Lockdown lessons: James Clifton The MISSION Group

LONDON ON LOCKDOWN © Mark Johnson

It’s been eleven months now since the first lockdown came into effect in the UK and like many, James Clifton, Group Chief Executive of The MISSION Group, has been learning how to live in a new kind of world.

He says the shock and dismay of living in “Covidworld” has affected us all. He insists that, for once, it’s not an adman’s hyperbole to say that life changed and nothing has been the same since. 

Through three lockdowns now, and a comprehensive overhaul of our lives, Clifton believes it’s been “a journey of discovery” as the self-help gang might say.

So he’s shared with us some of the things that he’s learned along the way. And some things he refuses to ‘learn’ (for which he offers a grand hurrah!)

james clifton The Mission Group
James Clifton, The MISSION Group

Missing the office

I miss the office. Yes, working from home was fun at first. But to be honest, the thrill got old pretty quickly and although WFH has its upside, I do really miss the office. The social interaction, the corridor chat, the impromptu coffee meeting, I miss it all. 

I even miss the commute. Yes, working from home has meant increased productivity (we’re all working longer hours than ever before). But I miss feeling the humour and inspiration of colleagues. I miss being physically present at the moment a new idea is born. I miss that group dynamic where we all create magic together.

Yes, it does still happen and we work very hard to do all that virtually, but I still miss the old-fashioned, analogue version.

Creativity thrives in adversity. All the above said, I’m constantly astonished at how people work across disciplines, borders, time zones, languages and cultures to create truly brilliant new ideas. 

It was something of a leap of faith that we could continue to run agencies virtually but a year has proved that, if anything, we underestimated how creativity would thrive in a virtual environment. 

In fact, it may even have benefitted from having more people, from more cultures and more disciplines involved. 

office
Travel to work: James Clifton misses the office AND the commute!

More ideas. More points of view. More challenges to assumptions. I’ve learned that adversity can genuinely make things stronger. And creativity, I think, is one beneficiary of the new ways of working.

Hiring people

Hiring is hard. It always was difficult to hire the right people, matching not only the academic and experience profiles needed but, especially, getting a handle on the cultural and behavioural profiles of candidates. 

So much is communicated through non-verbal signs, body language and what wasn’t said, as much as what was. That’s all much harder in remote working. 

Now it’s inevitably a more formal interview situation than I’d ideally like, with little opportunity to introduce candidates to their potential colleagues and to observe interactions in a more natural, relaxed context.

For candidates, it’s much harder to get a feel for a workplace from a video interview with a succession of managers. The intangible feel of a place you got simply from walking through the workspace could often tell you, on a subliminal level, whether this was your new home or not. 

It’s tricky to do that remotely so we’ve had to come up with smart workarounds. I’m not sure we’ve cracked it yet or if its crackable at all.

Remote training

Training is tricky too. Once hired, onboarding is harder to do remotely too. Again, so much of a role is picked up simply by being there and absorbing: the overheard conversation with a client, the sidebar conversations with desk mates, the non-verbal processes and checks that happen almost instinctively that are picked up by simply shadowing someone on a job for a week. 

Those things can take an inordinately long time to document and communicate via remote learning. Worse, they often risk being missed altogether because they are second nature to the person currently in the role. 

And its hard for the new person to pick up the relative importance of tasks remotely because they all seem important when you’re being formally “trained” in them. 

tough training remotely
Match fit: Training new recruits can be tough when you have to do it remotely, insists Clifton.

Sitting alongside someone, you can soon tell what the really vital tasks are and what can safely wait until a slow Tuesday afternoon to catch up on. 

Not so easy remotely and I worry about the longer term effect of this as we lose some of the softer aspects of our cultures.

Nourishing networks

Networks atrophy without constant nurturing. I used to wander around, see people, have a chat, purposely go to places off the beaten track just to be seen, catch up and stay in touch. 

Now, I need to book in a Zoom call or make a point to text or email. Hard to do when it’s just an impromptu chance to catch up and take the temperature. 

It’s the challenge of making what was a natural, involuntary instinct into a specific task on your ‘To Do’ list that not only makes it feel like a chore but can kill the humanity of it altogether. 

Consequently it’s easy for those informal contacts to slip off the agenda. We have learned that, like friendships in the real world, contacts and networks in a virtual world need active nurturing or you risk losing them.

Distance shrinks with Zoom. Conversely, one upside of the new reality is that San Francisco and Singapore are just as close as Devon. This is a real upside for a group like Mission, with offices in 31 locations around the world. 

I think, on balance, we actually communicate more than we’ve ever done because it’s so easy now and, despite time differences, become a normal part of the daily routine. 

Communication uplift

Communication has actually improved which I didn’t really foresee back in March 2020 and is one of the things I’d like to see continue going forward.

I’ve got much smarter (or my bookcase has). That screen background, assuming you don’t blur or cheat and use a faux one says so much about you. 

Zoom dog
Zoom time: Communications got better, but we all know what we like looking at during a call, says Clifton.

And let’s face it, we all let our eyes wander to check out the art on the walls or the books on the shelves. So like most people I’ve swapped the John Grisham for the Tolstoy! Hope springs eternal. 

Despite all these hard lessons, I remain optimistic. Yes, it’s been an awful year and isn’t over yet. I don’t want to jinx it, but hopefully with vaccinations rolling out and antibody therapies working, there’s light visible at the end of the tunnel and we’ll emerge from this with new capabilities and understandings. 

I’m inspired over and over again at the fortitude, creativity and resilience of people. Together we’ve learned that we can overcome.

And we simply refuse to learn how to give up. On hope or each other.