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Navigating the new normal: Studio culture in the time of COVID

Mediatonic's Annie Clare details the studio's answer to a critical question: how do you take care of your staff remotely?

Central to every studio's identity is that very particular feeling you get as you walk through the door⁠ -- not only on your first day, but every single day you rock up to work.

In these uncertain times, where a Slack notification counts as a "good morning" greeting, how a studio sustains that sense of 'company culture' is more crucial than ever.

For our people team at Mediatonic (which encompasses HR and people operations), that's centred around nurturing a feeling of inclusivity, fun, and friendliness. And it's fair to say that while we've always been keen to iterate on our approach, it's been an unprecedented challenge navigating the nuances of company culture in the 'new normal'. One that's fraught with frequently changing advice and regulations around lockdown restrictions, but fundamentally pulls our growing teams apart as we adapt to fully remote working.

Mediatonic's Annie Clare

Knowing who we are

Like many studios, our culture is rooted in being together. We had monthly lunches, multiple hobby clubs and innumerate Slack channels spanning everything from heated anime critiques, to fantasy football and the finer points of coffee brewing.

Our Friday 'Show and Tells' organically segued into post-work social gatherings as a perfect weekend send off. Our beloved coffee machines became the meeting point to catch up with our colleagues, to find out if Mediatonic FC had won their football match the night before (spoilers: probably not!), or to laugh about the latest obstacle course we were testing on Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout.

With the pandemic removing our central 'hub', our people team had to face up to a new question: how do we take care of our people remotely?

Spring 2020: Questions and validation

When faced with uncertainty, it is common for many to feel stressed and anxious and we wanted to let our people know that it was okay to feel these things. Like many studios, we've got a situationally diverse team. Everyone has their own environment at home, living with partners, children, flatmates, parents, or alone -- and with that, very different levels of access to traditional support networks.

When looking to address this, we were keen to not treat our work force as homogenous. Our starting point was acknowledging that we're all different and everyone's feelings on what was going on, as they digested news of the early days of the pandemic, were valid.

When looking to address this, we were keen to not treat our work force as homogenous

While we were still together in the studio, facing the looming uncertainty of the first lockdown, the whole HR team took two days to focus solely on meeting with anyone who wanted to talk through the challenges they might face working from home.

A core part of this was leveraging our 'mental health first aiders'; team mates who had been trained to give first response support to those who were struggling. We felt it was crucial to signpost pathways to support as early as possible. It's important to note that we also have a safeguarding officer, whose role encompasses being an avenue for escalation if needed (with the consent of the team mate).

In April 2020, a couple of weeks after lockdown started, we began running Pulse Surveys. These were designed to provide the people team with baseline knowledge about our team mates' state of mind, while letting them know that we were here to listen. We began by asking employees to rate the same two statements in each survey:

  • 'Most of the time, I am happy, hopeful and well'
  • 'Currently, I am able to find a happy balance between my work and my personal life'

Although the surveys were always anonymous, we did provide the option for respondents to list their discipline and project. This gave us enough information to broadly track teams who may need additional support, as well as helping us see the fluctuation of happiness levels over time and address this from a company perspective.

Mediatonic's London team

Summer 2020: Actions speaks louder than words

While spring represented a good start to remote communications and our quest to make sure people's voices were heard, the reality was dawning that lockdown was here for the long term. We realised the need to turn our willingness to listen into something far more tangible.

We started with a new wave of surveys, this time focused on getting a fuller picture of the logistics, resources and levels of support our team mates had access to while working from home. Our studio population is relatively young and we learnt that many were in house shares, with no air conditioning, looking at the same four walls. Creativity, happiness, wellbeing and work/life balance are all incredibly important facets to Mediatonic's culture. We wanted to help, but how?

We concocted a 'comfort allowance' scheme, giving each employee £200 to spend on [making] their home space a more enjoyable place

Examining the survey results, we quickly learnt that many colleagues had significant gaps in their home set-ups. So we swiftly set up a new finance procedure to ensure everyone had the means to embrace working from home, with the company setting aside budget to facilitate requests for desks, chairs, monitors, keyboards, headphones and other components.

Another key learning from the surveys was that the remote environment played a key role in maintaining happiness, beyond simply access to resources. To address this, we concocted a 'comfort allowance' scheme, giving each employee £200 to spend on whatever they felt would make their home space a more enjoyable place to be. I do believe the person who bought 100 Pot Noodles shall live in Mediatonic infamy.

Autumn 2020: Earning trust

Throughout the autumn, we wanted to keep the wellbeing conversations going. We continued to conduct Pulse Surveys and held regular all-hands company-wide meetings, led by the executive team, that communicate key updates across departments.

People come together in a live Slack channel to ask questions and give live feedback. A key goal was to reassure team mates that although we're apart, we are part of a cohesive working community, which means keeping our different teams' and disciplines' activities centrally visible.

One of our most popular all-hands consisted of our studio manager live-streaming from our new (but sadly vacant) London offices. As teammates exchanged nostalgia in the Zoom chat about office life, this was a great way of reminding colleagues that remote working wasn't forever. It made it more tangible that we did have a place to gather once things were safe and that we'd be together again some day.

Mediatonic's new (but sadly vacant) London offices

We also reached out to our studio management teams to ensure they were holding sporadic check-ins with team members, just to informally see how people were getting on and identifying opportunities for support. Demonstrating through actions that our policies "walked the walk" in terms of offering support (financially and otherwise) had a significant impact on survey feedback. Trust began to build that the people team could deliver, as opposed to just listen -- which in turn inspired far more valuable, detailed feedback.

For example, we increasingly saw that team mates craved social events, reminiscent of the pre-pandemic norm. Our team responded by organising everything from weekly playlists, remote coffee breaks and quizzes to one-off evening social events. However, we soon noticed that social participation was actually waning. People were 'electronic'd out'. The computer/Zoom/Google Hangout fatigue was real.

So we paused, re-assed and again... went back to listening. The dreaded phrase 'organised fun' kept cropping up. We belatedly realised that when it came to social events, we'd fallen into the trap of treating everyone as 'one', when the reality was that we all have different interests.

People were 'electronic'd out'. The computer/Zoom/Google Hangout fatigue was real

A look through Slack was a stark reminder for us, as employee community groups ranging from pets to book clubs, photography to make-up, stared back at us. Rather than simply impose 'fun' from the centre, we instead decided to try and empower our internal communities to take events to the next level more autonomously.

We shifted to the role of a facilitator rather than organiser, taking steps to empower existing internal communities to host their own events, including movie rental nights, where co-workers could watch films together and discuss.

And, of course, what is the one thing that draws so many of us together? Games! We widely shared our Mediatonic Discord channel to get people involved in playing together, creating a master sheet of gaming platform usernames so people could coordinate pick-up games across all sorts of titles. We provided guidance and a framework, but stepped back to enable our teams to participate as and when they felt comfortable.

Winter 2020/2021

This now brings us to the present. Almost a year in lockdown and a year apart. We know that the winter lull from January to March can be difficult at the best of times, let alone now as we confront another full lockdown.

Our main priority was ensuring that pathways to support were clear and varied. We've begun hosting bi-weekly meditation sessions and began distributing information on actionable steps to take when you're feeling down, asking our team mates to share their personal coping tips and strategies, to keep wellbeing front of mind. Additionally, we signed up for Slack-enabled therapy app 'Spill', granting team mates instant access to a qualified therapist as and when they needed it.

The brief to our managers continues to be to provide flexibility and compassion, not one-size-fits all solutions

Through updated Pulse Survey feedback, we took this time to take a longer term look at our existing Learning and Development scheme. With no commutes and limited social engagements, we knew many of our team had a bit more time on their hands, combined with a thirst for learning.

We decided to implement a new training programme that allows our team to access an online portal full of valuable information spanning gaming, management to mental health and wellbeing. To support this, everyone was given a £300 personal budget to spend on online training, webinars, online conferences, books and podcast learning opportunities. This feeds into a company-wide allotted 'Personal Development Time' that takes place every other Wednesday afternoon, designed to normalise taking time for learning new skills, away from staff's usual workloads.

The rollout of these schemes were closely informed by our key learnings from the remote working experience; the brief to our people managers continues to be to provide flexibility and compassion, not policy or one-size-fits all solutions to complex problems.

Although some of our people have some more time on their hands due to lockdown, we also have employees who have children at home, caring responsibilities and may be feeling pulled in multiple directions. One way of actioning these learnings was our decision to recommunicate our existing Health Assured services, particularly to lockdown hires who were sometimes unaware of our support options. This provides team members with access to 24/7 support for themselves, their partners and any dependents aged between 16-24, spanning parenting, relationships, health, financial and legal support.

We adjusted our internal communications to try and demonstrate that we were aware and strove to work with each individual to find a schedule (or lack thereof!) that worked for them. From a wider company culture perspective, we wanted to be clear that we believe everyone is doing their best under trying circumstances and therefore, wanted to demonstrate a willingness to be malleable.

This year has certainly been tough, but one our people team have learnt an awful lot from. Ironically, it's ended up bringing many of us closer together, with the absence of the office forcing us to drill deeper into what the essence of our company culture really was (and indeed, could be).

We will continue to validate that this is rough terrain, actively listen to each other and strive to make each individual feel supported. I do think that working 'together apart' has changed our emphasis as a people team for the better, and I can't wait to see how we grow and evolve our approach when we finally get back to our studios!

Annie Clare is head of studio operations at Tonic Games Group. She initially joined Mediatonic in January 2020 as head of studio environments, coming from three years at PlayStation as studio coordinator. She previously worked at the likes of Nordeus and Mind Candy.

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