-spot and get the organization future-ready.”

On a practical level, Evans recommends keeping some sort of routine to working days to help maintain energy levels and keep minds thinking creatively. “People still need to feel that sense of achievement, it’s in all of us. It’s not performance management per se, just about keeping people motivated through achievement,” he adds.

Communication is an obvious, but still crucial factor in keeping team spirit alive, especially anything that lifts the mood and gets everyone back into a familiar routine of relaxed interaction.

“Corporate people like structure and security, but this is a different way of working.”

Leila Fataar, Platform 13

Neil Perkin, founder of digital consultancy Only Dead Fish which specializes in organizational agility, believes that informal virtual get-togethers and catch-ups are just as essential – if not more so – than a formal conference call.

“Things like virtual coffee breaks, where people can just sort of hanging out together, have one-to-ones and have that kind of connection are as important as any formal meetings,” he says.

It’s all about creating an atmosphere of connection and trust. It is important also to think about a different way of measuring achievement, away from clock-watching and the rigid framework of the 9 am to 5 pm.

“The leadership attitude has to focus more on outputs, rather than presenteeism,” Perkin adds. “I think over time this will naturally play out and we’ll see more flexibility.”

Virtual connections

Equally, there’s a need to prioritize and be realistic about what people can achieve, at least in the short term. Evans believes that the current situation will lead to a more productive way of working, mainly because we’re going to see a major shift in how we communicate and how we relate to – and look after – each other.

“I think it will further cement the mental health agenda,” he says. “There isn’t going to be an individual in the world who isn’t going to have some sort of mental health impact as a result of this.”

TSB CMO, Peter Markey, stresses the need for developing a more engaging, familiar dialogue with staff.

“Now’s a really important time for any business to recognize people in the entirety of their lives. As leaders we have to find the opportunity to bring teams together,” he advises.

“How do we inject a sense of fun into our interactions? What will make up for not going for that beer after work, or dinner with an agency?”


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