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2020: what we’ve learnt

By Sarah Pettinger

COO Sarah Pettinger shares the lessons learnt in 2020 and what we will be working on as we head into 2021

A year ago I sat down and wrote a blog about all of the mistakes we’d made in the company over the year and what we’d learned from them. We were at the very start of our journey to change Omobono and how we work and there were a lot of mistakes. I wrote it from the premise that we all share our best bits, our polished lives, but if I have learnt anything over the last couple of years it’s that the learning comes in the mistakes, the times when we fell on our faces and when we thought we’d really f**ked it up. All those amazing lessons we keep hidden as we try to present to the world the best version of our company, or ourselves. And when we compare ourselves to other people and other companies we feel worse about our mistakes, my biggest ah-ha moment in that respect came in the quote (which I think belongs to Anne Lamott) “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”.  Even in this blog post I’ll inevitably put a spin on our mistakes, as human’s we just can’t help ourselves.

For any company 2020 has been a massive learning experience, we experienced several years’ worth of organisation change within a few months, and did so in a whirlwind of economic, political and social uncertainty. So what have our insides looked like in 2020, and what are we going to work on as we head into 2021?

2020 started off in the most extraordinary way at Omobono. Mack Fogelson and I road tripped around our offices spending three days taking all our staff through an intensive deep dive into new ways of leading. The experience of sitting together with our teams and hearing their vulnerability and their stories will stay with me for the rest of my life. There were moments in every session where the energy of the whole room wrapped around someone sharing something powerful about who they were. That experience has helped us have compassion and empathy for each other and created connections that supported us through the extraordinary experiences to come. Our timing was impeccable given everything the rest of the year had in store for us.


We’re only human

All that work at the start of the year meant we entered lockdown with credit in the bank with each other, a better understanding of what we needed as individuals and many points from which we could check in with each other about more than just our work.

The thing I have most pride of within the company is how we continue to care about and support each other.

There has been a huge lesson this year, our lives are complex and our stories are rich and varied, all of the experiences we have shape who we are at work as much as they do at home, when we understand all of those things about ourselves, and each other we connect differently. The value of that to a company is impossible to calculate but it’s led to better communication, better connection, teams coming together and being more productive, and producing better work.


Communication, communication, communication

When compared to 2019 our communication has been off the charts in 2020. But in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, we’ve made mistakes and learnt a lot about communication, most importantly that even when you’re doing a really good job of it you can still do better.

We have moved from many all-company emails which had become wallpaper to our lives to weekly (and at the start of lockdown when everything was changing fast twice-weekly) all-company meetings. At times these have felt like great fun, when we’ve had to deliver hard news they have been heavy and uncomfortable but seeing everyone’s faces each week has helped with connection, it’s helped us remain human about how we deliver hard news and it’s helped us remember we’re all still out there! But as someone working on content for these I’ve realised how quickly you feel you’re being repetitive, the biggest learning in that is that people have needed that repetitiveness. It’s not that they aren’t listening, it’s that with everything we’ve had to deal with this year we can only absorb so much information. We have learnt that when something is important we’ve needed to say it at an all company meeting several times, and then several more.

Our biggest shift has been to move communication from Outlook to Teams. It’s not perfect by any means but it supports the guiding principle ‘open over closed’ that we are trying to work by. We have made many mistakes in how we’re using Teams including too many channels, not using tagging well to help with visibility, we have learnt how hard it is to scroll through endless undefined messages and find what you need, we’ve lost messages we need to go back to. We are learning to use more of the Teams functions to improve how we’re using it, but even with its teething pains the value of having information visible to all outweighs the pain of navigating the volume (most of the time!) and we will get better!


Too many meetings

I think one of the biggest gripes people have this year would be too many meetings and I think the source of that has been a lack of clarity around structure, roles and responsibilities. Especially when we’ve been remote it’s been hard resist wanting to be involved in everything, that has meant we have suffered from high levels of video call fatigue as we regularly go back to back all morning, all afternoon or even all day. Our meetings are more productive, so it’s not lost time, but it’s exhausting and leaves people little time to do the work those meetings generate.

We have been encouraging people to practice our guiding principle ‘less over more’ and put things down, trust in the open flow of information and experiment with different ways of sharing information. We have a way to go and we’re still trying to find the right structure of teams and meetings to support that flow of information and clarity on roles within those teams. In 2021 my ambition is that we’ll nail that!


Decisions, decisions

We have struggled with decision making for as long as I can remember. As for so many people and companies I think its root has been fear of getting it wrong and making a bad call. Our guiding principles ‘small moves over big’ and ‘experimentation over planning’ have helped us change the way we’re making decisions, but it’s been messy. We’ve practiced Integrative Decision Making and Advice Process to support decisions – as we practice more and get better I believe these processes will help, but as we’ve been learning to use these processes alongside making real life decisions it’s not always felt like the best experience for people involved.

If you want to move away from the process of decisions laddering up then people need to feel confident to make decisions, in Omobono that confidence is coming from ‘safe to try’ – if we make a decision small and see it as a choice (and we always have choices) then we can start to de-risk the decision. If decisions feel less risky then we feel less exposed when we’re making them, we’re slowly turning the corner.

When we started these processes, I think didn’t fully understand their aim. The approach is very different from the old style of someone presenting and defending a proposal, instead it’s about team’s responsibility to help someone test that their proposal is safe to try, it’s not about the team passing a proposal or chucking it out, it’s about the team’s role in improving and shaping the proposal to make it safe to try, making whatever the proposer is suggesting possible and seeing what we learn. It’s a shift in mindset towards the responsibility of the team that it took us a while to get our heads into.


Navigating the hardest conversations

Like most companies we have not made it through the last year unscathed. We have had a stellar year in so many respects, but we had a couple of lockdown blows that meant we had to say goodbye to really valued team members. Everything we have learnt through Omobono 2.0 means we approached this with an openness, our team have been amazing as we asked them to hold heavy news before we had the full picture of its impact, but they appreciated knowing what we knew and feeling that there was transparency about the information available. We talked openly about what was happening in the company and with compassion to all of those impacted. It’s not possible for people to feel good about job losses but I hope and think that people felt heard and cared about, and that we did our best to support them. That is the culture we will continue to build at Omobono.


The surprising benefits of remote working

There have been many articles and posts about the balance that people have found remote working, as well as the fact people have found it impossible to turn off. We’ve experienced all of those things. One of the things we have always struggled with is connectivity across our offices and people feeling like the playing field is level, we’d made some inroads into that but the silver lining of lockdown turned out to be the cultural shift of putting everyone in the same position. We do a lot of project work across offices and geographies and it’s always been hard for those in the minority, whichever office, to feel fully part of the team. The person on video in a meeting room full of people doesn’t get the same experience no matter how conscientious the team are. In March we were all on video and the playing field was level, it made the experience better for those who were used to being the solo remote voice as conversations and general chatter were more inclusive.

It’s something we have really noticed and we’ve talked about how we will try and retain when we do start to be back in offices, especially as we’re likely to continue to work at home a lot and have dispersed teams. We don’t yet have a solution but I think it might be a case of consciously creating the same experience for all – either by all being in the office to meet, or all joining via video (even if some of us are in the office).


New ways of working

We are on a journey, very much a work in progress and learning new ways of working, especially in a year when we feel tired and vulnerable is hard. We are all at different points on the journey, some are charging ahead and others are waiting to see what the road looks like. I have to keep reminding myself of that, and remembering that it’s ok. Change is hard and people’s capacity for it is limited, we have learnt a patience this year and understood the need to keep reaching out to the company to share what we’re doing and why. We’ve not done that enough and it’s been a big learning, especially when we’re remote if we’re not actively telling people what we’re doing and why then there is just no way they will know. So how we are working now is by no means easier, but it is better and it’s helping us build a culture where Omobonians can be authentic and wholehearted.


Nine months in

The standout of the year though is how hard it is to not see colleagues for nine months. It’s not a scenario I would ever have contemplated as we flew around the world at the start of the year meeting clients and visiting our teams. I’ve found myself caught up in the success of it all, on one hand working at home has worked really well, but as time goes on I am really aware of the length of time we’ve been apart. We have managed remarkably well looking at each other through screens all year but I think we are all now pretty desperate for the real connection of being in a room with someone. Here’s to a more in-person 2021.

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