Opinion: How can Malaysian agencies build a culture amidst movement controls?

The act of fostering a workplace culture is even more important in such uncertain times, especially when individuals are still working from home and when lay offs are still occurring. A report by Hays Malaysia titled "Uncovering the DNA of the future workplace in Asia" said purpose or meaning played an important role in motivating employees (94%). As to what constituted meaningful work, majority of them said being part of an organisation that values employee well-being (78%), opportunities to use specialised skills that are unique to the individual (72%), and being recognised and rewarded for one's contributions (66%).

That said, only 41% of respondents said they currently experienced being part of an organisation that values employee wellbeing.

Employee well-being and having flexible remote working hours are just some of the factors that form workplace culture. Agencies, for example, are known for their fast-paced working culture with long hours. This lifestyle coupled with the recent Movement Control Order (MCO) that was just reinstated in Malaysia makes it even more crucial for agencies to build a strong culture to aid with their employees' well-being.

Ogilvy Malaysia's chief executive Nizwani Shahar (pictured second from left) said a strong, positive, clearly defined, and well-communicated culture attracts talent. It also drives engagement and retention. "A strong culture in the workforce is absolutely key. Culture has an impact on the way employees interact with their work and our organisation. It also has an effect on happiness and satisfaction levels," she said.

Agency or company leaders need to define not only the company's vision and strategy, but also its culture and value system. However, creating a culture is just one aspect. The other more difficult part is following through with the plan and implementing it. "This, I find to be one of the challenges most leads would feel is harder to execute through the pandemic," Nizwani said.

Ogilvy, for example, prides itself on being a company of giants, meaning it focuses on strong talents who deliver powerful, giant ideas that deliver growth for clients.

A big part of how Ogilvy evolved and adapted through the pandemic is through this shared culture and in ensuring it continues nurturing these values despite working from home, Nizwani explained.

For example, it came together virtually during the various MCO stages to celebrate its Founder's Day in June and held a creative year-end party via Zoom. These initiatives, Nizwani said, are a true testament of a strong agency culture at Ogilvy.

Similarly, Edelman Malaysia's MD Mazuin Zin (pictured second from right) said distance means companies have to think more creatively about building and maintaining culture. According to her, organisational culture is the true reflection of employee emotions and shared values. In particular, it means how connected they feel to the workplace irrespective of where they are working from, be it remotely or in the office.

Citing Edelman's Trust Barometer research around employee experience, Mazuin said 67% expected their employer to have a greater purpose apart from the bottom line and for their job to have meaningful societal impact. This sentiment was echoed in its recent Recharging Employee Engagement report, which found a company’s purpose was one of the main driving factors for talent attraction and retention.

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"These findings indicate there is a new social contract emerging between employee and employer predicated on employers taking the lead on change, starting internally and having a positive impact in the communities in which they operate," she said, adding:

This means how well we keep our employees engaged will also be the litmus test of business sustainability in the medium term.

"Help colleagues to escape the fear and uncertainty outside, and build a culture that makes people want to join, exert discretionary effort and stay," she added.

Hays' Uncovering the DNA of the future workplace in Asia report revealed that 85% of respondents in Malaysia feel remote working options had become more important to them after the pandemic, with a further 81% saying flexible hours had become more important. Like many companies, Edelman has also jumped on the remote working trend due to the MCO and Mazuin said it has "focused on making remote working [its] friend". 

The ongoing pandemic, in more ways than one, has given leadership teams opportunities to connect, engage and reflect with individual employees in deeper conversations beyond career goals and motivations," she said. The agency has doubled down on internal and external professional resources to support the teams’ well-being, and focused cross-team problem solving as well as cross-team care for each other.

Challenges of returning to the office post-MCO

Just yesterday, Malaysia recently announced that all states except Sarawak will be placed under MCO from Friday onwards. Currently, the states of Melaka, Johor, Penang, Selangor, and Sabah, as well as the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya are already in lockdown. This is yet another curveball thrown at companies shortly after ushering in the new year and will certainly take a toll on employees' mental health once again.

According to a study done last year by Malaysian think tank The Centre titled "MCO and mental well-being: Home sweet home?", 22% of the 1,084 Malaysian respondents said they experienced "severe" and "extremely severe" levels of anxiety. In particular, women and those below the age of 35 had higher levels of negative emotions. Additionally, those living in low cost housing during the MCO reported more extreme signs of depression, anxiety, and stress. At the same time, there might also be individuals who relish remote working, given the flexibility it offers. Therefore, these are challenges that agencies would have to deal with post-MCO.

Mediabrands Malaysia CEO Bala Pomaleh (pictured right) said:

I don’t think we will have any issues in getting our workforce to return to the physical office space. In fact, some of our staff are craving to go back in.

While it has embraced some of the benefits of working from home, such as less travelling time, healthy meals, and more time with family, most employees still do miss the benefits of face time in the office. For now, however, the agency is practicing caution from an organisational standpoint to keep its office space shut. As soon as the situation eases, it will open with 30% to give flexibility to those teams needing to collaborate for brain storming and planning, Pomaleh said. "Different staff will have different needs, and this flexibility means that we might have a hybrid mode in the future – where some staff are fully remote, and others rotate with having a few days in the office," he added.

According to him, Mediabrands Malaysia found out about employees' preference for a hybrid model based on a recent survey it did. Having regular check-ins through surveys across a wide variety of issues, townhalls, and its new anonymous virtual listening box is important as it offers various individuals different avenues for their voices to be heard. This is part of Pomaleh's aim to build a workplace culture that embraces change and adaptability.

Meanwhile, Malaysia group CEO of dentsu, Nicky Lim (pictured left), said the safety and well-being of its employees are of utmost importance and it has always taken a planned and measured approach in its phased return to the office. "Full return to office is contingent on market monitoring of local statistics, travel conditions, and staff sentiments. We always communicate clear options to staff to continue to manage their personal risks," he added.

At the same time, Lim said the market is driving towards efficiency, speed, and integration and dentsu has reacted by simplifying its business into three lines - creative, media, and CRM, in a bid to be fluid and interoperable. "There is no getting away from the fact that this transformation is very hard work. We have people who are real assets — committed and hardworking — but the uncertainty this pandemic creates is incredibly difficult for people," he said. As such, it is important to have open conversations and transparency, as well as prioritise workloads and bandwidth to ensure the agency can work through it.

Is a physical space mandatory?

Remote working might have become the norm but in a fast-paced and creative environment such as the adland, having a physical space to collaborate can be crucial and helpful. According to Lim, the office space signifies how precious togetherness is. "Microsoft Teams is transactional - your meeting time is up and then you’re done. It doesn't build culture," he said, adding: 

People don’t build relationships during an official work meeting, they build relationships during those informal discussions around a watercooler in between meetings.

Lim also said that individuals who started a new role in a new organisation or team during lockdown do not have the opportunity to collaborate, have any spontaneous discussion or get to know people well enough to build trust. Hence like Mediabrands, dentsu is also moving towards a hybrid model of working from home and returning to office to face clients. That said, it also depends on where one works in the organisation. 

"The process of ideation and creativity begs for a lot of collaboration and face-to-face discussion. Whereas operational roles can be automated and made to work remotely," Lim said.

On the same thread, Mediabrands' Pomaleh said being in a space together allows for the spontaneity of free-flowing ideas, the camaraderie and the shared purpose that comes with being together. Sharing the same space with one's team creates alignment into the different areas of one's work life and purpose.

"Small talk is extremely hard to recreate in a remote setting. While we applaud the punctuality and efficiency that remote meetings bring, it doesn’t allow for impulsive and natural catchups in the same way. Being in a physical space also allows you to read your team, clients and vendors and manage relationships through non-verbal cues," he explained. Concurrently, working in a different space also offers boundaries to the day that employees currently lack, Pomaleh said. He added that demarcation of work and home time is important, especially as not everyone has a conducive home office to work from. 

While having a physical space offers clear distinction between work and home and allows for quick ideation meetings as well as brainstorms, Ogilvy's Nizwani said last year's MCO and the whole of 2020 has highlighted that physical space is not entirely mandatory. This is because most employees were still able to find their own ways of working, collaborating, and ideating.

"We've even won pitches through virtual client presentations. That being said, it does not mean we can remove physical work spaces altogether. The clear distinction between work and home is much better defined with the office space," she said. 

Photo courtesy: 123RF