From furloughing and forced home-working to four-day weeks and foraging, lockdown has been a wild ride for some of our customers.

Businesses across the world have been forced to change — and fast — in response to the coronavirus pandemic. For some the changes have been radical, with a sudden need to introduce home-working and furloughing staff, while others found themselves almost corona-proof with remote working and video calls already the order of the day.

We asked a few of our customers how they’ve been affected by coronavirus and the lockdown measures which have been put in place — and while there’s been a fair bit of pain along the way, it’s not all bad news.

(Interviews took place using video or voice calls when lockdowns were at their most stringent.)

The bad stuff

We might as well dive right in and talk about what collateral damage this ‘orrible virus has left in its wake.

For Stasher co-founder Jacob Wedderburn-Day, there was little choice but to shut up shop and wait for the storm to pass: “About 80% of the places on our [luggage storage] network had to close due to lockdown. We thought about keeping things running with those that remained, but this was soon abandoned in light of the government’s guidance not to travel unless necessary. So I thought we should just put everything on hold, save money on overhead costs and spend the bare minimum over this period.”

Things were a bit less severe at digital marketing agency Custard, where account manager Chris Stott says there has been a 20% drop in sales: “We’re feeling very fortunate it’s not worse.”

Meanwhile at social media management platform Buffer, team engagement manager Nicole Miller says there’s been a dip in revenue and an increase in customer churn, prompting the team to be “careful when forecasting and planning for every avenue that could come about”.

As for digital agency Abstrakt, account director Lauren Swarbrick is not sugar-coating the truth:

“Not going to lie, the first four weeks of lockdown were tough, in all respects."

"New business development opportunities fell off a cliff; proposals didn’t convert and new leads all but stopped.”

As you might have expected, it’s hardly been an easy ride, regardless of the nature of your business.

Juggling. (Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash)

Stay at home, save lives

Alongside everyone suddenly needing to buy 10kg of pasta and enough toilet roll to see them through to 2023, a sudden push on working from home took hold as people abandoned their conventional workplaces.

Those already set up for remote working probably breathed a sigh of relief at this point. At Buffer it’s the only way they know — the team is entirely made up of home-workers. “We were already working remotely,” Nicole says, “but we have also changed quite a few things."

"We don’t expect productivity to be the same and we have encouraged people to take the time off they need. It’s hard to worry about coding when you don’t have any food in house.”

At Custard the switch to home-working was relatively smooth thanks to an unfortunate water ingress event a few years ago. Chris says: “We were ahead of the wave so we were set up weeks before the government guidance came out. In 2015 we were unfortunate enough to experience a flood at our office which resulted in a total loss of computer equipment and furniture. Fortunately all our data was already cloud-based, but the other adaptations we were forced to made back then in terms of comms and operations have made our shift to home working very straightforward.”

I suspect they weren’t too appreciative of the flood at the time, though.

At Abstrakt, Lauren says some adaptation was needed as working from home became essential: “As an employer we work hard to be as flexible as possible and to offer opportunities for ad-hoc homeworking if and as required, no questions asked. But we’ve never been in the situation before where the whole team is remote working, so this is a whole different kettle of fish!"

"As with all businesses, it was vital for us to find new ways of working, in order to deliver on projects when we couldn’t be together, and fast."

"We all started working from home indefinitely from Monday 23 March — and at the same time introduced flexible working hours, so the team could work whenever they wished.”

It’s a similar story for Jacob and the Stasher team: “We weren’t very remote before lockdown, but now we’re fully remote. I did like everyone to be in the office, but there were no strict policies around this. Working from home has been a revelation for me, I wouldn’t say I was sceptical, but I wouldn’t have opted to put the company remote without something like this.”

Working from home, the Abstrakt way. (Abstrakt)

Monitoring wellbeing at home

While businesses have faced major upheaval, the same is true of people’s lives. If you’ve been lucky enough not to fall ill with the virus, you’ve still been faced with arduous grocery shopping and the struggle of juggling work with home life at the same time — a situation made even more difficult if you have children who can’t go to nursery or school.

Jacob says keeping an eye on staff wellbeing at Stasher has been one of the biggest challenges of remote working. “It’s one of the things I have struggled with the most."

"You can read people’s moods in the office, but remotely you can’t get much of a feel for how someone is doing from small soundbites and brief videos.”

Nicole at Buffer might have the answer though. “An important thing is the manager showing vulnerability, so people don’t feel alone. We expect each team mate to be honest with themselves and the company, be proactive and communicate a lot, and block out time on their calendar to make expectations clear of when they can work. Then it’s a case of reiterating the message, it’s too easy to send something once and forget about it.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs and we’re trying to recognise that. We use a traffic-light system to gauge how people are feeling, most of us are on yellow. We are offering more group support in Slack, including a parenting group to help out those balancing work with looking after children.”

At Custard, it seems it’s been a relatively smooth transition. Chris says: “We’ve offered individuals any reasonable comforts they might require to make working from home as easy as possible, and exercise and annual leave have been encouraged. We arranged for a surprise custom cake to be delivered to one of the team for their birthday the other week, which was very well received!”

The importance of looking after people has also been a high priority at Abstrakt: “One of the things we realised early on is that each team member has their own individual set of challenges, and generally these challenges aren't directly work-related,” Lauren says.

“Whether it’s dealing with complete isolation, learning to focus in the face of lots of distractions, or getting to grips with juggling home-schooling with full-time work, helping the team to overcome these personal challenges was actually the most important thing we could do to help our team thrive and therefore our business survive during lockdown."

“Maintaining staff wellbeing has been super hard. Not being able to see each other is really taking its toll on us all emotionally. A lack of routine, especially work and gym, is also wreaking havoc with some of us. It’s hard as an employer as there is nothing we can do to resolve those challenges.

“We’re just trying to be as flexible with the team — and their time — as possible. If they want to take the afternoon off to go for a bike ride while it’s sunny they know they can just go for it and make it up later. Not everyone can be productive 9–5 at home, so it’s about giving each individual the freedom to work in the way that is best for them and their situation. For us as employers, it’s about trusting our team and valuing productivity not time.

“We have all been through a rollercoaster of emotions through this period, but it’s hit some of our team harder than others. Individual circumstances play such a big part in how people are coping. But even with the struggles there are some positives, too.”

Ah yes, the positives. It’s not all bad news being stuck at home and not being allowed to go anywhere, you know. Did I really just write that?

I'm good thanks, how are you? (Buffer)

Good things are happening, too

Jacob at Stasher reckons he’s probably the healthiest he’s even been during lockdown: “I’m getting loads of sleep and exercise and I’ve, er, become hooked on playing chess online.”

The Stasher team have been nurturing their interests too, including one chap who has taken a foraging course and made his lunch from things he has discovered outside.

At Abstrakt, relationships among the team have grown in unexpected ways. “We're talking lots; in groups in our morning and afternoon coffeetime and individually in one-on-one chats. As well as lifting each others’ spirits and keeping morale high, we're learning more about each other. We can see each others’ homes in our daily video chats, we're seeing each others’ families in the background, we're hearing more about each others’ hobbies and passions and we're sharing our hopes, goals and dreams for when all this is done and dusted."

"I personally am finding new ways to connect with team members, which is hugely rewarding and highly valuable.”

“We're finding that there are lots of benefits, too. More flexibility, no commuting, spending more time with loved ones, a better work/life balance, pursuing hobbies and even just being still and enjoying the slower pace of life. Not to mention eating and drinking less rubbish, and saving load of money.”

At Custard, the video-call quiz trend has made its presence felt, among other things: “We’re doing more structured team activities such as quizzes or talking through clients in more detail. Staff are enjoying lie-ins and more free time due to lack of commuting. This has been a good acid test for home working, which we expect to make greater use of once things return to ‘normal’.

The four-day week

With everything up in the air, lockdown has brought an opportunity to try new things. The four-day week is a concept frequently pondered in the UK, but there always seems to be something holding us back from giving it a proper go.

At Buffer, the four-day week has been adopted with relative ease, with people taking either Wednesday or Friday off for a midweek break or a weekend extension, carefully balanced across the company to make sure no department is left short.

Nicole says:

“We introduced a four-day working week to help with the day-to-day stress of life at the moment. People have mostly been using the time to do other projects and spend time with their families.”

For Jacob, the four-day week was a long-held curiosity and he’s finally taken the plunge and rolled it out at Stasher. “Before the furlough scheme came about we brought in the four-day week to save costs,” he says. “I’ve been loving it! Though I must admit I haven’t been too strict on it myself, as Fridays have proven to be a good time for getting on with things while it’s quiet.”

Don’t forget the time off!

These are particularly strange times for taking time off. You’re working from home, leaving the house is at an all-time low, holiday plans are cancelled, and for many there’s not much more you can do if you’ve got the day off. Or is there?

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the days where I could leave the laptop folded up and have get more involved at home, whether that’s quality time with my son or finally getting round to painting that sodding fence.

Lauren at Abstrakt says they’re still using Timetastic in the same way: “Time is still being booked off — it generally is shorter periods being requested now though — long weekends around a birthday for example. Some holidays have inevitably been cancelled and the team have used the tool to remove that previously allocated leave at a click of the button.”

Jacob at Stasher says Timetastic was “such good value” he didn’t consider getting rid of it during his cost-cutting raid at the start of lockdown.

“We’re still using Timetastic and we’ve not had to change any settings. I haven’t had to worry about it, really.”

At Buffer, Nicole says they’ve used Timetastic to track time off during the four-day week, but they’re otherwise encouraging annual leave as keenly as before. “We still want to encourage vacations,” she says. “I love it when people come back and share their experiences, good or bad. Some have taken a whole week off and said how liberating it was, and how it put their mind to rest.”

Looking ahead

Having responded incredibly well to the pandemic — not that they had much choice in the matter — attention turns to what’s coming next. In the UK we’re now enjoying the start of a relaxation on lockdown, but there’s still a long way to go before everything’s back to normal and we can stand close to other people without feeling all dirty.

I’ll end on a few inspiring words from Lauren at Abstrakt, who is definitely looking on the bright side of life:

“I think there is a lot we can learn from all of this and take forward to live healthier, better, more balanced lives after lockdown.”

Further reading

If you want to find out more about the awesome companies who have shared their experiences with me in the creation of this story, check out these other posts on our blog: