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How to build culture and keep employees engaged at your newly remote working agency

PR and marketing agencies around the world have been forced to abandon their offices and work together as a team remotely. This can be a challenging transition for many reasons, but the challenge of maintaining a positive company culture is magnified.

Chip Griffin and Gini Dietrich discuss how agency leaders can engage their employees effectively without becoming micromanagers. It starts with strong communication and a willingness to innovate. It improves through feedback and adaptation.

In this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast, Chip and Gini share their experiences in building culture while running remote and hybrid businesses. The practical advice they share will help you become a more effective manager of your own newly remote team members.


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Good. Hello, welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I am Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I am Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: And if you are watching this, you know that we’ve done this one in video if you are not, it’s because you’re listening in audio, or because I totally screwed up the video because this is a first a first time ever, and we’re not doing something chintzy, like a zoom recording. We’re going all out. So if you’re watching this, you should be seeing lower thirds and fancy graphics. And

GINI: also, I mean it is like it’s fancy. I feel like I’m on some cnn broadcasts or something. It’s nice.

CHIP: Our audience is slightly smaller than cnn

Unknown Speaker

CHIP: Maybe particularly these days. I think a lot more people are watching the news these days. But in any case. So we have a topic today. So we’re not just reading about the fact that we’ve got

Unknown Speaker
Wi Fi video,

CHIP: cameras and all that kind of stuff. We are going to talk about How to Build culture for all those agencies that were not remote to begin with and have now become remote agencies, a lot of them are worried about how do you keep team culture? How do you bring your team together? How do you keep them engaged? And so that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And it’s something we’re very well suited to, because I’ve worked in a number of businesses that have either been all remote or partially remote. Right? Of course, your current business is all remote. But you transition from having an office to many years ago?

GINI: I did. Yes. Yes. Yeah. It’s interesting, because it keeps coming up with agency owners, which is it’s even though states are reopening, we’re still thinking that we probably won’t go back to being in an office anytime soon. So what does that look like for a company culture? How do we continue to build what we have? How do we continue to keep employees engaged and still be productive and efficient?

CHIP: And it’s a thief I’ve already screwed it up. I got the wrong word. So And I miss anticipated but it is the wonders of recording as we go yeah, I mean it is a it is a challenge and it’s one of those things where I think a lot of people are trying different things right now. Some of them will stick some of them won’t sure you know I saw is the start of this there was an explosion of virtual happy hours I’ve seen them sort of start yet yes people’s livers started to protest about you know, doing a virtual happy hour every night. That could be problematic, I suppose.

Unknown Speaker
I suppose. Yeah.

CHIP: But so you know what, I’ll see now I can slide the wrong or third up there. This is just terrible. Terrible. It looks right on my end. It is now it’s just changed as I was talking got

GINI: it. Okay.

CHIP: So our apologies with the novelty will wear off here and we will not talk about this much in the future.

GINI: We won’t be stick tinkering it With it as we go, we’ll have it down fast,

CHIP: or something like that, or I’ll just make it simpler. So I can be less likely to screw it up. In any case, so you know, so So what have I mean? Let’s Let’s start with what your own experience has been, how do you keep your team feeling engaged, even though they’re all over the place?

GINI: So a couple of things that I found to be really important, and one of them was when we went to all virtual, I surveyed the team and I said, what’s really important to you? Because my concern was that, you know, we provided breakfast every morning and we we had wine for wine 30 every Friday, and it was there’s a lot of like in person touchy feely kinds of things. We played guitar hero and we played battleship and you know, all that kind of stuff. And I was concerned that not having those things would, would hurt the culture. And what I discovered is that’s not the company culture, that those are nice perks. They’re nice to haves, but they weren’t necessary in terms of culture. So as Those things went away, I found that people were actually more efficient and more engaged because they didn’t feel like they were forced to do a happy hour or a virtual lunch or, you know, play games on Friday afternoon, they would rather take that time and say, Okay, we’re closing the office at 330 every day instead of drinking wine and playing games. And I found that that was far more effective than providing that kind of stuff. So I would say the first thing is that those perks aren’t necessarily necessarily your culture. They’re nice. They’re nice to have, but you don’t necessarily need them.

CHIP: Well, I think it also makes a good point that you can’t force culture, you need to create the environment that permits it, but you can’t just jam it down someone’s throat and say, This is what we’re going to do to build culture. You really have to figure out what works for you.

GINI: And really, culture is not those things culture is, you know, its trustworthiness. Its transparency. It’s working well together. Having a team that trusts one another, if there’s a bad apple, it’s leadership taking care of that bad apples so that everybody else doesn’t feel frustrated or demoralized. And those things happen in online and off that, you know, it doesn’t matter if you’re a virtual agency or not. Those are the kinds of things that

CHIP: Yeah, and it’s, it does start with you, the owner, you’re the leader. And so sort of whatever, whatever environment you’re creating, is what is going to end up becoming what the rest of the company emulates. And it’s, it’s often unintentional. So if you’ve got a hard charging leader who is very aggressive, you’re going to tend to build a team that that actually goes one or two different directions. Either they completely emulate the boss or they become completely docile because they’re sure but you know, it’s it is it does start with you. And so you need to look inward and think about how are you communicating? What are you doing, to build that feeling amongst your team because you can’t rely on the team Do it yourself.

GINI: Right. And I would say that there, I mean, certainly we have tools available tools to be able to emulate some of that stuff. slack is phenomenal. And it’s, it’s one of those things that you have to build a habit around. But when you use it and you use it effectively, it does recreate sort of that in person feeling because let’s be real, most of us in our offices, we’re still texting or instant messaging one another from the office next door instead of getting up and walking around. So that hasn’t changed. Zoom and I know that everybody has zoom fatigue. So I’m not saying you have to be on zoom every single day. But for all staff meetings and one to ones I think zoom is appropriate. And then for the rest of it can email or slack or a phone call suffice.

CHIP: Right and I get zoom fatigue. I think it’s it’s less about the tool and more about the meetings themselves. I do. thinking how we thinking about the wonders of According I have we have TV shows I’ve admonished my teenagers who are supposed to be in school right now it doesn’t record this they still asleep. It is 1120 in the morning. No, the 18 year old got up about 25 minutes ago in time for his 11am class which is

GINI: nice. I mean, yeah, so that’s also an advantage is when you’re working virtually you can get up five minutes before your first meeting.

CHIP: If that the the 15 year old usually cuts even closer. His 11 o’clock class I think lasted about one minute today. So he is watching Star Wars for the 700th time

Unknown Speaker

CHIP: while he is making his breakfast and it has the volume cranked up as high as he can. So I went out and said you have to turn that down because I’m going to be recording so if you hear any lightsabers in the back, I cannot hear it. I do not have any lightsabers. It is not made

GINI: That would be very cool, though. That would be

CHIP: that would be very interesting for sure. But the culture, right, I mean, there are the entertainment things that you can pull together on. If it’s appropriate for your team. Again, you have to know I mean, if you’ve got, you know, people who are in their 50s and 60s and people who are in their 20s, it becomes a little harder to pull together some of those, you know, cultural moments, but there are some things like Star Wars that cross generations. So your opportunities, but you need to, you really need to be tuned in to what your own team is interested in. You have to focus on communications first week, I mean, we harp on that over and over again on the show, but you really do and particularly when you’ve just gone remote if you’re used to having that water cooler conversation. It’s better to err on the side of over communicating in small chunks. Not you don’t need to do to our zoom calls that that is what people are sick of to our zoom calls just don’t work. You can’t just replicate in person events. Whether they’re internal meetings or external events, and just say, okay, we’re just going to move it and just start using video. No, that doesn’t work. You got to rethink it, and how you’re going about it, but communicate, communicate, communicate.

GINI: Yep. Yep. And I would also say, you know, there was a conversation that happened with some agency owner friends, and there was a group of us and one of them said, you know, we’ve been having zoom meetings three times a day, since this all started and we all went three times a day. And he said, and my team’s getting fatigued with it, and they’re not showing up or they’re really No kidding. They’re not showing up on camera. They’re just doing audio and you know, all this stuff and, and I said, How much of yours He’s like, we don’t care, like, just show up. We want to see your face. And I was like, Okay, well, first of all three times a day is ridiculous. There’s, you don’t have that many meetings in the office. That’s ridiculous. So stop that. And second of all, why do you need to be on camera and he’s like, well, we want to see each other’s faces like we were in the office. But what? And I said, how much of your team is female? And he said, 80%. And I said, they don’t want to do their hair every day. So stop it. And he was like, we don’t care what they look like. And I was like, maybe you don’t, but they do. So, like, I mean, so there’s that kind of stuff to where you have to be cognizant of the fact that, yeah, there are some days where it’s rough because you’re a teacher, and you’re a homemaker and you’re a chef, and you’re a laundry senior cleaner. And you’re, you’re running your business, and you have all these employees. And there’s all this other stuff that you’re doing on top of running an agency or being an employee and a really good productive one while you have a first grader sitting behind you watching her iPad during free choice Hmm. So that you can get work done. You have to be cognizant of those things and not expect I think three times a day on zoom is micromanaging to the nth degree.

CHIP: Yeah, I think there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Even even daily. I and I A lot of agencies are doing daily zoom check ins, I tend to think that’s probably still, I do to the whole team together. It does depend on what you’re doing and how you know how you all work together. But it feels like too much just on the face of it. But obviously, the circumstances do change for each individual. But I think you’ve also touched on something that’s important there, which is, what we’re experiencing now is not what remote agencies have been like, it’ll be like, I think there are some real positives that are coming out of this. And I think the fact that everybody is, even if there’s zoom fatigue, they’re comfortable with the technology, they’re comfortable with using it. And so I think that opens the door to improving your your agency culture, once you start being able to get the kids out of the house. And once you you know, once the rest of your life starts to take on some semblance of normal, it does make remote work easier in that regard. And you can make those connections because if you’re not feeling harried because you Your first grader is sitting behind you. It’s a lot easier to pull yourself together for a zoomcar shirt course everybody can just shave their head like me and Well, I mean, there’s that problem. I mean, my preparation is

GINI: I mean, you even have a collared shirt on so

CHIP: I do well, I think a lot of you on video so you know, I figured my you know, tank top was probably not appropriate. Actually, my tank

GINI: doesn’t really work tank tops.

CHIP: I don’t I don’t think I even own a tank top. I know I don’t own a tank top. I think

Unknown Speaker
uncharacteristic of you.

CHIP: Yeah. I think the last time I wore a tank top was probably in eighth grade when I was playing school basketball and that was that would be the last and

GINI: that’s not really even a top it’s a basketball jersey. That’s different.

CHIP: Right But back in the 80s that was it was a little more tank tops, all the shorts were probably more scarring. I can only imagine saw some video of the Boston Celtics play in the 1980s. So I, I looked at their shorts. I’m like, I remember they were shorter than they are today. But good god, I didn’t realize they were that short.

GINI: Yeah, yeah, very sure.

CHIP: Yeah. So I mean, you know, what, what is? What is your take on what people are doing now as far as virtual happy hours? And some of these things? I mean, that, you know, are they are they things that are going to stick around? Are they is there value in them? I mean, how do you how do you see that? And, and I’m particularly thinking of agencies that are in the early stages of doing more remote work, so not necessarily one like yours that’s been doing it for quite some time. Everybody’s kind of got their routine, but right. I mean, how does that play out? Do you think?

GINI: I mean, I think it depends. I think it depends on your culture. And I think it depends on the people on your team. To be honest, I have a client who there’s so nice, they invite me to their happy hour every Friday and I’m like, I would rather shoot myself in the head. Then come to your Happy Hour and play games with you guys. That’s like, I’m like my team Give me that hour and a half back in my day and I’ll go like, get other work done or ride my bike or something. But, uh, so I think they play, like charades or Pictionary as

CHIP: my real life, let alone

GINI: on zoom with. Yeah. Um, so I think it depends, and they love it, you know, um, and they have they have a young team, most of them are 28 and younger, and they love it. So that’s fine. Just don’t invite me because I don’t. Um, but I think so. I think it depends. I think it depends on your team, what your team culture is like, and you know, whether or not that’s enjoyable for that. My team was like, please don’t make us do that. Trust me, I won’t.

CHIP: Well, in fairness you did. You did show up for a virtual happy hour that I hosted early on in this and then I sorted that was one time Because there were so many of them. I said, Well, you know, maybe, you know, maybe other people will fill this void instead of me. Yeah, you know, and I think that is one of the challenges now is figuring out, you know, what is what is appropriate for your team, given all the other things that are going on around them. And so again, it’s one of those things where you need to have that evolution from what’s going on today to what’s going on in two or three months. And and you need to be responsive to what’s going on around you and not simply decide, this is what we’re doing today and go from there.

GINI: That’s a really good point, it will change and it does evolve, and you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t, and you’ll try some stuff that you’re like, Okay, that didn’t work at all. And you have to be I mean, it goes back to what we talked about in the beginning, which is transparency and honesty and trust. And if your team feels comfortable saying to you, yes, you know, I’d rather have that hour and a half on my Friday afternoons, be done with work, versus if you know, or whatever happens. To be but allow your team the flexibility to be able to be honest with you and not have it affect, you know, their race or their promotion or their dedication, because it’s not that it’s just fatigue or it’s too much, right, or it’s micromanaging or whatever it happens to be.

CHIP: Yeah. And I think it’s important to figure out what it is that’s causing it. You know, Why doesn’t your team like something, right? Because sometimes it’s not what you expect. So for example, many years ago with one of my businesses, I used to do Friday lunch and learns because I wanted to pull the team together, we had different groups of team members were focused on different things I want to bring them together. I also wanted to give them sort of a more fun opportunity to train and learn about things This was you know, probably, oh 607 blogs, podcasts are starting to come out and and it was important for everybody to kind of start to understand them a bit. And it the team really just kept you know grousing about it and I was trying to figure out what it was. What it turned out was they couldn’t all agree on What food they wanted to order. And so, because you had some people who wanted pizza and some who wanted sandwiches and some who wanted some kind of ethnic food, and so the it fell apart because everybody who you know, on the day we got pizza because I, I sort of anticipated that this might be a problem. So I had a rotation for the different kinds of things we would do or have different teams pick each shirt. But the problem was when when it was pizza, you know, all the people who didn’t like pizza resented it when it was, you know, sandwiches and when what no, so so what we did was we we switched it over to being sort of a late afternoon happy hour, because then everybody could drink whatever they wanted to drink. Yep. So you know, people like beer brought that people like wine brought that people like cider brought, you know, whatever. And so everybody was happy again. So it wasn’t the concept of bringing a team together. They didn’t like it was the food. Obviously, in a remote environment. You don’t have Foods, but you know, understanding is it? Is it the timing? Is it the length? Is it the format? You know, what is it that’s not pulling your team together? Because the more you can dig at that, the more you can come up with an effective solution, because the solution shouldn’t be just throw your arms up and say, Okay, I give up, you need to find a manageable solution that works for you and your team.

GINI: Right? And I would say, you know, the, replacing the daily check in on zoom, we do that on slack. And it’s, you know, by at 830, every morning, central time, you know, I expect that you’re going to say good morning to your team. And then I want to know what your three priorities are for the day. And I think we’ve talked a little bit about this in the past, but that allows the whole team to understand what each individual is working on and how that affects the whole. We don’t need a stand up meeting on zoom for that. And I know lots of agency owners do that and lots of I mean, my husband does that. They have a stand up meeting at 930 every day. On zoom, like Whoo. We don’t need it. And if there’s something that I see that’s alarming, or some of there’s crossover or somebody doing something that they shouldn’t, I just, you know, send a direct message or I pick up the phone really quickly. And I say, Hey, you know, I noticed this, let’s let’s try it, let’s do this, or let’s mix that it just gives you a quick and ease. But it’s not a, you have to show up for a meeting every single day. And I think part of that, too, is something that you need to be thinking about is now certainly there are needs for, you know, meetings, but it’s a weekly staff meeting, or it’s a weekly or monthly all team meeting or whatever happens to be, but it’s not every single day.

CHIP: Right. And I think it’s really important to avoid the urge to micromanage. And it is, as everybody is transitioning to a remote workplace. I guess actually not transitioning now. I mean, we’ve been doing it for two months. And so we have transitioned to being a remote workforce Like it or not, it it is. There is I think, for a lot of people who are using used to managing staff in the office, that urge to really be looking over someone’s shoulder virtually in a way. That was, it’s even more significant than what they were doing in the office. And that just that doesn’t make any sense. You know, now is not the time to be sending the message to your team that you don’t trust them.

GINI: The Great,

CHIP: great part of setting a good culture is starting from the standpoint that management trusts employees, employees, trust management, if you build that, then a lot of the other elements around it come together much more easily.

GINI: Yeah, and you’ll have input you’ll have engaged employees and you’ll have an engaged team and they’ll they’ll have conversation together and you’ll notice that you’ll get to be part of the water cooler talk because it’s happening on on slack instead of you know, outside your office where you’re not supposed to come out and say hi cuz they’re all congregating and they haven’t invited you, you know, whatever it happens to be, but you can you can be privy to those conversations now and participate and you will find that They become really engaged because they need that human interaction to they just don’t necessarily need the perks or the zoom chats or whatever it happens to be, but give them the opportunity to figure out what works for you and for them. And the other. The last thing I’ll say on this is that you may have already discovered this, but if not, you will find that productivity skyrockets. And especially when schools reopen, and we can get everybody out of the house, you’ll see productivity and go at another to another level. And it’s because you’re trusting them to do their jobs, your focus not on butts and seats during certain hours of the day, but on results, and you’re giving them the flexibility to be able to do both family and work.

CHIP: Well, I think you made a good point about craving the human interaction. I think even introverts to some degree are craving it. I know that Yes, for sure. In my non work environment, I have had far more people in setting up zoom calls. For example, Some of the umpire and basketball referee in groups that I’m part of have set up zoom conferences, even though they don’t really need to. And, and I think that that’s largely so that there can be that that human contact. And so it has surprised me because they’re generally I mean, in fact, one of the folks invited me to a zoom meeting and I said, you even know what zoom is because in his in his day job, he would have no reason to be using. Sure. Sure, absolutely no reason to it. So he had he had heard about zoom. He learned how to use it simply to pull together a group of umpires for a meeting. That was entirely unnecessary because we have no baseball here in New Hampshire. And while the travel ball teams think they may be playing in June, I’m skeptical. Yeah. I did see baseball. There was a youth baseball tournament and I think Kansas City. It just a few days ago. They brought together like 50 teams from around the region. To play? They did. They did. They did. And it was, it will be an interesting test to see how it turns out. They they did social distancing to the extent that you can, but there were a lot of people quoted the newspaper article that I saw that said, you know, we sort of kind of did social distancing. But, you know, not really is I mean, looking at it just in normal, normal human behavior makes it difficult to do social distancing,

GINI: right. So,

CHIP: you know, your expectations have to be reasonable. I’ve seen a lot of videos online recently, you know, where were people who are honest to god appearing to try to do their best, you see them sort of creep closer and closer together. But that that goes to that human contact that you were talking about, and even if it’s this human contact across a lens, that’s something and so you know, people are taking it however, they can get it right now. And so you as the employer need to find Ways to fill that need if your team is open to it

GINI: 100% Yes. And find ways to create that be able to create that engagement like and wait. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be video chat constantly. But I have 30 members of my team that like to keep zoom open on their screens and just work. And then they feel like they’re working together side by side in the energy center or the, you know, in the cubicles where they’re not used to sitting because they’re used to having each other around. So you know, those kinds of things work too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that

CHIP: everybody has to do so they have like the zoom cams almost looks like a spy cam on each other. Yeah,

GINI: well, it’s just like, they can’t have zoom open and they’re working and they’ll be like, Hey, did you do this on this and this and then they keep working and they’re, you know, they just they have the cross talk. Like they would if they were in cubes next to each other, but they’re doing their own thing. And that would not work for me.

CHIP: That would not be my style either. But again to each their own and it really does emphasize the need To figure out what works for your team, and it may not be one size for the whole team, you may need to have different tools for engagement and different ways to pull folks together. And if you’re watching on video, you saw technical glitches. Apparently my camera overheated. So I’ve had to switch to my fallback. My shirt color does not change. my webcam is not

GINI: literally like it’s like ABC at midnight in the 80s.

CHIP: Can I can I just say that doing video production is harder than it looks folks. So but what I am committed to it, because it will give us a better overall experience. So Virginia, any any final words before I queue up the proper end sequence here?

GINI: Oh, I can’t wait to see this. No, I mean, I think it’s I think It’s like we said, it’s our mantra for this podcast in general, it depends you have to fit, you have to try different things, keep the communication lines open, let people be honest about what’s working for them and what’s not and be willing to change as you go along.

CHIP: Oh, I thought I didn’t fix that. I thought I thought I had made it so that now my proper There we go. Now I fix it, we got the color bars are gone. This is not this is not, you know, the the end of the, for those of you young uns out there used to be with broadcast TV that at the end of the broadcast night because stations were not 24 hours back in the day, right? Two o’clock in the morning, it would go to color bars and sit that way until they reopen for business A few hours later. So that’s what you’ve been seeing if you’ve been watching this on video, at least in my box, but now it’s fixed. And so with that, we’re going to draw this semi successful first endeavor to a close If you’re hearing this recording at least worked, and that’s something so, I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI: I’m Gini Dietrich,

CHIP: and it depends

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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