It was mid-March 2020 when many businesses in Australia had to shift their workforce into a remote, working from home situation. Schools soon followed suit and we saw many venues, restaurants and small businesses no longer able to accept patrons and customers.
Months later, many business leaders are planning the arduous and painstaking task of working toward the office return. We spoke with Renece Brewster, the CEO of Australia’s largest in-house video production company,Visual Domain, to find out the impact on business, how they plan on tackling the return to the office and easing the inevitable anxieties their team may face.
The rollercoaster first hit Visual Domain with intensity in March. Over 7 days the company saw its forecasted revenue plummet by 75%. It was the worst possible timing. The company was tracking its highest growth in revenue since being founded in 2008. But when is there a good time for a global financial crisis to hit?
Many top tier clients were significantly impacted, lowering their marketing and advertising budgets overnight, which had a knock-on effect on their need for video content. With more than 75 full-time staff split over the Eastern Seaboard of Australia, Renece and her team went into severe damage control.
“We started to prepare for the grim reality of what a 75% loss of revenue can do to a company. We wanted to hang on as long as we could without losing any people.”
A lot of the company's clients had been significantly impacted financially.
As the video production company for many large scale events, national airlines and sporting clubs a lot of Visual Domain’s existing plans came to a standstill. Renece said that the team had to pivot their offerings significantly to maintain their client base and offer support where they could.
“We understood the need for communicating and content would return and be critical. We could see it wasn’t just us who were hurting. Thankfully, we were in a position to help affected companies communicate with the added bonus of keeping our team busy,” she said.
They launched a series of free video tools to aid clients with the most severe budget cuts and new packages at heavily discounted rates. They recognised that the status quo had shifted and large scale production was less achievable for many clients, who started to send in raw content filmed on iPhones for editing.
“It is very fortunate that Visual Domain has roots in the startup world. Without agility or innovation, our quick speed to react would not have been possible,” Renece reflected.
Barely any of the company’s staff worked from home pre-COVID.
Certain logistical nightmares of running a professional video production company lie in the file size of raw videos. They are gigabytes upon gigabytes, so the option to send via the cloud from a home internet connection is unrealistic. It can take days.
Renece illustrated the complexity of the situation: “We do 50-100 videos a week, so we had to get an understanding of our team’s national geo footprint, and do it fast. We were working out how to legally drop files off. It was a huge logistical nightmare we’ve never had to worry about before.”
Interestingly the pandemic has highlighted that the company tended to keep their communication on a very “state-based” level between departments and roles. With all meetings moving to an online format, these are now held at a national level, leading to conversations and connections that wouldn't’ have previously existed.
In this circumstance, Renece believed that transparency and “over-communication” was the key to keeping everyone on board. “Our approach has been to over-communicate. I personally promised to send a daily email and I’m currently on email 62. I want my team to know what’s going on,” said Renece.
With so many livelihoods at stake, the leadership team has gone to great lengths to try and support everyone’s personal, very human situation. The reality that switching off from work can be hard when working and schooling kids hasn’t been lost on anyone. The introduction of a wellness program in February couldn’t have been more fortuitous timing.
The wellness program during a remote time of Covid-19 looks like various team fitness and physical challenges, free online classes, a nutritionist available on a live stream to share healthy recipes and a team bake-off. The team has gone even further and created online clubs/groups. They share cocktail and recipe ideas, pet antics and what their binging on Netflix (just to name a few).
“The team was looking for a human connection. They really missed the cultural aspect of relating to each other in a non-work sense. We’ve been working hard to foster that community,” she said.
Understandably moving back into an office after months in isolation will be a trying situation. However, to maintain the quick turnaround speed of high-quality video, the company does need much of the team back in the office. The team is planning a staggered return to the office in July/August so that they don’t have a large crowd all at once into the office.
To make the transition a little easier, the company will keep track of sentiment with return to work surveys, have anonymous mental health services available and will continue transparent and open communication.
“We’ve been isolated for longer than a habit takes to form, it’s going to be hard to break that and understandably people are worried about their health and safety,” Renece said.
“Culture is everything in a service business if our people aren’t happy, safe and supported they won’t function and we can't expect them to do so.”
We asked Renece to reflect on the isolation period and what leadership lessons lay within. She noted that “It was important that the team regularly heard from her. It was important that they heard real honesty from a leader, I was proud to take that on.”
The experience encouraged Renece to reflect on the lack of routine in her home life in comparison to working life. Having to homeschool her children meant bringing some office management strategies into the home.
“Having a routine at home and work has made it easier for us to work together. I’ve been doing schedules for my kids at home so they know what to work on. That said… I’m so glad that school’s back.”
We asked Renece to offer advice to other business leaders to get through the next 6-12 months.
It is so important to have realistic, human-centred expectations about the return. Returning to the office is going to be an anxious time. We have no option but to adapt. Instead of saying “we have to get back to normal” consider asking what normal now looks like? Can the team work from home more often? What does communication look like now? How can you ease people back into an office and be kind to different reactions?
Visual Domain is putting their energy into planning 90 days ahead. The team can celebrate goals as they hit them which can be adjusted with agility if need be. They are focusing on what is currently within arms reach.
“In some ways as a startup founder, I was ready for COVID. As a founder, you’re constantly dealing with whatever comes your way. We are leaning into what has to happen, and what is uncomfortable as a way to maintain perspective.” - Renece Brewster, CEO & Co-Founder of Visual Domain.
Thank you so much for your generous sharing of information and bold leadership Renece. We can’t wait to see the continued success of your fantastic company and team.
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TRIGGER WARNING. Commentary around workplace violence and rape.