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How to Create Effective Digital Teams

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There’s no denying that in-house teams have changed dramatically over the last few years. What was once a Marketing Manager and a couple of Execs, now boasts a plethora of job titles spanning social media, design, product, data analytics … the list goes on! With all those people working under the same umbrella, it can often be a complex web of stakeholders, line managers and teams-within-teams to see a project through to completion.

We partnered with our friends at Code, a digital agency based in Manchester, to discuss how clients can build an effective internal team, how you can get more from the team you have already and how we can use agile practices to adapt to the new working world. Joining our Co-Founder Léon Milns were Steve Peters (Business Director) and Gemma Handley (Commercial Director) from Code. Digital Leader Ant Duffin rounded out the panel, giving an insider’s perspective and shedding light on the complex issue that is remote employee engagement.

The discussion centred around 4 questions that form the vital components of building a successful team.

1. Why are businesses looking to agency partners to help coach and train their people?

The short answer is time. Many in-house teams are so deep in the day-to-day fulfilment of their roles that leaders are leaning on external resources to expedite their journey quicker and more effectively.

We’ll touch on retention in more detail later, but it is clear from the panels’ discussion that people expect more from their employers and actively seek regular development opportunities from a new role. Digital skills have always been ever-changing, and at significant pace. The pandemic sent us into overdrive; with time and space like we’ve never known before, innovation has occurred at a rate of knots. Keeping up with this level of learning can leave L&D teams in a spin but tapping into the knowledge of your agency partners is a quick way to plug a skills gap.

We’ve seen a continuing trend of businesses looking to bring expertise in house however some organisations actively prefer a lean workforce. There are also many companies who have been forced to reduce headcount due to the impact of the pandemic. In 2021 everyone is looking to rebuild their client base, and some are even exploring new revenue opportunities. What makes this possible? Aggressive growth. Often the only way to achieve this quickly is to utilise external resources – hiring temporary workers or engaging an agency – until you hit critical mass and can actively recruit these skills permanently.

Plugging that resource gap goes beyond utilising them to deliver a campaign though. Shifting from traditional educators who are typically theory focused and utilising the learned experience of industry experts is a sure-fire way to a) engage your team in their development and b) expose them to cross-industry knowledge and hands-on best practice solutions that can be implemented in real time.

2. How can you maintain culture and engagement while working remotely?

As Gemma at Code rightly declared, there are no excuses because remote working is here to stay. According to a recent study by Ezra, 75% of people in the UK don’t want to return to the office full time which leaves us scratching our heads as to how we keep culture alive in this new hybrid model. Our panel all agreed that culture can and will remain consistent. The key is in how the behaviours adapt to maintain it.

Culture sits at the core of engagement, communicated through your business values and employer value proposition. To make this work remotely needs careful consideration.

  • How do you define your culture?

  • What are the markers you use to identify it and are these still fit for purpose?

  • What routine and rituals did you have before to reinforce it?

  • Why did these things work in person?

  • How can you replicate this remotely?

Answering these questions can shine a light on what currently feels like a murky subject. Perhaps it’s not as complicated as you first thought.

Ant and his HR team used regular pulse surveys during lockdown to give employees an anonymous voice and keep in touch with the overall mood in their teams. They introduced 15-minute stand-ups 3 days a week to keep employees connected. The key to their success was that these meetings were optional, to help tackle the now infamous “Zoom fatigue” and discourage presenteeism. Though short and sweet, these meetings gave an opportunity to recreate the water cooler moments that often spark impromptu collaborations and incidental learning. Often, splinter sessions would happen off the back of sharing struggles, with quickfire 1-2-1s meaning teammates could tap into the collective knowledge of their peers.

At Code, Gemma describes how they created virtual rooms to replicate spaces in their physical office. “Myself and a colleague often spend the day in the ‘event’ space, because that’s where we’d usually be when we’re in the office.” It helps combat feelings of isolation, as We Are Adam employees have also found during our virtual office sessions.

Léon raised the importance of a culture of care. As employers we have a responsibility to check in and be present, to lean into difficult conversations and support our employees rather than shy away from the tricky stuff. Ant emphasised this further, “As a leader, you’re going through the same challenges. Be human. Empathy is a key trait.” As we approach the 12 month mark it’s easy to forget that this situation was, and remains, very ad-hoc for most people. We need to embrace real life and take a more relaxed approach to what it means to be professional. Kids in the background or a dog barking, though distracting, are not an indicator of how capable an employee is.

“It’s been liberating to live honestly and authentically” – Steve Peters, Code.

3. How can we adapt hiring strategies in the face of an agile future?

The pandemic brought about an era of uncertainty that isn’t going away any time soon. It’s impossible to predict the skills your business will need in the next 3-5 years as the economy recovers, and we can’t afford to paint ourselves into a corner. In our experience, despite talk of embracing an agile and lean workforce, this simply isn’t true for many clients. We’ve seen little change in the demand for temporary workers and instead are witnessing clients embracing agency partners and focusing efforts on restoring an in-house work force.

Perhaps this is because the opportunity to change perspectives isn’t being embraced and leaders are reverting to tried and tested permanent hires for a sense of stability. Another theory is that clients are wary of the looming IR35 legislation, the unknown threat lurking beneath murky waters and scare stories. Whatever the reasons, the same challenges we had pre-COVID still apply. There’s a skills shortage. Despite 56% of employers stating they will recruit in 2021, only 1 in 4 employees plan to leave their current role. The pandemic has brought about significant change and the general mood is that we’re all looking for some stability in the months to come. A combination of improved employee benefits and a need for financial security has much of the employed workforce staying put.

But where there’s challenge, there’s opportunity.

Being forced into remote working rendered geographical restrictions obsolete. We now know that a job can be fulfilled anywhere in the world, by anyone who fits the bill. We’re seeing businesses adapt to working asynchronously, even across time zones, as their teams are distributed around the world. This opens doors to people who have been previously excluded from the job market; from working mums who need part time hours, to those with a disability who were unable to access the office and even candidates from working class backgrounds who couldn’t afford a move to the big city.

We’ve seen plenty of lessons learned too. All too often we saw great people move on to other opportunities due to a slow process. Businesses laboured to get diaries aligned for interviews and the best talent was quickly snapped up by a competitor. However, Léon shared a recent success story with an FMGC client. We introduced a potential Marketing Director and within a single week, the candidate progressed through a multiple stage interview. Including several video calls and a socially distanced face to face, the fast-paced process resulted in an offer inside 7 days. A phenomenal feat considering the average senior process takes 8-12 weeks to play out!

Significant emphasis was placed on the onboarding process by our panel, both as a part of your hiring strategy and overall company culture. It often falls to time-short line managers to orchestrate a new recruits’ first few weeks in the business and can be something of an after-thought. But the onboarding process is crucial for building a sense of community around your latest employee and embedding company culture. A considered, tailored onboarding process can be a talent attraction tool; done well, it ensures your new hire hits the ground running and has an impact from day one.

Onboarding ideas:

  • Buddy them up with someone to do intros to the team

  • Plan in check-ins and check-outs everyday for the first week

  • Arrange a virtual coffee with key stakeholders

  • Delegate responsibilities across the team to maintain momentum

  • Identify priorities and put a timeline of events in place to hold everyone accountable

4. How can you create efficiency with the people and processes you already have?

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving efficiencies in any business. You need to establish what efficient looks like for your organisation and outline how it will be measured. Are you looking to adopt lean? Is commercial efficiency important to you? Perhaps you measure success by customer satisfaction above all else?

Once you have recognized what good looks like in your business, you can set about entrenching it into your everyday. Weave it into the expected behaviours until it becomes part of the culture. Build performance metrics with efficiency at the core. Start at the top AND the bottom of your organisation by involving the team from the beginning. Employee ownership of change projects increases buy in, leading to faster, more consistent results.

The next stage is about ruthless prioritisation. Start small and look for quick wins so people can see the value of doing things differently. Ant’s recommendation is to only set 3 tasks because “it forces you to ask if it’s really important” and not add to the list until those 3 tasks have been delivered. Gemma added that a client had 5 different meetings per week with a single agency. When questioned, those were easily condensed into one catch up, freeing up valuable time for everyone involved. Sometimes the smallest changes can have the biggest impact so don’t be afraid to implement them immediately.

We closed out the event by tackling the trickiest subject; what to do if someone isn’t working out. Making the wrong hiring decision can happen, no matter how thorough you’ve been during interview. This is where explicit communication is essential. First, sit with the employee to establish where they believe things have gone wrong. Next you should turn a mirror inwards and question whether you’ve made the expectations clear enough. Remember, there are many reasons why an employee may be under-performing, especially given the pressures of the last year. Establish if there are any external factors impacting their ability to work. Investigate any internal blockers you can help to unclog, such as poor stakeholder relationships.

Sometimes though, they’re simply not the right person for the role, whether that is knowledge and skillset, or a misalignment of values. This needs a sensitive approach but as Ant says, the feeling may be mutual, and you could be “setting them free” to explore new horizons. You’ll never know if you don’t open the lines of communication.

We Are Adam dedicate ourselves to supporting you in making a critical decision – your next hire. Click here to discover our experts can alleviate your headaches and put people at the core of your business.

Code are a digital product people who care as much about your business as you do. They help make sense of your digital world, build brilliant customer experiences, and give your team the tools they need to handle whatever comes next.