The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing country-wide lockdown has forced most of the industry out of our offices, and away from our colleagues and teams, in order to work remotely.
For many of us, this is our first experience of working from home for an extended period of time – and for some, the first time ever. At the time of writing we have just hit the one month point of the UK lockdown, and many teams are still adjusting to the new challenges presented by this unprecedented situation.
Even for those more experienced with remote work, the lockdown still brings unexpected roadblocks to ensure that the team remains productive, and just as importantly, in good spirits.
In short, the current climate is one that relies heavily on effective team management – while making that task more difficult than ever.
So we jump on to Zoom (other providers are available) to get an understanding of how the industry is coping while we’re all separated from one another, and to get advice on how best to effectively manage a team during this crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the current climate is proving a toll on people’s mental health. Between the increasingly distressing headlines as the crisis develops and the loneliness that comes with social distancing – alongside the added stress of economic meltdown – taking care of your team’s wellbeing is more important than ever.
With face to face chats off the table, how is the industry making sure its workers stay happy and healthy? First stop, we ask someone who’s ahead of the curve.
“Since we were a primarily remote studio before the pandemic hit, we already had quite a lot of remote pastoral care practises in place” says Roll7 founder and director, Simon Bennett. “For the past few months, for example, we have been offering to pay for subscriptions to Headspace [a mindfulness and meditation app] for anyone at Roll7 who wants it – quite a few of our team have taken us up on this offer, and had been using and finding it helpful even before the lockdown.
“Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been focusing on checking in with people more often, and encouraging people to be more open about challenges that we may be facing with mental and physical health in the current environment. Cultivating a workplace culture where people are able to talk about the things they are struggling with is especially important in the current circumstances because so many of us are likely to be going through a period of increased stress.”
This period of increased stress means maintaining ‘business as normal’ is an enormous challenge for many, and managers need to be on-hand to provide direct mental health support.
“We’re living in extraordinary circumstances and we’ve found it important to remind ourselves and employees that we are doing our best to live and work in a pandemic,” adds Kate Lindsay, head of HR at Splash Damage.
“One of the structures we’ve created and implemented is weekly ‘wellbeing check-ins’ for managers and their reports, where employees have access to a simple temperature check-in bar which helps them to indicate and identify how they are feeling and share that with their manager. There are also a series of conversation starter questions for reports to engage with which makes it easier to have mental health and wellbeing conversations.”
While these wellbeing check-ins are unquestionably important, it’s also necessary to maintain the social connections key to a happy team, as Caroline Miller, co-founder and managing director of Indigo Pearl explains.
“We’re a small team and have always fostered a family feel within the company. We have a daily video every morning to check in to see how we’re all doing, what work everyone has on for the day, and how we can help share workload if needed.
“We have weekly social meet-ups via video so everyone can let off any lockdown steam and have a drink together – we even dressed up for a night in at the BAFTA Games Awards!”
Maintaining these social connections is vital not only from a wellbeing standpoint, but also to ensure teamwork remains solid throughout the team.
“We do miss having those face-to-face meetings,” says Mark Cooke, CEO of developer Shiny Shoe. “Both from a human connection perspective but also from the ad-hoc conversations that happened regarding the games we are developing.
“Process-wise what we’ve done to try to address this is simply schedule more recurring meetings, most daily, on a per-project basis. That forces us to all get on a call and talk as a team.”
The lack of face-to-face interaction has the knock-on effect of making it a challenge to fully integrate new hires to the team. Even for studios used to remote work, such as Roll7, the inability to have regular face-to-face team meetings has presented a challenge.
“In order to combat this,” says Roll7’s Bennett, “we’ve focused on two key areas. Firstly, we have reiterated a clear rule that all online meetings must be done via video rather than voice call – it’s not the same as being face-to-face, but it certainly does help people to feel connected and to make genuine social connections.
“Secondly, we’ve been making sure that we take time to do fun activities as a whole team – for example, last week we held a virtual pub quiz in the afternoon, which was a great chance for people from all disciplines to catch up with or get to know one another.”
Protecting your team’s mental health often means addressing practical concerns that can exacerbate the stress of working from home. It’s important to remember that many of us aren’t alone while working from home – but now facing the dual challenges of juggling our work alongside increased childcare concerns.
“Many of us are suddenly having to handle the logistical difficulties of having to homeschool children, care for sick family members, or juggle multiple housemates all suddenly working from home” adds Roll7’s Bennett. “All of these things have a significant practical and emotional impact that can be really tough to deal with without the right support.”
“Because of this, the biggest formal change we have made since the outbreak began has been allowing parents and carers a significantly more flexible working schedule.
“We already offer somewhat flexible hours, but in the current circumstances it seemed sensible to increase this flexibility, so that everyone is able to manage work and potential new home responsibilities in the way that best suits them.
“Members of our team are now able to take longer lunches, and can start earlier or finish later in order to fit their work hours around the changing needs of their families and households.”
Naturally, maintaining business as usual means more than managing your staff’s mental health. With many teams now working separately for the first time, how do you best ensure that deadlines are still met, without sacrificing on quality?
“There was a bit of initial impact as we pivoted to everyone working from home,” says Sav Fileccia, production director at Mediatonic, “mainly down to hardware setup, downloading large repositories at home, ensuring we have the right license setup and acclimatisation.
“Some problems have required creative solutions, such as availability of specific hardware to recreate bugs, but thankfully nothing too impactful so far.
“Complex software engineering projects are never error free but code reviews, dev QA support and the teams playing the game are all standard practices we have adopted over the years ensuring seamless working for those not located with the main team.
“Due to our distributed development across four studio locations, this is something we’ve had to work really hard at in recent years as errors generated by a team in one timezone can potentially bring down a team in another time zone for a full working day”
“At the time of moving everyone to a remote working set-up we could only ensure we were as prepared as we could be, and to make clients aware it was business as usual.” adds Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “I cannot praise the teams enough. They have 100 per cent taken working from home in their stride. Communication with clients and journalists has remained unchanged.”
Of course, while procedures may be in place to ensure a team can still work together while they’re forced to be apart, the obvious human angle can still be a hindrance. Beyond just the anxiety of the current climate, those not used to working from home are struggling to stay focused on the task at hand.
“It’s easy to become distracted when working from home,” adds Splash Damage’s Lindsay. “Given the current pandemic it’s even more of a challenge for most. Self-motivation, morale boosts and understanding goals are three key components to ensuring working from home and team collaboration are successful. It’s important to regularly check in with each other and offer support and help along the way.”
MEET AND GREET
It’s important to note that, for larger teams, ensuring the wellbeing and productivity of your staff is an increased challenge while working remotely. You need to be able to gauge the mood of each individual team member – and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard on a group Zoom call can be a tall order.
“While we miss having the chance to all get together and play the latest build in person,” notes Roll7’s Bennett, “in some ways having our play sessions move to a totally remote format has been beneficial to the quality of feedback we’re able to get from our team. Rather than being given verbally in person (which tends to encourage people to minimise criticisms or constructive feedback), we now write up our feedback and submit it.
“This encourages people to give more nuanced and detailed responses to the latest build – and because it is all written we can anonymise it and ensure that everyone’s feedback is weighted equally when it comes to deciding what to keep or to change”
“For HR related feedback, we have just moved to using Officevibe, which allows us to send out surveys with anonymised responses, so we can check in on everyone’s wellbeing without putting people on the spot.”
Roll7 isn’t alone in finding some areas have actually become easier to manage while working remotely, as Mediatonic’s Fileccia states:
“As we have grown and team sizes have increased, we’ve purposefully split teams on a feature basis to ensure we don’t have huge meetings that will intimidate more introverted members of the team.
“On top of that, the producers and leads see it as a large part of their role to be approachable and encourage people to voice their concerns. We’ve actually found that working from home in some instances has improved things for some people, as they have their own mic.”
Of course, ensuring that everyone is heard is important – which often means making sure that a lone voice isn’t being buried under their louder colleagues.
“Not getting the chance to speak, or not feeling that you are being heard when you do, can be deeply demoralising” adds Splash Damage’s Lindsay. “Especially if it happens time and again. If we don’t manage those employees who are not being heard, those feelings of frustration, demotivation and powerlessness can spill over into their productivity. We want to ensure all voices are heard so we are not losing out on any knowledge and experience every employee has.
“A good way of doing this is ensuring you are building confidence with each of your employees – that could be giving kudos in group meetings when they have performed well, mentioning that the more “quiet employees” came up with a good idea recently and would they like to share it with the group… or simply asking employees ‘what do you think?’ even if you already know the answer.
“If employees are in a meeting, it’s because they have something to offer and that their contribution is valuable. So, it’s important that managers know how to reinforce this through meetings and don’t let one person dominate.”
Aspects of the games industry may be benefitting in some ways from the current crisis, but the growing pains of the strange transitional period we’re in will be felt by teams for some time, with no immediate signs of this lockdown ending any time soon. But with effective management, companies will be able to adapt for as long as this lasts.
With special thanks to Caspar Field for his input on this topic. The former Wish Studios CEO is now providing management consultancy, contact http://talk.management