The sudden shift to mass working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic has raised a host of issues for businesses, but one of the more intangible is the very real damage it can have to company culture.
For companies that pride themselves on having a strong social environment, the isolation of employees can be a real hit to morale and productivity. And while this is by no means anywhere as serious as many of the problems facing some industries amid the coronavirus, for organisations that rely on a strong company culture to attract and maintain employees, it is nevertheless a significant challenge.
However, digital agency AKQA has come up with a novel solution to the issue, in the form of a radio station for its employees. Dubbed Work From Home FM (WFH-FM), it is broadcast online for anyone to tune in to, and is the brainchild of Jessica Day, a studio concierge who normally works at AKQA’s studios in Melbourne, Australia.
“Through WFH-FM, our main aim is to connect our network of 2,100 employees and 29 studios globally. It’s easy to feel isolated when working from home – we wanted to give our teams a way to hear from and interact with their colleagues,” Day tells Verdict.
“Anyone who works at AKQA can get involved in the radio, so it’s also a great way to have some fun during a difficult period.
“We’ve been blown away by the support from the agency’s global network. Nearly 300 team members tune in each day on the web or via mobile browsers from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the United States, UAE and Oman.”
Cultivating company culture amid the coronavirus
As a company with a strong and sociable culture, the lockdowns ordered to combat the coronavirus had the potential to be particularly challenging.
“At AKQA, our studios are naturally a social and fun environment to be in. So it was difficult when the company had to close them down and revert to remote working in the face of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Day.
Drawing on the company’s own themes and culture, Day came up with the idea of a community radio station as a solution to the problem during the coronavirus lockdowns.
“With the main theme of the year for our business being ‘connection’, I wanted to find a way to promote community and creative innovation during a time of social isolation. Music and the AKQA studio culture are also a big part of my life personally,” she explains.
“So when thinking about how I could recreate the in-studio experience at home and bring myself and energy to the team while working away from each other, the radio station seemed like the simple answer. From playing music to hearing your colleague’s voices and laughter, it was the perfect solution.”
However, in order to make the idea a reality, Day needed the backing of AKQA, which involved approaching creative director Adam Grant about the idea. However, Day says that “he was really supportive”, encouraging her to “go ahead” with the project.
“Our studios are very social environments. Adam agreed that it was imperative to do something meaningful to allow social activities to continue despite social distancing. We agreed that it had to be something everyone could access and feel included in, which is where radio is incredibly powerful.”
Running a company radio station while remote working
While different segments are hosted by AKQA employees around the world, Day and Grant act as the main station managers, overseeing its operations from their respective homes in Australia.
“Adam and I have been working closely on this project. We both work as station managers, encouraging the global AKQA team to contribute content and ensuring a round-the-clock program of music and talkback,” says Day.
“We’ve always described WFHFM as a community radio station,” adds Grant.
“We’re less interested in having a strong, overarching curatorial vision for the station’s schedule than we are in ensuring that everyone at AKQA feels that they can contribute, either in the form of their own show or in some other way.”
This collaborative approach has resulted in a broad mix of content, which reflects the diversity of interests and talents within the agency, and helps to recapture the culture of the company amid the coronavirus.
“Our content is pretty varied. We’re currently streaming 24hrs a day with talk back segments, interviews, special guests and DJs from Melbourne, Sydney, London, Berlin and San Francisco,” says Day.
“Daily highlights include Barnaby Matthews, the studio’s in-house barista and also singer/songwriter, kicking off the broadcast on ‘Mornings With Barnz’ at 8am AEST.
“Barnz is a complete natural, and on his last show, he played a recording of Felix Lawi (a QA engineer in Melbourne) playing Chopin Fantasie on his piano.
“It’s been so great discovering the hidden talents of colleagues come to life that you wouldn’t usually get to see.”
However, some employees are more apprehensive than others when it comes to broadcasting to their global colleagues.
“As the station has grown, the team have felt a bigger presence of listeners and are a little apprehensive about broadcasting. I have been trying to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and talk into the air, because after all we are in this together and really have nothing to lose,” says Day.
“Everyone is experiencing a sense of vulnerability, but I think it’s important to lean into because you never know what difference you can be making to someone else’s day across the world.”
Capturing company culture amid working from home
While company culture is inevitably impacted by coronavirus-mandated remote working, Grant sees radio as providing a surrogate for the fast-paced in-office environment.
“Radio captures the ambience and shared experience of a busy working environment better than any other medium,” he says.
“It’s less direct and demanding than email or video chat, and because of that, it allows for a different kind of conversation to take place. When you tune in, you become part of the conversation. And when we all tune in together, we become community.”
For Day, it also provides a supportive environment for those feeling isolated.
“Although social distancing is incredibly important to protect staff and inevitably tackle the global pandemic, it can be lonely working from home on your own and not seeing your colleagues on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
“But radio is uniting and bringing our teams together during this tough time. It’s a really innovative and fun way to keep in touch with your colleagues, have fun and stay motivated while working from home.”
Launching a corporate radio station
For other companies considering launching their own corporate radio station, Day’s advice is to “just to it”.
“Know your team, know their skills and empower them to go for it,” she says.
“Going through this process, it has been a pleasure to see a different light of my colleagues come to life and I’ve seen a magnificent side of people I’ve never seen before.
“At first, there is a big sense of apprehension and uncertainty, but it is really about taking a leap of faith and trying something new. If it doesn’t work out, you can always change.”
Grant echoes this recommendation, encouraging companies not to take too rigid an approach.
“Allow the station’s programming and growth to occur naturally,” he says.
“Leave the door open for people to try new things, experiment and build confidence. Keep it fun!”
But given WFH-FM’s success, do the pair anticipate it continuing after lockdown lifts?
“I can definitely see a place for WFH-FM in a post-corona future. These last few weeks have woken us up to the importance of community and informal exchange in the work we do,” says Grant.
“Even when we’re all able to return to the same physical place, there’s something about the spirit of radio that will be hard to walk away from. It’s helped us all to know each other better, and given us a sense of purpose and community in a time where we need those things more than ever.”