Can Progressive Management Models Help You to Respond to the Challenges of the Pandemic?

Lockdowns and Emergency Orders have changed the way that everyone does business during the pandemic. Much has been written about how health and safety protocols have impacted the production side of the creative industries. What about the general management of staff who are all now (and may be for some time to come) working from home and juggling remote learning, limited space, isolation and general anxiety from the pandemic? What guidance can producers and studio owners get from newer management techniques such as feminist business practices and people-first business practices?

What Are Progressive Management Practices?

According to CV Harquail, Phd, a consultant and strategist for feminist business practices who is also a mentor with the Fifth Wave Initiative [] at the Canadian Film Centre, feminist business practices and people-first business practices are both two of many progressive management practices that aim to make the work experience more enjoyable and engage the employees more in the operation of the business. People-first is about ensuring that employees are treated fairly and adds that filter to business decisions. Feminist, which is not just about gender but ‘is designed to challenge the dynamics of oppression’ according to Harquail, is people-first by definition but goes further by seeing employees ‘not just as a resource to exploit or support but as complete humans with a voice in what goes on in a company’.  

What does that mean in practical terms? Traditional business practices are about maximizing the bottom line for owners and shareholders. In a pandemic that can mean cutting labour costs as they are generally the most expensive line items in a budget. According to Harquail, a people-first approach will look to share the costs of a downturn across shareholders, suppliers, customers, employees and other stakeholders and engage the employees in the decision-making. A feminist approach takes a look at the community that the business is a part of, engages the employees and asks what all the participants in the community need to survive. ‘Feminist business practices are an opportunity for businesses to take a different attitude. It’s not about survival of the fittest but survival of all of us’ says Harquail. 

‘The pandemic has given us an opportunity to care about each other because we have to look after the community.’

Practical Application Under Pandemic Stresses

I spoke with a round table of video game producers (Evan Jones of Stitch Media, Meagan Byrne of Achimostawinan Games, Miriam Verberg of Bloom Digital and Sasha Boersma of Sticky Brain Studios), who informally support each other (along with other video game producers who were unable to make the call) with advice and shared resources, to ask them how their management of staff has been impacted by the pandemic. In many ways this informal group embodies the feminist business principle of operating their business as a part of a community, but they also consciously practice people-first approaches to management.  

One of the challenges with work from home has been whether to adjust the expectation of work hours away from 9 to 5 in response to the sometimes difficult environments that staff are in. While studios have made different decisions about whether to expect a 9 to 5 work day or allow flexibility, each decision was made prioritizing the team members rather than the bottom line.  Sasha Boersma has had to shift to a flexible approach that takes into consideration the family obligations and pandemic anxiety that team members are dealing with. 

‘As much as I want everyone to go on nine to five we’re all just on the ‘what’s the one thing we need you to do today’ approach’ advises Boersma. 

Evan Jones tried more flexibility, but team members are so interdependent that it created bottlenecks in workflows. ‘We’re sticking pretty close to 9 to 5. I don’t know if it’s working for everyone, but it is working for the team as a whole.’ On the other hand, Megan Byrne is avoiding any assessment of hours by tracking deliverables instead. 

‘Every week something is due but not from everybody’

As owners of small companies, each of these entrepreneurs are both the boss and a team member and that seems to make it easier to be people-first because of the importance of relationships that they have built with fellow team members. As Jones put it ‘with the crazy unknowns of this year, what a business would do is just get down to the leanest meanest machine possible and scale but that just didn’t feel right.’  

Being people-centred can be a struggle since those financial decisions can be harder. ‘It’s like, do you take care of your company and your people first or your finances,’ is the question posed by Miriam Verberg. For Boersma the complex question is ‘How do we pay them well so that they are respected and feel valued, while also not breaking the bank but also making sure that everyone has a quality of life. It is hard and I think that’s why so many places focus on money and fast growth: because it’s easier.’

However, there are business advantages to being people-centred. ‘Your brand isn’t what you say it is but what other people say about you.’ says Jones. ‘The one easily calculated benefit to a people-centred business is that we can usually hire someone more senior for less money because they have figured out that it is not always about the bottom line.’ 

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Photo credit: Unsplash

Effective communication is more essential than ever

Other company owners also had thoughts to share on the topic. Deb Day, CEO of Innovate By Day, has found that one of the biggest current challenges is maintaining effective communication while staff and clients are all working remotely. ‘I find that with isolation there is more room for miscommunication so every email and conversation requires care’, advises Day. ‘It isn’t as easy to read body language even in a video chat. People can be having a hard time right now and that can translate into difficult communication that has nothing to do with you.’ She has instituted a daily check-in with staff that is more than just a ‘how are you?’ but an opportunity for both staff and management to share so that staff understand that management is feeling challenged as well. Meetings are scheduled for shorter lengths but allow for participants to show up early or stay later to have casual conversations. 

After the initial adjustment at the beginning of the pandemic, Day feels that her team is now very productive. There are more distractions (e.g. kids, spouse, pets, chores) but on the other hand there is also no commute, which for some has added one to two hours back into their day. For Day, a people-first approach or a ‘values-based’ approach as she refers to it, means:

‘My first concern is whether my team is safe, healthy and able to work. Second, are we financially solvent so that we can ride this out.’ 

Betty Orr, Head of Production at Saloon Media, has been managing office staff and post-production teams working from home throughout the pandemic. While not explicitly following a ‘people-first’ management style, her approach has been consistent. For example, she has found that post-production work has been approximately 25% slower than normal and rather than push to reduce the excess time she has looked for extra financing to pay for the time and pushed back on partners concerned about deadlines. ‘I’ve found myself saying: I don’t know if you know this, but we’re in a pandemic.’  

Similar to Day, Orr has increased check-ins on people, some of whom were used to working remotely. ‘People can get lost at home and forget that people value what they do. They can overwork themselves because there is nothing else to do.’ Orr worries that ‘staff end up with greater than usual anxiety over getting productions done and delivered and that anxiety needs to be managed.’ She has faith in her producers to manage teams because ‘being a producer is about managing people so increased care comes naturally as they take care of their little ducklings.’ 

While some organizations are hacking and slashing labour costs to weather the pandemic storm or pushing to achieve pre-pandemic efficiency, these producers are examples of those who are prioritizing both their company and their employees so that everyone can benefit from success and survive through to the other side of the pandemic. Harquail describes this approach in a way that many in the creative industries can likely identify with, whether they use progressive management terms or not: ‘We want to make good stuff and make enough money, so we all make money’. 

Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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