Well-being Always Comes First: Sara Anhorn, Critical Mass

da Dasha Ovsyannikova

Critical Mass
Calgary, Canada
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Since employees have transitioned to working from home, how has the agency been helping them to adapt?

Now that we've gotten used to being 100% remote, employees’ expectations are shifting. People want to leave big cities or work from an AirBnB for a month. Critical Mass was proactive in integrating remote employees into our culture before it wasn't an option and have made further operational enhancements to ensure our culture is not just functioning but thriving remotely. Here are some examples: 

  • CM Wellness: Our human resources team provides weekly updates on challenges facing Critical Mass employees, including resources on how to work from home with kids, antiracist resources (and how to support minority colleagues), how to avoid WFH burnout, and more. 
  • Cultural Collaboration: We've universally employed tools to connect remotely with teams, clients, and individuals (e.g., Slack, WebEx, Box, and more). We've likewise adopted smarter creative tools, selectively employing the best technology for coordinating among creative, technology, and data endeavors (e.g., Sketch, Abstract, InVision, Figma, Miro, and Tableau)
  • Burnout Prevention: When leaving the office means moving from your desk to the couch, creating boundaries between work and home becomes even more challenging than in normal times. To address burnout at the agency, we created a burnout hotline, provided time management and boundary-building resources, provided additional paid time off, actively encouraged staff to use vacation time, and encouraged mentors and colleagues to look out for one another. 
  • Hearing from Leaders: Collaboration can't happen if we're not all on the same page—especially in an uncertain, post-COVID world. We used to have global town halls twice a year. Now, we hold them every two weeks. We’ve upped office-level communication to weekly (from semi-monthly) and increased the frequency of discipline and client-level connection points.
  • Employee and Family Assistance: We offer Mental health support for Critical Mass employees and their families struggling through the personal and/or work-related challenges of being at home during a global pandemic.
  • Finding Balance: We're finding virtual ways to celebrate our employees' passions, interests, and lives outside of Critical Mass—one way of spreading cheer and connectedness when we can't physically be together. Some favorites include sharing recipes that make the most of a pantry; a #parents slack channel for parents to gather, commiserate and laugh about all things parenting; #showmeyourlunch (self-explanatory); and some time-out, non-work related hangouts.


How are the attitudes of employees evolving as the crisis continues?

As we’ve moved from crisis to coping, we’ve kept the pulse on how our employees are feeling with their new working environments through company-wide surveys and career developer feedback. No one wants to be living and working through a pandemic—but overwhelmingly, our staff is showing us they are engaged and supported. Speaking to our staff in a transparent, consistent, and human way has been integral in maintaining and even elevating the sense of trust and support our staff feels from the agency. Our most recent pulse check garnered our highest results to date. Turnover numbers, while clearly impacted by global market circumstances, are dramatically lower than previous years, even as opportunities arise within a dispersed digital space.


What has been the most challenging part of working from home for team members?

Fortunately, the pivot to being fully remote was less of a hurdle for Critical Mass. We had already established a future-focused work-from-home model that satisfied the need for a different way of working—more flexibility, more independence, less traditional office life. So even as employees became more distributed, we were accustomed to working virtually and fostering a unique and unified workplace—regardless of location.  

The biggest challenge for us has been replicating our culture virtually in a meaningful and impactful way that continues to make our agency a differentiator. To ensure that the sense of inclusion, belonging, and purpose that CMers felt each day going into the office translates and evolves in our new way of working. As we eventually move from 100% remote, to a hybrid model with a blend of in and out of office, this will be critical. This extends to everything from a robust and engaging onboarding experience for new hires, to the informal ‘hey, do you have 5 minutes?’, to more formal meaningful and equitable career management.

Plain and simple, people are tired. It’s more difficult to gauge fatigue when we’re not side by side—and to determine what is isolated work stresses we can control vs the result of life during COVID. 


Have there been any changes made within your agency to ease the process?

Critical Mass continues to be flexible and trusting in our employees to be productive, responsive, and respectful of one another. We still have expectations in meeting deadlines and doing our work, but are prioritizing new demands in life—whether that be childcare, shared home ‘office’ space, time-zone juggling, and more. 


Has anything been done to try and preserve the office culture? How has the reception been internally?

We’ve been very disciplined in maintaining our monthly Office-specific Town Halls, and have increased the frequency of Global Town Halls. Both of these are critical for communication and as culture touch-points. These forums have continued to be well-attended and offer staff a way to celebrate each other’s success by way of shout-outs, spot bonuses and revealing our monthly ‘CMVP’ (employee of the month).

In addition, we’ve conducted a series of Spirit Weeks, which have included a blend of work-shares, training, and social activities to encourage outreach and sharing across locations, disciplines and accounts. DJ O’Clocks, Beer O’Clocks, Talent Shows, Trivia, CM Cribs, and a variety of other fun and engaging virtual contests and content sharing activities have all been well received.


Are you planning to return to the office? Is there a plan to make some of the initiatives started during the pandemic?

Until it's safe for us to be together again, we'll remain 100% remote. Staff safety is our top priority—we are closely monitoring risk in each of our locations and regularly surveying our staff to inform our plans. 

Much of the discipline we’ve implemented in terms of communication, meeting etiquette, and ensuring forums are inclusive of everyone on the call (and not just those in the room) will absolutely inform practices when we do return to a hybrid model. 


What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from agencies transitioning to working from home? Do you have any tips?

Critical Mass’s working from home initiatives are rooted in our values—being mindful, respectful and caring of our employees’ well-being always comes first. Empathetic leadership and understanding is critical in demonstrating the humanity of our organization—not only in a time of crisis, but as we move through to a new normal. Organizations that acknowledge and appropriately accommodate ‘real life’ factors—whether that be childcare, shared living spaces, mental-health challenges, or a myriad of other circumstances—will be most effective at attracting, retaining and growing a diverse and engaged employee base.