Founder and CEO of market research consultancy, Alter Agents; believes that powerful insights can change the business.
The Covid-19 pandemic hurt in many ways. This has hurt us deeply with the tragic loss of life, the disruption of our children’s youth, and what I’m sure will be lasting effects on our collective mental health. These types of pain take time and work to subside, if ever they will. In human terms: We’ve just been through a lot, a lot.
But the pandemic also challenged our core systems in ways that tested strengths and exposed flaws. We’ve seen this in our proprietary research on consumer fear and anxiety, who found that the mental attack had hit Americans’ confidence, while the economic shift sent food insecurity soaring. It also surfaced in our company’s internal conversations about what changed in life and how the way we operated was or was not working. The flaws in our systems – social and corporate – have been exploited by this virus and, in some cases, have been damaged. Pre-existing trends have also accelerated, as we all struggle to adapt after last March’s abrupt stoppages.
We need to learn from all this and adapt. Being adaptable is a core value in my company because it keeps us agile and flexible. But the need to learn from the challenges of the past year is not just an imperative for good business. It’s imperative because of all the pain, frustration and suffering we feel at the shortcomings of our traditional systems and ways of working.
That’s why I’m not trying to get my business back to where it was in December 2019. That place and that time are gone. I want renewal – not recovery – so that our people are equipped and prepared to deal with the challenges we will face today and tomorrow.
How trust guides our adaptations
Trust among colleagues is the foundation of a truly great workplace. At Alter Agents, we have practiced a management style called “definitive agency” for years. We do not monitor vacation hours and offer flexible hours so that each employee takes care of their business, even if it means they need to take an hour off work in the afternoon. Everything is fair as long as our work is done. But the pandemic taught us that we hadn’t really lived up to that promise as much as we could: people weren’t taking as much vacation time as I wanted, even though their life challenges had increased dramatically.
So we experienced a four-day workweek, which we knew would be a challenge as our work revolves around our clients’ deadlines. Through scheduling best practices and elaborate notes, we were able to have a four-day workweek for a few months. Ultimately, our days off began to shrink as people attended meetings or “finished something” and the program quickly lost its appeal. In a way, it’s harder to know you have a day off, but to feel like you can’t take it any longer than ever having that day in the first place. After some internal research and many conversations, we converted to a “one day off a month” program, plus paid holidays and unlimited vacations.
Trust became even more important when we distanced ourselves completely. We don’t use tracking software to track employee activity or timesheets to record hours because this shows suspicion that the work will get done (without Big Brother watching). The approach worked: we’re busier than ever, growing faster than ever, and the work is still getting done. In fact, we don’t even plan to return to an office from 9 to 5. Our team likes to work that way and it’s for our clients, and we believe it will continue.
As we’ve doubled our team since the beginning of the pandemic, much of that experience revolved around integrating new team members and getting them used to our work style. Everyone we interviewed loved the concept itself. The challenge was to break old habits learned in previous jobs, where work was more monitored and time more controlled.
How Learning to Trust Helps Our Customers
Much has been written about how to empower employees to take responsibility for their work in order to motivate them to improve. I think the first step is to trust them and allow employees to take ownership of themselves. By allowing people to set hours that work and set aside time when needed, our employees are prepared to engage when we’re on the job. This engagement is what allows researchers to take ownership of data and insights, and customers benefit in the process because the results are stronger.
We are totally candid with our partners about how we work, and they are supportive because they have experienced the results. They’re happier because we’re happier, and our business relationships gain strength and depth as project after project progresses. Upon completion of a project, we always send a small survey to our customers about their job satisfaction. After all, we are researchers! All the surveys so far have come back with us “exceeding expectations” and customers telling us how happy we were to work – dedicated, flexible, agile and always in a good mood. We firmly believe that happy employees make happy customers.
None of this is without challenges. We’re not done with this pandemic yet. And as we continue to grow our team, we will need to work very hard to integrate new members into the virtual fabric of our company. But when new tests emerge (and they will), I’m not interested in trying to go back to the traditional office-based working paradigm, rescinding the trust we’ve built and pretending that no good lessons came out of all the struggles we face as a company and as individuals. As a small business, we will continue to learn from the times and adapt to forward-looking methods because this has always been a fundamental part of success. Renewal for me means reinvention – learning from our history, adapting to the future and being not only open to change but eager to do so.