About your organisation
Omobono is the digital experience company for business brands. We work across the UK, Europe and the US helping some of the world’s largest business brands create experiences that bring their story, product or service to the world in a way that helps their customers fulfil their ever-changing needs.
What organisational changes did you go through prior to COVID-19 affecting the UK and did you have any challenges?
In 2019 we started out on a journey we described as Omobono 2.0 (now just Omobono), which focused on everything it means to be a successful, modern business in an industry that is changing rapidly, and a world with uncertainty. Little did we know at that point what uncertainty would really mean.
Inspired by the work of Brené Brown, having hoovered up Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’, and guided by the expertise of the brilliant Mack Fogelson, we started out reimagining Omobono as a place to work.
When you read ‘Reinventing Organisations’ it can all feel a bit too radical – manager-less organisations, radical decision-making processes, self-set salaries, total transparency of information. We have made radical changes in our company, but they are far more about how we think, behave, lead and communicate with each other, than they are about dumping managers and radically changing our pay systems.
One of the biggest shifts is how we think about power and how we distribute it throughout the organisation rather than having it serve only a small leadership team at the top. For example, we still have an executive team but we are working out how authority for decision making can be moved into the company as much as possible, helping people take responsibility for more within their teams rather than laddering everything up to the top.
Between January and March this year we took all of the staff in each of our three offices through three days of conversation and reflection drawing on the ‘Daring Leadership’ work of Brené Brown. We had extraordinarily honest and open discussions about emotional armour, empathy and vulnerability. We talked about how to have difficult conversations and how to nurture the behaviours we want in our organisations – courage, innovation, creativity, accountability, resilience.
This was a huge time investment for us as a small business but the shared language, shared understanding and connection it gave us is one of the things we’d all point to as having helped us through the first months of lockdown.
We also learnt to always be experimenting and while experimentation has connotations of risk, we learnt to think of things in small steps and test any change we were proposing to ensure it was safe to try.
How did these changes equip you to deal with COVID-19?
Looking back, 2019 felt like bootcamp for everything that 2020 has held.
We had already started to practice wholeness; embracing that we are multi-dimensional people with work and personal lives and understanding that compartmentalising those lives is impossible. Not only that but when we bring our whole selves to work, we connect with our colleagues in a deeper way, freeing us to be more creative, innovative and productive.
When work and life collided like never before with the onset of a global pandemic, we showed up with all the strength and courage we had. We had parents in our teams who’d suddenly had a tank driven through their normal working day, and colleagues around them who picked up the slack and worked flexibly to help cover things.
Our communication with our teams has been open and honest. At the beginning of lockdown, we started up twice weekly all company sessions and we made a commitment to share information as we had it and answer questions honestly. That changed the flow of information within the company; it meant we sometimes asked people to hold the weight of some difficult information before we’d been able to fully work out what it meant for us. But they always had the context within which we were working and appreciated not feeling like they were in the dark.
I don’t think the work we’ve done has made navigating a global pandemic easy, but we certainly had the emotional and responsive infrastructure in place to make it easier. Our connection and agile ways of working made it easier to be one company on virtual channels and we always use video over just voice communication.
People knew we were wanting to build a better company, to work towards having trust and we found that the more we showed up with openness, and the more we practiced honesty in all of our daily work, the more it built trust. The work we’d done to change our ways of working and to build better connection and understanding within our team proved invaluable.— Sarah Pettinger, Chief Operating Officer, Omobono
How have you used this new way of working to assist your clients with their challenges this year?
Our clients are people too, they have been at home managing their lives and all of the challenges COVID-19 has thrown at them just as we have. One of the first things we did as a company after lockdown was to just be there for clients however they needed – that meant we weren’t breathing down their necks for answers about budgets, we were more likely to just have a virtual coffee, catching up and sharing the load of everything that was going on.
One of the simplest things we practice internally is a check-in before we start meetings. It creates an opportunity to get our heads properly into the meeting space and to get to know each other better, particularly in virtual pitches to help build connection and chemistry. We even built a check-in question generator to help us.
We also talk a lot in our business, and with our clients, about experimentation and small moves. How can we head in the direction we think is right by taking lots of small, safe steps (rather than big risky moves) and learning from each of them? This means we use retrospectives as a tool to learn and evolve what we’re doing – whether that’s an internal system, how we performed in a pitch or the approach we’re taking to a client’s campaign. All of those learnings help us improve our ways of working and our work. We’ll involve clients in an evaluation of what we did, what went well and what we’ve learnt. That process is encouraging clients to take stock before moving onto the next thing and it’s contributing to better work as well as stronger, honest and open communication and relationships with them.
What have the results been?
We started this work midway through 2019 and our fourth quarter of 2019 was our best performing of the year. In 2020, despite everything that has been thrown at us, we’ve seen an increase in our profitability over 2019.
Employee turnover has dropped over the last 12 months. Our people regularly comment on the way we are leading through this period and tell us of the positive comparisons they make against the experiences of friends and family.
When we’ve pitched virtually throughout this extraordinary period, potential clients have commented on chemistry and connectivity within our team, and our relationships with clients have thrived despite the lack of face to face time.
What advice would you give to other businesses looking to do something similar?
It’s not possible for anyone to rewind and do the unintentional prep work we did ahead of COVID-19. We knew we wanted to change our business and make it a better place to be, it’s just good fortune that our timing aligned perfectly with what we’ve now all had to work through over the last months.
There is much talk in the media and within companies of what the return to the office will be like, of companies giving up leases and committing to remote working long term or thinking radically about use of offices in the future. All of this is important, but somewhat misses one of the things that has been important this year; it’s not just that we’ve been able to work at home and make that work, it’s the circumstances in which we’ve done it. We have had to look fear in the face and not pretend to be anything but honest, even with the uncertainty of the economic environment and the impact of that on our clients.
If leaders are excited by the changes they see in their companies, then they will need to do more than just offer flexible working hours and learn new ways of using office space. They will need to learn new ways of leading, communicating and being. It’s those shifts that will really make for a better workplace and a positive legacy from this global crisis.