Lessons in leading through a crisis

Coronavirus is the biggest challenge we’ve faced in a generation.  Over the past six months, some organisations and leaders have stepped up to meet that challenge head-on; protecting their people, their customers and their livelihoods.

Passion Inc is sharing their stories to help others and are delighted that Axis Studios and its Chief Operations Officer Paul Mackman have agreed to feature in our first story.

Paul is no stranger to drama. Over the course of his career he’s been part of overseeing the productions of SEGA’s Aliens vs Predator, Disney’s John Carter, and Netflix’s Love Death & Robots. This time, however, the threat to life was real.

Paul remembers the moment when the penny dropped.  “It was late in the evening on 10th March, the day before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. In the preceding weeks

and months, I’d followed the news and talked with family, friends and colleagues about the spread of the virus, the risks involved and what we could do to prepare.”

“I guess we were all still hoping it would be contained, but that night I had this clear realisation we needed to take things to the next level.”  The next day, the World Health Organisation declared that coronavirus was a pandemic.

Paul’s first priority was ‘how do we keep people safe?’  And then, ‘how do we keep people working securely?’

“Our people are by far the most valuable thing, but they can’t do any work without the IT infrastructure, which is very specialised.”

A further challenge was ensuring everything was secure – Axis Studios are working on some major productions for major distributors, broadcasters and games studios. And so the security of ideas, content and data is paramount.  “Especially over the past 5 years, the need to meet stringent security standards in the games, animation and VFX industries has been increasingly important, and one of the major obstacles to large scale remote working.”

So, what did you do?

“First up, we took steps to move people off-site earlier than we needed to.  We did that for two reasons – one, because we thought it was the best thing for the safety of our people, and two, by acting earlier than needed we’d be in a position of being ready if the decision was taken out of our hands.”

In the Glasgow studio, Axis’ senior leaders asked people to either work from home if they could or take a bonus day’s holiday if they couldn’t. This allowed the senior team to take the whole day to plan how to manage.

“The good news is, we’re a company that’s built on solving technical problems. The challenge was to act quickly and at scale. We’ve had various remote working technologies in play for a while, but we were all very impressed with some of the additional tricks that our Head of IT, Peter, had up his sleeve or brought to bear at relatively short notice.”

With plans in place, Axis’ leadership brought just half the studio back the following week and those who could work from home more easily were asked to do so.  A week later, lockdown was announced in the UK.  “By then we were ready to send everyone home.  In just under two weeks we had transitioned from having almost no-one working from home to fully remote model across the studios group. The power of necessity never fails to impress me.”

Such decisive and swift action was recognised by employees through a recent Axis Engagement Survey.  People responded that Axis has handled the crisis “EXCEPTIONALLY WELL. AXIS really took it up a notch to ensure our safety and the projects’ deadlines”.  Another commented “I honestly think the response has saved lives and I congratulate the Senior Team, IT and everyone else that made it happen.”

A shift in focus

Having solved the technical challenges, the longer term game shifted from servers and internet connections to hearts and minds. “I think although some people really enjoy working from home, others are really missing the studios.  To improve morale and keep everyone engaged, it’s more important than ever that we connect with people.”

Communication had always been important, but now it was critical.  “Before lockdown, we brought everyone together once a month for a screening of the latest work and updates on the studios. Now we have a town hall every week, where we update everyone on the latest developments across the studios, including the latest creative work. The use of video conferencing has a democratising effect, which means everybody has the opportunity to speak or ask questions.”

“I’m not sure we would have been able to convince people to commit to such regular screenings before lockdown but it’s been kind of amazing in terms of the impact it’s had on people’s engagement, connection and well-being.”

The power of giving people a voice

Axis ran its first engagement survey in 2019.  “The results provided insight that helps us put the right initiatives in place and this also helped us when we faced the challenges posed by the virus.”  Keen to review progress and check-in with people at the height of lockdown, Paul deployed a follow up survey.

“Passion Inc supported us in running the survey and presenting the results.  They facilitated virtual breakout discussions about the issues that mattered most to people.  The feedback was great.  I think people appreciated having the opportunity to discuss ideas openly and the whole experience seems to have enhanced the sense of ‘team’ and made people aware of the support that is available.”

Breaking free

As you might expect from an entertainment studio, Axis also used their creative talents to raise spirits during lockdown.  “We formed a band last year as part of our 20th anniversary celebrations and performed live on stage.  So, me and the guitar player started thinking that we could maybe do a lockdown single.  We roped in the keyboard player to produce and our singer, who had only been with the studio a few months, did the video.  We incorporated people’s working from home videos into it, so it’s a really great testament to the studio.  There was a huge response to the single, not least because so many people were in it, from leadership to new recruits.”

And, the song?  ‘I Want To Break Free’ by Queen, of course, complete with costumes and Freddie moustaches.  Pressed to share a copy, Paul laughs – “That one’s for internal circulation only, I’m afraid.”

What’s next?

The team’s physical well-being is Paul’s number one priority, but culture and community is a close second.  “This whole experience has reminded me what a supportive and collaborative culture we have in the studio.”

As the world grapples with how to bring people back into the office, Paul believes that it is more important than ever to focus on employee engagement and the development of strong people skills.   “The best thing you can do is keep engaging at both a macro and a micro level.  Recognise that people have different needs, and make sure your leaders and managers are able to check-in and support these before they become too big a deal.”

“And keep communicating.  One of the challenges when you are running a big organisation is a sense of isolation, or disconnection. If you send an email or make a presentation, you never know how it lands.  However, if you’re engaging regularly with people, checking in with them and listening to them it can make a real difference.”

“And frankly”, concludes Paul, “it feels good, and it works.

We agree.  In the longer term, when we are out of this crisis, it will be those leaders, like Paul and the team at Axis who connected with employees, who will benefit from greater engagement and performance.  As we adapt to the ‘new norm’, people will remember those who led from the front, gave them a voice and united them through a common purpose.

We hope we’ve inspired you to be one of them.  And if you have a story to tell, get in touch.

#PeoplewithPassion #EmployeeEngagement #Leadership