The past six months have forced everyone into a new working situation — a situation that could continue for a while yet. This week Paul & Rich share some tips for coping with the ongoing pandemic. We discuss why you should be gathering your team more often and keeping clear and frequent communication about what’s happening across the company. We also talk about ways to be a source of stability for your employees and, of course, about the importance of humor.
Rich Ziade The days blur, right? I mean, it’s I’ve had six Thursdays followed by five Wednesdays last week.
PF It’s summer. [yeah!] Who can tell? This might as well be hot spring. [music ramps up, plays alone for 15 seconds, fades out]
PF Well, let me let me say, three words you hate…or two words! I’ll get it down to two words. Two words you hate, Rich. Let’s kick it off that way.
PF New normal.
RZ Oh, lord.
PF It’s annoying, isn’t it?
RZ It’s an annoying word. The old normal is just normal. Normal’s not that exciting to begin with. [Rich laughs]
PF Yeah, that’s true. It’s the new terrible!
RZ It’s the new terrible.
PF So I mean, we should we should give some context. So obviously we’re referring to the way that business is getting done in the pandemic. Obviously, we’ve been very lucky in that our business has actually only grown while we’ve been weathering this. There have been a lot of ups and downs like everybody, but we’ve been able to kind of use the resources in hand and sort of ride this wave pretty well. So we’re really lucky. At the same time. We’re not going back to the office for a while, and we’re recording this in July. And if you told me we’re not going back till January, I would be unsurprised if you told me we’re going back in October, I’d be happy. If you told me we’re not going back to the next March, I’d say well, I guess that’s the world we live in. This sort of variability around moving your bodies around in space and doing meetings and so forth, is just a part of our life now.
RZ It is, you know, it’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s a lot of people in little boxes. It’s what everyone is dealing with what a lot of people are dealing with. I think there are some positives in it. There are some things that have changed that I hope stay permanent.
PF What are some of those?
RZ Well, I outside of work, like you know, right now like up the street from me, they’ve closed entire streets and put tables outside it feels like Europe.
PF Boy, does New York City shine when there are fewer cars on the street.
RZ I mean, right there, right, like just let’s pause there. New York City was not designed for cars, it was just not designed. [no] It was, I mean mass transit is a beautiful thing in New York City.
PF It’s like they were exposing, when they when they open up a street like that, and they put, and the street life returns in that way. It’s like they’re exposing the they’re getting rid of the drop ceiling [yup] and showing you the tin roof underneath and you’re like, wow, why would you ever cover that up? That’s wonderful.
RZ I think sometimes it’s, it is better to, I’ve enjoyed my time with my family more. I have my moments. Don’t get me wrong, but I’ve had lunch. I have lunch with them every day. And that’s a wonderful thing. And I’d never used to be able to do that. So that’s actually been kind of nice. Maybe I’m just trying to find like silver lining here, to some extent.
PF Well you are fundamentally an optimist, which I think that people don’t always get about you because you’re, you’re critical and you are, you’re demanding but fundamentally you’re like we’re gonna figure this out. And that is your your basic ethos. And I go back and forth. We all know this about me I’m highly variable as a human being. But deep down, I do have a kind of fundamental optimism about human beings being able to figure things out and so I think that part of it like focus, focusing on the macro has been very depressing, right, like looking at the way that the government has dealt with a lot of things and not, not the CDC necessarily, but like the federal government or, or many governors and I think being in New York City where we had our own challenges with leadership, but we kind of stumbled through and figured it out and then watching no one learn from that was a hell of a thing. Because it’s just you had it. It’s one thing to be like, wow, you know, we had no way of really knowing or that was what was going on in you know, in China and you’re just like, Oh, well, we you know, the virus doesn’t care. But okay, like, this was more than we could have. But it’s like now this anyway, regardless, family time has been tough. Like my kids are having a tough time socially. [yeah] But there have been high notes. I feel I know my children better than I ever did. I think it has forced me in a lot of ways to be far more strategic and thoughtful about my communication into take absolutely nothing for granted in how I’m communicating.
PF We just did an all hands meeting before this and I mean, I think I would say we’d been on this path before, but we script things far more tightly. We are efficient, I emcee those meetings, the handoffs are clear. The notes are ready to get pasted into Slack afterwards. We record them on video.
RZ I think this is tip number one, if you’re trying to do them, you know, all hands, there is no cadence, there’s no unwritten rule or written rule about how often to do them. Some people do it once a month. Some people do them twice a month, we used to do them twice a month, we went to once a week when the pandemic hit. Even if we had five or eight minutes of things to say, just as get everyone in to remind everyone that this is a cohesive unit that it’s a thing that exists even if you have very little to share. Sometimes it’s just a silly joke. It’s worthwhile. I think it’s a meaningful thing even whether you’re 10 people are 100 or 300. I think it’s it’s actually a good thing. So don’t worry too much about I have nothing to announce, I go back and forth on that. I think it’s been really valuable during this time to kind of remind everyone that we’re kind there is something that connects us.
PF You know what I’ve been doing. And it’s very cheesy for me, this is not CEOing that I would have done before. But we have a charter, at Postlight. And it’s a set of our values, how we, how we treat each other internally are focused on diversity, but also the fact that, you know, we care deeply about the user for our software products and things like that. So it’s a mix of things that you would expect a sort of modern progressive company to believe about itself and to want to act on but also things that are really specific to our craft. And look, you know, we worked on that for days and days and days when we started the firm. And we brought everyone into meetings and so on. And it kind of sits there as something that people read when they start at the firm. And that we review once a year and we add it in a Google doc and it’s a very well intentioned document that way. Yeah. And what I’ve decided is I’m going to continue to refer to it whenever it makes sense in the all-hands. Like you know, today we were talking about our different clubs, employee clubs that we have. So there’s technical and regular book club and music production club and you know, all sorts of things. And we have a commitment, you know, to learning and to sort of sharing knowledge inside of the org. And I’m like, you know what, tie those things together in the most blatant way possible here is our value here is how we are living our values, so that people can connect to the firm that way, because I think one of the things as leadership is that we have the firm in our head, and we are very focused on how do we manage risk and get growth into the door, right. That’s a lot of anxiety. And it’s a lot of how we are we are shaping our world so that that growth can continue to happen like we’re hiring, which means we need to find more growth in the future. We’re making current demand. We’re thinking a lot about that. But I think if you’re at the firm, you’re not thinking that way. You’re not seeing that growth up close and seeing the pipe drive and going. We have to shape around that way. It’s very easy for there a gap to emerge where people don’t know about all the work that’s going on.
RZ Yeah, I think that’s a key part of it. It I mean it’s let’s I like to number these things because I want I don’t want it to just be us talking out loud but you’re bringing a good point which is so bullet one gather everyone more often. I wouldn’t say every day I’d say I’m we’re doing it every week. If you do it once a month, do it twice a month. gather everyone more often is a good first tip.
PF Yeah, you can’t cheat like presence in slack doesn’t do it. Right. Like it’s, you know, open door policy doesn’t do it.
RZ No, it doesn’t work. You got to get everyone in the room. I think what you’re talking about is an interesting angle here, which is it’s hard to tell what’s going on elsewhere in the org.
PF Can’t read the room.
RZ If you’re in the department of x, you can’t read the room. You can’t even walk across the room to see what they’re doing over there in department Y. I’m saying department to sound overly corporate sounding but you are the, what do you call it? The church flyer, like the newsletter that goes out where it’s just sort of little bits and bobs of just like little things that are happening are meaningful because it tells people you’re you’re sort of replacing that Town Square.
PF You know what I’ll talk about, you know, and this is this is an awkward one, especially it’s the boss, but when you walk into the office and somebody won’t make eye contact, or the elevator ride is particularly painful, you’re like, oh, okay, well, you know what, we don’t know what that is today, but we’re gonna find out in the next couple of weeks. [Rich laughs] Right? And, you know, maybe I mentioned something to their manager, like, hey, seems like out of out of sorts, or you know, I just know that that no eye contact is amazing. Like when they when they sort of swoop by you. And sometimes people just don’t make eye contact and that is who they are. But it just you get those reads day to day and you’re like, Oh, that’s a little different than normal. That could be about me. That could be about the company, that could be about where they are today. They could have their dog could have hit their ankle this morning.
RZ Exactly. It could be home, it could be just a rough morning and you just don’t know and…
PF But, you see those patterns when you’re there.
RZ Yes. You see those patterns were near there. And also there is no digital equivalent of walking over to someone and say, Hey, do you have a minute? I mean, we’ve been doing this thing lately where we drop a Google meet link, which means come talk to me, right? It’s not a calendar. There’s no calendar invite. There’s no ceremony, then the meeting isn’t named. It’s just the place.
PF We were doing sort of open weekly lunches. And as things went on, I think what happened is that the things that were designed to be therapeutic at first, like just, hey, we’re all in this together, come to the Zoom lunch, share your houseplant and so on. As time goes on, they become more and more artificial. And it’s like nobody at first people just welcome that they’re artificial. So what’s funny to me is like as the CEO, I feel that it’s good for me to be a little more formal about like, this is a value in our charter. And here is how we are living it. Like I’m feeling a need to do more of that so that people connect to the company in almost like the formal system of the company gets expressed more because we can’t do things in formally the way we used to. At the same time, the kind of like Okay, we’re all in this together stuff doesn’t work the same way it did at the start of this because people are out of panic mode and kind of into grind mode. And they’re like, Yeah, I don’t really want to share my house plant again, you know, that was nice at all. And so what we’ve done as a firm is go back to really talking about the work. And so instead of being like, we’re gonna have lunch. It’s more like we’re doing more demos of work. We’re encouraging everyone to attend so they can see this stuff. So I mean, point three is focus on what you are, because the focus for a while it’s just we’re in the pandemic. I hope everyone can get through this. And I hope we can find new ways of working and yeah, hold on. But if you’re in a position where you’re continuing your daily operations, bring the culture back to what you represent and what you actually do.
RZ Yeah, no, it’s a great point. You know, early on, we wanted to keep everyone abreast of where we stood vis a vie the pandemic and then after a while, we had nothing to say.
PF We put that slide up at the beginning, things are okay and then it was things are still okay. And then those things are still still okay. And things are still still still okay. And then at a point that the joke gets played out, right? Like you’re you don’t have new material. And so what do you revert to? You revert to a kind of classic corporate mode of Let me tell you what’s going on. Let me tell you what we represent. Here’s what we’ve been working on for quite some time. You know, appreciate your feedback, which because like open door policy isn’t the answer. But talking to your manager and talking to HR probably is and making sure that those systems are working, rather than assuming that everybody’s going to step up in very specific ways is more important.
RZ Yes. To boil it down. Focus on what you are, the feel good stuff is good. Don’t get me wrong, like we’ve done nice gestures to kind of…
PF We’ll continue to!
RZ We’ll continue to but…
PF But what worked in March isn’t going to work in August. That’s, I think that’s…
RZ I think that’s a great way to put it. Yeah, I mean, and so the work is the thing that can be painful, and it was strange at times for a lot of people as they were adjusting, but frankly, is a bit of an escape. Like I don’t know what I’d do. If I didn’t I wasn’t busy with this thing and I hope that that’s the case for others that are finding good distraction and feeling productive, you know a lot of people are doing stuff in their homes right now they’re building things and they’re doing things just to feel useful and hopefully this the work that they’re doing and highlighting that work and highlighting people’s energy that’s going into that work is a very positive thing. I want to close it out with humor, use humor. Kid around.
PF Although I will say, irony and sort of the the sharper edge stuff doesn’t travel as well over video conference as much as light itself mockery and silliness.
RZ Exactly. So this leads me to a pitch we’ve every so often pitch a product at Postlight. Paul.
PF Whimsical! We bring up a Whimsical a lot. We bring up AirTable a lot. AirTable, Whimsical is a diagramming tool, very lightweight diagramming tool. AirTable is a useful database.
PF This one’s a little different. I know the one you’re talking about.
RZ Little different, a little different. Yeah, it’s a wonderful startup out of Armenia called Renderforrest.com. And what they have are sort of these pre-canned motion graphics templates, where you could just put in your company name, or put in images or videos and text, and it’ll spin up essentially a motion graphics video.
PF Like a 30 seconds like, here’s the news.
RZ 10 to 30 seconds. Exactly.
PF A lot of little animated guys. Little animated. Like, what? How have we used it?
RZ Yeah, we did one like we bought everyone ice cream at the company. And so we created a video where I think an ice cream truck rolled out and said, hey, it’s getting hot out there have some ice cream. And they’re ridiculous. We leave the little watermark on not because we’re cheap but because we I kind of like the watermark.
PF I know this is actually really tricky because Render Forest is a little ridiculous in what it does. And so let’s describe the process which is we’re planning our all hands as we said earlier, we’re scripting more right and then this is Rich’s baby. This is what a co-founder does, right? Which is Rich, can you do an ice cream video? [yeah] Like, yes, you can also close enormous projects with very large organizations. But could you also make a 10 second video celebrating ice cream? And off you go, and you come back with something that is utterly ridiculous with ridiculous music and we drop it in the middle of the all hands. And let’s just say that it’s not received with joy or humor. It’s received with absolute sort of like, uhhh, which in itself is actually better. Like I feel that you need, you need ridiculousness and a sense of everything being a little bit weird and off for this moment. You know, what happened to us and I think what happened to everybody is that for the first, let’s say, six weeks over everybody being at home, because your job is kind of the center of your life, and you need to kind of keep it moving. We became this kind of Nexus for everybody like I just like it was a very strange thing because a job is a job. You go to a job you get you get money for it, you do your work, you increase your craft, hopefully you stay. Maybe it’s time to go like that that is a job. And yet when we’re at home and we are you know, we are, we were the center of existence for our team, including me and you for a while there. And I think when we’re talking about the new normal, right, what are we talking about? We’re talking about your company not being that you’re talking about your company being a job again, even though people are at home on video.
RZ Yeah, and I don’t think you should try to be more than that. I think that’s the important thing here. I like know when to get out of the way. Know when to ease up. At first, you know, as an executive in the company, I was like, everybody needs to dial it up. Who knows how we’re gonna make it through this. And then I was watching some people struggle and it wasn’t they weren’t struggling because they were lazy. They were struggling because they were processing everything that was going on around them on top of the job.
PF Or they have kids at home or you know, their, their parents are in Florida. Like I mean, just like we all had stuff.
RZ I think people want stability and they want to be encouraged to take a minute and step away because it actually leads to better work rather than increased pressure. It’s like look, turn it up like now’s the time dial it like that doesn’t work here. Instead what does work is go take a walk, find some time off, use your PTO like these are good things we are going to be here.
PF That was a big Render Forest video for us was the use your PTO because taking time off, we gave the company a day off at one point. That’s the new the new normal is kind of the old normal, which is here we are, we’re building things for our clients and for ourselves. It is a place to work, it pays you money. It provides benefits. We try to create a positive culture, past that it’s going to be on you, you know.
RZ And we can be here to be supportive. And that’s that right? I mean, I have an idea for a brand. Do you know the brand Hormel, they make like baked beans and like I think [oh yeah] like canned frankfurters and stuff. When they come up with a new like, rebrand, they can say the New Hormel. [Rich laughs]
PF Lead with humor. Lead with humor.
RZ Alright, let’s recap these. Okay, gather more often. I don’t know how often you gather, gather more often, even if it’s for 10 minutes. It’s a silly announcement, someone new got hired, someone’s leaving and you want to wish them well, gather more often. Talk about what’s happening elsewhere. People can’t walk over to other parts of your organization. Talk about what’s happening elsewhere, announce it. Talk about even smaller milestones that you wouldn’t you wouldn’t otherwise talk about, talk about it, because it’ll reconnect people focus on what you are.
PF Yeah, right. Like, don’t, don’t, you’re not actually a service provider for the people in your company. You are a place of business and everyone will actually do better the more you return to that function and find clear ways for people do their work with a little more flexibility and empathy than you might have felt before because the time is demand it.
RZ Yes. Number four, renderforest.com. Kid around. Be careful with it. But a little humor just just is a good thing. It’s always a good thing in life. I’m a fan of humor, but take advantage of gathering everyone to say like, well, this is a little crazy. And you know, lighten it up a little bit. And number five, and if you can, look, we’re making an assumption here. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in 2020. If you can be a source of stability and support, but don’t push too hard. Don’t try too hard to fix what’s going on with what people are going through. Just encourage people to take that time off. We’re going to be here when you get back. Better work comes out of them. Like that’s a real outcome.
PF I mean, one of the first hires we made the first hire we made after bringing together a group of you and me and the managing partners as founders was HR And leaning on HR is really good here, like this is not trying to be the end all be all for everybody in the org, which is kind of what I felt was it felt like the beginning of the pandemic almost required that.
RZ That’s an impossible ask. Right?
PF That’s right. You and I can’t lead people. We can lead Postlight. But we can’t lead a pandemic, right? That’s not like we just don’t have the we don’t have the tools like we can’t find the vaccine. So I think you got to acknowledge that you there are limits to your power and limits to what you can do, what you can do is hopefully keep the business moving and bring people more and more in line with that. That’s why I keep returning back to, you know, the charter and we keep talking about simple values that we share as a firm, because that’s where people need to connect. But good luck, everybody. It’s hard.
RZ It’s hard. I would say, we’re talking as if we have access to all the CEOs and presidents of companies. Frankly, if you have a group or a team, you can do a lot of these things. just gather Yeah, like if you’re 12 people or 7 or 20 you can take a lot of these tips and apply them just to that smaller group and it’s meaningful. The array of social options are much more limited today, obviously, right and so connecting without pushing without trying too hard you’re not going to fix the social gap here for people that’s not your company’s job. But you can do you can do something right and there you know, knock on wood there will be a day when we’re gathering again, and it’ll feel good that you carried it through this way. This is hard, there’s no way around it like that’s the other thing I feel like I want to do more but you can’t do more like there’s only so much you can do.
PF I think providing stable employment and reasonable hours while just working through this day by day because I don’t know about you but like you know, you wake up in the morning and you go Oh, yep, yep, here we go. Like I know we’ve been joking about the new normal but boy do I want to get back I want to get moving. I am I am done.
RZ Yeah. Look at you know that the generosity we provide at Postlight and on the Postlight Podcast is still amazes me to this day. It’s just good, useful advice, Paul. We’re just good decent people.
PF Aren’t we the best? Anyway, look, we are really good.
RZ But there’s a hidden agenda, Paul.
PF It’s always a hidden agenda. No, no, it’s actually not hidden.
RZ It’s not that hidden.
PF There’s a blatant public agenda, which is that if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, you’ve had a sample of what the relationship with Postlight is like, if you are looking for services, go ahead, send us an email at email@example.com. Check out our website postlight.com, you know, it’s fine. If you are listening to this and you never want to give us a lot of work. That is totally fine. We love it. But we just like to be in your brain. So if somebody ever comes to you and says, I need a good partner for doing this big digital initiative, you go, Oh, you know, I listen to this podcast, you should check out Postlight. That’s all. That’s all we want. Maybe once in the next couple of years, you might say those words and then you will have given us the greatest gift. [Rich laughs]
RZ Everyone stay safe. Have a great week.
PF Yep. Alright back to work. [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]