How do you solve a problem like... at-home staff’s skills getting rusty?

The Drum 19 Jan 2021 08:30
How can you support team learning from home?

We ask readers of The Drum from brands, agencies and everything in between for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Since the first lockdowns of last year, self-improvement projects have seen many of those liberated from their commute pick up new tricks. But while many were trying their hand at breadmaking or portrait-painting, time away from the hubbub of the office has made it harder to keep professional skills as sharp. And efforts to train and develop staff at agencies and brands face many more hurdles when delivered remotely.

So, with working-from-home the comfy default for many more months yet, how have marketing leaders worked to keep their team‘s skills from getting dull?

How do you solve a problem like staff skills going rusty away from the office?

When lockdown #1 first hit, we were all in ‘coping’ mode and learning took a backseat as we made sure morale and day-to-day work were sustained. As ‘temporary lockdown’ has transformed into a new way of life, we have made sure there’s still ways to learn.

Agencies must advocate, and allow space for, self-guided learning, focused on industry and career related subjects that individual employees are most passionate about, and timed at their own pace.

Feedback that we historically heard from our employees is that they want to attend training, but just don’t have the time. We’ve seen that, when the time is available, employees are more eager than ever to focus on their own development.

Apart from internal training around resilience, line management and productivity, we wanted to combat screen fatigue, which often leads to decreased mood and performance. So, we started learning book clubs with physical or audio copies. It’s a mix of individual offline learning with collaborative online discussions that focus on team building and workshop actions.

What have we learnt? Our company thrives on contact, collaboration and growth – a lot of which happened naturally when we were all together in an office – but lockdown made us think differently about learning. By investing in our employees’ progression and development, engagement and productivity have risen.

One lesson learned while being remote is to over-communicate via online tools. Weekly all-staff meetings via Zoom, using Teams for fun/messaging and Miro for co-creating together were the best ways to create bonds that best captured the camaraderie of being in the office.

Agility and creativity are vital in this climate, where changes can be rapid and unexpected. Therefore, investing in our own talent has never been more important. We’ve created over 150 new roles across our editorial team and recently recruited 20 trainee news writers with no prior experience as part of our bespoke training programme.

Professional development is a top priority in the current climate due to its positive impact on employee attitude and wellbeing. I joined Hivestack after the first lockdown to ensure we continued to educate and motivate our staff as the business scaled globally.

In the constantly evolving world of social media, it’s hard for even dedicated social practitioners to keep up. So each year we host a social media training event designed to share knowledge about what’s happening in the social space across our agency disciplines. We don’t expect everyone to become a social expert, but we believe fostering these exchanges makes the work better and makes us better counselors to our clients.

When the virus hit, we were already remarkably busy, so adding an increased volume of work became a challenge for many employees and their families. Development opportunities needed to be frequently offered and bite-sized. Luckily, in 2019 we established a training series, ’Tap’, that allowed us to employ our amazing talent to host 30-minute trainings aimed at helping us better tap into agency resources across our North Carolina, New York and LA offices. Our teams adapted to new technology, honed skill sets, learned emerging trends and discovered more about their industry and company. These sessions are now an on-demand learning library and double as an orientation resource for new hires.

When we set up in our home offices and kitchen tables, there were a few weeks where we all rode the wave of productivity. This was fantastic – no commute, no distractions, no conversations. Until we realised that conversations are the lifeblood of Zeal’s culture. Too much time alone means that work and effort may go unseen, and development appears to have been halted. As a leadership team, our focus quickly turned to not just maintaining the day-to-day, but working out how we drive forward, with three key themes.

Secondly, we overhauled our performance process – leaders now hold career conversations with their teams every 12 weeks. These are future focused, easy and quick to prepare. We then look at themes and individual needs to decide where to focus energy and development budget. Finally, we enlisted brilliant partners to work on our people’s mental toughness, giving them the tools they needed to thrive in lockdown and a post-coronavirus world. Through one-on-one sessions, workshops and action learning groups, individuals are held accountable to do, rather than just listen.

To support development and enable remote learning, we launched virtual academies and provided cross training and upskilling across studios. We’ve re-engineered our onboarding courses to support learning from home so new hires can start practicing and working without having to be in a physical studio, and we now have an end-to-end remote learning and working culture globally.

Maintaining a training programme throughout lockdown has required both flexibility and creativity. For our juniors in particular, not being in the office has removed a whole layer of learning that would happen through osmosis – hearing the leadership team on the phone, wrestling with client challenges over a cuppa, all of which can’t be replicated over Slack or Zoom.

After those early weeks in survival mode, helping our people grow and thrive despite lockdown became essential. That meant adapting principles that drive our culture in ‘normal’ times.

Making time for learning and growing matters, so everyone should protect time in diaries to take advantage of webinars and formal training that’s shifted online.

Want to have your say next week? Email me at to be included in upcoming editions of this series.

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RappTamara Littleton1Perri GrinbergVictoria James
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