“Keywords has been hugely focussed on supporting our employees around the world, throughout this unprecedented time” – How gaming’s most global company is building a better workplace out of the pandemic

Keywords is arguably one of the most global companies in gaming, with studios spread right around the world. Studios that a large proportion of top-tier game developers are relying on at any given time. So its continued operation throughout the pandemic was of interest to many more than just its own board.

And speaking of that board, Keywords also had to deal with the sudden departure of long-serving CEO Andrew Day this year for health reasons. Stepping into his sizable shoes as joint interim CEOs are CFO Jon Hauck and COO Sonia Sedler.

So today we’re talking to Sedler about the pandemic, how Keywords coped with it, the holistic benefits of more flexible and remote working, what a return to the office means, and how the industry can stand up against crunch culture.

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

It’s hard to imagine the amount of effort that’s gone into keeping such a huge operation up and running, tackling the different needs of the wide range of companies under the brand. But in the end it all comes down to the people.

“Keywords has been hugely focussed on supporting our employees around the world, throughout this unprecedented time,” Sedler begins. “The situation is changing all the time and it has taken an enormous amount of coordination and on-going communication by the team, to ensure we are doing everything we can, to get our people the help they need, when they need it.”

That help has varied tremendously from country to country and even from individual to individual: “Where possible we have tried to offer consistent support for all our staff, such as the launch of our Keywords relief fund, which was established to provide financial aid to any member of the Keywords family that might have found themselves in difficulties.”

Although at times the company had to take more sweeping measures to ensure its employees’ wellbeing: “When the situation required it, we worked on creating more specific solutions, such as rolling out the vaccines to our employees in India and the Philippines.”

Home working arrangements were organised en masse, and are largely still in place globally today, Selder explains. “Generally, it is only IT staff that are attending the physical office space. We do have some offices where production staff are required to be onsite due to the nature of the projects they are working on, but these are limited and full covid safety measures are in place, as well as providing onsite accommodation in order to minimise the risks from transport.

“It’s been an outstanding effort from diverse teams, throughout the organisation, all pulling together to ensure that every one of our employees across the globe feels valued and supported.”

A SURGE OF EMPATHY

The pandemic has been a huge challenge, so we ask Sedler how Keywords has adapted to cope with everything from lockdowns to employee retention.

“Even in the most difficult situations, if we have the right approach, we can find an opportunity for learning,” says Sedler. “Whilst the pandemic has created additional pressures for each of us, it has also given people a chance to think differently, to recognise what is important to them and in many cases, to re-prioritise themselves.

“The unexpected outcome of the Covid crisis appears to be that people are now putting their health and wellbeing at the top of their to-do list, which is having a significant impact on their choice of employer,” she explains.

“Many industries have seen mass migrations from roles at all levels and we have taken note, even-though we have not been directly impacted.” The so-called ‘great resignation’ has certainly been widely reported, though whether it’s just 18 months of bottled up job moves coming at once, or something more systemic, is yet
to be seen.

“As we’ve seen this shift unfold, at Keywords we have had the opportunity to consider our employee value proposition, to really take time to think about what our people want from the organisation they work for… Our people are our greatest asset, so we are focused on creating an environment where they can collaborate to create innovative solutions for our customers, whether this is in person or virtually.”

And that new environment will have to continue to serve the needs of clients, which Sedler is confident it has done to date. “We have proved that we can be truly global in our approach, as our creative and technical processes have been effective with teams working from home, which has stress tested our model in real time.

“The accelerated and challenging learning curve we have all been exposed to, has opened up potential new operating models that we can build into our future strategies, whilst ensuring we maintain comprehensive information security and meet our customer-defined requirements.”

All that said, Sedler believes the changes go far beyond operational challenges: “I believe the biggest change we have experienced is the level of empathy that we now show one another. We have never checked in on people’s wellbeing as much as we do now and I believe this new-found human connection, in our almost entirely virtual workplace, is one of the most positive outcomes of the pandemic.”

A MORE DIVERSE NORMAL

After what Sedler describes as an “accelerated transition to remote working,” we are now on the edge of returning to the office in some form. And that represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle long-standing system problems within our working environment and culture. An opportunity that Selder is keen to grasp fully.

“Now that we can return, in some regions, to our studios and offices, there is a real opportunity to make use of the investment [in remote working] to expand the diversity of our workforce, as well as offering flexibility to our existing workforce to increase employee engagement and retention.”

To which end Keywords has identified a number of key groups that can benefit from the change:

For starters the upcoming generation will be far more demanding of their employers than any previous: “I’m sure we’ve all heard about Gen Z’s approach to work. We are aware that they are drawn to employers that align with their values, ones that provide a supportive environment that accommodates their lifestyle choices, as well as investing in their development. We believe that offering aspects of home working, will enable us to attract the up-and-coming talent, in a highly competitive market. 

“Another area of diversity that is receiving significant focus, at the moment, is neurodiversity,” Sedler notes. “We know our industry attracts a high percentage of people who suffer from anxiety and depression and home working provides them with an opportunity to add value and create a fulfilling career when they may otherwise be too anxious in a crowded workplace or unable to cope with the travel required to reach the office.”

Working parents are also on Sedler’s list of potential growth areas. “Sometimes the difficulties of balancing the demands of work and family are so great that people opt to leave the workforce entirely. If we are able to provide models of working that enable people to work around family commitments, we believe we will be able to access this lost pool of talent.”

Although not just parents could benefit, with more varied patterns of working potentially appealing to other lapsed groups too:

“We are very committed to positively impacting the community and an approach we are looking into is that by offering part-time working or flexible hours, we may be able to attract a wider group of individuals, for example those who wish to pursue other interests such as volunteering or have carer responsibilities.”

And that could extend to “individuals with mobility issues, disabilities or other conditions that limit their ability to work a full working day or week, but still have creative or technical talents that could bring great value to our customers,” Sedler adds.

“We recognise that people are our greatest asset and by widening the talent pool through a more flexible approach to working, will enable us to become an employer of choice.”

FLEXIBLE BENEFITS

Flexible working won’t just improve diversity, though. “We often hear that employees are driving the agenda around maintaining flexible working arrangements,” says Sedler, “but the benefits can be far-reaching.”

“There is a financial aspect to this model,” she begins. “With substantial cost savings from reduced travel and no more eating on the go, as well as the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends, as you reclaim the time previously spent commuting,” something that most of us have already seen.

“But I think it’s worth considering the additional benefits that may result from this model. We know a more engaged and motivated workforce will correlate with increased productivity, employee engagement and retention, which is critical in an industry where creative talent is in short supply.

“By creating an exciting employee value proposition, you are more likely to attract and retain employees thereby reducing churn with the associated hiring costs and learning curve lag. Not to mention the potential impact on estates and facilities of having a reduced on-site workforce,” she notes.

“Moving beyond the organisation to consider the wider positive impact of flexible working, it’s worth noting that through including flexible working in your portfolio of operating models, it will allow you to build a workforce which is more representative of the external community, a more inclusive employee offering as well as the reduced carbon footprint resulting from limited travel,” serious considerations for the biggest employees going forward.

“So even though many have identified the drive for flexible working, as an employee led initiative, it can really be a win-win-win, for employee, employer and environment.”

OUT OF SIGHT…

The acceleration in take up of remote working will bring many benefits then, but is Sedler concerned about potential pitfalls too? For example, will employers be able to take proper care of their employees when they rarely, or never, see them in real life?

“There have always been legal responsibilities for companies around their employee’s health, safety and welfare, but the pandemic has really highlighted the need to consider how far these duties may reach. People have gone through one of the most stressful and frightening periods of their lives and as an employer we have a responsibility to check in on people regularly to make sure that they are coping.

“We know from recent studies looking into employee’s expectations, that people’s perception of the role of their employer has changed. There has been a real shift in how much support they believe they should be offered and how far reaching this is, including aspects of their life such as their kids, their health and their financial security.

“We are responding to this by incorporating more wellbeing initiatives and ensuring we have an open and honest culture where people are able to raise a flag when they are struggling, or when there is an important issue to be addressed.

“The informal face to face interactions we once took for granted now need to be scheduled in our diaries and there is a risk of these being pushed back, especially in an environment where we are all under pressure to meet challenging deadlines. But this really is essential. Throughout his period our HR teams have been on hand to keep us on track and make sure we are taking the time, at all levels in the organisation, to check that we are prioritising our people.”

GLOBAL DIFFERENCES

Prioritising people is a good idea, but what if those people all want different things. Keywords, due to its global nature, has employees working in varied cultures around the world, so how does it affect their outlook?

Sedler is quick to praise the team: “At KWS we are very lucky to have such resilient and adaptable teams, across the globe. We are incredibly proud of the way our people have responded to the challenges that we have all faced. They adapted quickly and effectively to the changing demands of the pandemic and continued to deliver outstanding service to our customers throughout.

“Working from home has proved to be very effective and we know the majority of staff are keen to continue in some form of hybrid home and office arrangement but their enthusiasm for this is ultimately dependent on individual circumstances rather than geographical location. However, at all times, we will have to balance our employee’s lifestyle choices with the requirements of our customers, so we know the return to the office is coming for some of our teams, in response to customer requests and in compliance with local guidelines.”

We’re similarly intrigued more generally about Keywords’ company culture, and how it maintains it within such a huge and disparate organisation.

“A single culture is about a shared set of values and behaviours and I believe if these are focused around trust, collaboration and inclusion then they are equally applicable in all regions.

“Respecting cultural norms is something I am enormously passionate about. I believe that by creating an open and inclusive culture, we will be able to give all our people, and by default our organisation, the best opportunity to thrive.

“All our studios are aligned to the KWS value proposition, while still maintaining their own cultural identity, like our Lakshya Studio that celebrates Diwali, our European studios that don’t work during the feast of St. John, as well as our American studios that celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. All individual cultural experiences that are part of our approach to positively embracing individuality to create a more global and inclusive culture for Keywords.”

And Sedler is keen to recognise how our work and home lives have collided during the pandemic: “At this time particularly, we feel that it is essential to acknowledge the enormous impact of the pandemic, on both a personal and professional level.

“Our home lives and working lives have been forced to co-exist. The impact has been different in each and every household, with every one of us dealing with our own unique challenges. We recognise now more than ever, that the culture of our organisation is key.

“As many of us are not in the workplace, surrounded by our peers, it is our collective sense of values and behaviours that keeps us aligned. To re-enforce this even further, we have launched a global programme, to refresh our culture and ensure that it is relevant and representative of our diverse community.”

CRUNCHING DOWN

Part of that future-ready organisation must be ready to tackle the ongoing issue of crunch culture within the games industry.

While the discourse was once focused on western developers, more recent concerns are around the ‘outsourcing of crunch’ to studios overseas. So how can our industry combat a problem that pervades so many parts of our globalised economy?

“I believe this is a really important issue and for me it’s about remaining accountable end-to-end,” replies Sedler. “It’s essential to recognise that we are an interconnected ecosystem. In today’s external development environment and the inherently integrated nature of our work, Keywords are inextricably linked to our clients and associated studios, creating an extended virtual team. So, if we simply outsource the crunch to someone or somewhere else, it doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves it off our list of issues and simply transmits the problem to someone else.

“I believe we have a responsibility to maintain a conscious approach to our entire delivery chain, and not one that ignores the aspects that we are uncomfortable with or those that are simply no longer in our direct line of sight.

“I really feel that the only way to overcome this is with a more integrated approach, choosing to work with studios who are aligned to our values, studios that treat everyone who contributes to the production of the games with respect, not just the ones under the KWS banner. If we act collectively and call out this issue, we have the best chance of addressing it.”

And we look forward to seeing some of that collective action around the time you read this, as the annual External Development Summit will be taking place (virtually) from the 14th to the 17th of September, and the issue is on the agenda.

Ensure that issue is being properly addressed, though, and the future is looking pretty bright for the many, many thousands of creative outsourcers around the world. Demand for their talents continues to grow, and flexible working should improve their lives and further boost their numbers.

And that’s great news, because without them the industry would be up the creek without a paddle. Or, more relevantly maybe, in a locked room, with untextured walls, without a key to get out.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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