It goes without saying that the coronavirus has caused huge disruption to our daily lives. We spoke to Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media, to catch up on how he’s navigating the business through COVID-19.
EP: “Firstly, how are you and the team at Browser Media? I hope everyone is in good health?”
JF: “Thank you. So far, so good and we are all healthy. We had a couple of the team go into voluntary self-isolation at the start of last week as they had been in contact with others who had suspicious symptoms, but I am pleased to say that they are both cough / fever free!
“We actually made the decision to move to a remote-working model as soon as the scale of what we are all facing became clear, so we are approaching the end of our second week of being “distant.” I was actually in the office on my own until the lockdown was announced – it was very strange being in there with only Ruby (the office dog) for company!”
EP: “Is the business enjoying similar good health?”
JF: “The blunt answer is no – we have had several clients pulling the plug and others going into a very minimal effort mode, so there is no doubt that it will hurt us financially but I am very much of the opinion that it is a storm that we all need to weather together and I have always maintained a (cash) war chest for events such as this, so it is definitely not panic stations yet.
“Strictly speaking, we have a notice period for retained projects but we are clearly not holding clients to this as I fully appreciate the pressure that they are under and I am more interested in longer term relationships than pressing the big legal red button.
“I am worried about the longer term impact on the global economy as a whole, but the human spirit is incredibly strong and adversity often creates resilience and a sense of community that I very much hope will see us all through the storm.
“I am a member of various agency owner networks and you can already see the mutual care and support within the industry, so I am very confident that there will eventually be a light at the end of the tunnel, however gloomy it may feel right now.”
EP: “Is the government support going to protect agencies such as yours and reduce the financial impact of the pandemic?”
JF: “I really don’t want to get political, as lives are being lost and it feels wrong to question a well intended policy, but the salary support solution does not help an agency such as us.
“You have to furlough staff to be eligible for the funding. I suspect I was not the only one who had to Google what “furlough” means, but the short story is that they have to down tools entirely. I don’t really know how it could be policed, but any furloughed member of staff is not allowed to do anything at all. Even answering emails / calls would be deemed to be working, so you are losing 100 per cent of the capacity of that individual, although still having to pay 20 per cent of the cost.
“I can see how this would work really well if you have a team that has lost all work, or you run a business such as a gym, where you are not physically able to work as normal, but it doesn’t help an agency such as ours as everyone is doing something and contributing to the client work that continues. We may be 40 per cent down in revenue, but that is spread across the team and we simply don’t have anyone doing zero hours.
“This means that the remaining team would have to pick up additional work to cover any furloughed staff. Whilst I have total faith in our team and am sure that people would be happy to do that, it feels a bit odd to ask some staff to stay on and work even harder to cover their colleagues who are at home with their feet up on a full salary?
“The grim reality is that agencies such as ours are still better off going down the redundancy route if you are nervous about how long this is going to last. I don’t know the answer to that, but it will be months not weeks.”
EP: “You said that you moved to a remote-working model a couple of weeks ago – how hard was that to do from an IT perspective?”
JF: “We have always been entirely cloud based, so it has been incredibly easy from a technical perspective.
“From day one, I built our infrastructure to be very “light” in terms of office-based equipment. As our name may suggest, everything we do is browser based. Actually, I think the only actual desktop software that we use these days is Screaming Frog and we have always had a remotely hosted VOIP phone system, so I wasn’t at all worried about physically being able to do our jobs.”
EP: “It all sounds very easy – did you have any other concerns?”
JF: “Yes, it was easy from a technical perspective but I was / am worried about the impact on the team.
“We are a small team of brilliant people. In my humble experience, brilliant people thrive through being with other brilliant people. That is clearly much harder to do when you are isolated and I remain a believer that we are social animals and need interaction on a daily basis where possible.
“To a certain extent, we are still ticking that box as technology is an enabler and it is easy to maintain contact with each other, even if it isn’t over a cup of coffee.
“We kick the day off with a “group hug” video conference. I was keen / insistent on people turning their cameras on and it is working well so far with everyone joining in. Touch wood, spirits are good and communication is, at times, arguably better than being in the office together.
“I think it is only natural to worry about productivity / focus of the team and there is a reason that “wfh” is synonymous with doing very little for some folk. Again, it is early days and impossible to really measure yet, but we have moved to a healthy discussion around daily tasks / outcomes rather than assuming all is well just because people are sitting at their desks in the office for seven hours a day.
“You obviously have to trust your team implicitly, but I am currently not at all worried about our ability to maintain focus and carry on delivering outstanding work for our clients. If anything, the physical separation is helping us to do a better job of demonstrating the value of what we are doing.”
EP: “So it is not all doom and gloom?”
JF: “Absolutely not! There is no sugar coating the threat to the economy and I do worry about how it could affect people longer term, especially in terms of mental health. I think regular physical contact is especially important for the more junior members of any team, who need to learn by osmosis. Just listening to conversations in the office is one of the best ways to learn. That becomes extremely difficult with physical separation and I think it is this echelon that will be suffering the most.
“Every cloud has a silver lining and I have been manically busy testing out different project management software products like Asana or Monday.com, which really do help teams whether remote or not. It is something that we have been looking at for a while but this enforced separation has given me the kick up the backside that I needed. Having more down time than usual gives us the opportunity to go through the inevitable learning curve / hurdles of adopting a new way of working.
“We have always been ready for the technical possibility of working remotely but less so in terms of operational readiness. We have already made massive improvements on this front. Just by chatting through the daily tasks we are all working on during our morning video sessions has definitely improved our awareness of who is doing what and who needs support on specific tasks. In many ways, I think we are closer now as a team than we were four weeks ago.
“I have also come across products like Know Your Team which are extremely interesting and should improve the quality of leadership within any organisation. Leadership and the development of individuals is extremely difficult. It feels even harder when we are not in the same building, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is far from impossible and there are some excellent solutions out there to help / support this challenge.
“I am also increasingly excited about a (slightly) different future for Browser Media. One of the greatest challenges we have always had is recruitment. We have incredibly high standards and have often struggled to find the right people in, or around, our Colchester HQ. By the forced introduction of improved team communication / management, I am now much more confident about developing a remote team in the future. By enabling staff to work remotely, we will have access to a far wider talent pool and will be able to offer the flexibility that the modern workforce demands. Whilst I will always be a “press the flesh” type of person, I am now far less anxious about the alternatives.
“I founded Browser Media in 2005, so lived through the 2008 crash and know that we will get through this period. There is no doubt that jobs will be lost and teams broken up, but I am determined to ride out the storm and suspect that the flexibility of agency teams may well be in high demand once life starts to return to normal.
“We had started to go down a more distributed workforce with the launch of our US presence, but we have been forced along a steeper learning curve after the arrival of the coronavirus. Small businesses can adapt to change more easily than bigger corporations and we are doing just that.”