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Advertising boss creates a digital pub to raise staff morale during COVID-19

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When I moved to the UK, I knew there would be things about British culture that I would have to learn. I soon realised that, particularly among young professionals, one of the highlights of the week was congregating at the local pub on a Friday night.

So when the news broke that pubs bars and restaurants would temporarily close due to the growing coronavirus threat, I thought of the nation’s revellers with pity. But the lockdown is affecting all of us. Life isn’t the same, and it won’t be for a long time.

However, one advertising agency owner is trying to fix the social woes that come with living and working under a national lockdown by creating a virtual pub for his employees to flock to after work.

The pub, cleverly coined the AML Arms is about to enter its third week of operation. Real Business sits down with founder Ian Henderson to discuss digital pubs and remote working during COVID-19.

Real Business (RB): Why a digital pub?

Ian Henderson (IH): Creative people thrive on chance conversations, unexpected insights and on being open with each other and some of the best ideas start over a glass or two. Losing that human contact felt like a very immediate consequence of social distancing, so it wasn’t too hard to come up with the idea. It was taken up with huge enthusiasm – including one account director building the AML Arms for real in his shed, with its own bar, own-brand AML ale.

RB: Has daily life in your business changed a lot since going remote?

IH: As an agency with clients all over the world, from Asia to the USA, we’re used to video conferencing, filming on location and listening to cultural nuances. But without our new office (which opened three days before going remote) there’s no physical focus or opportunity to have those unexpected and stimulating encounters with staff and colleagues that can produce great results. So, my biggest task right now is replicating the connectedness of our team remotely using technology and adjusting working processes.

RB: Is there a formula for successful and effective remote working?

IH: Everyone has responded brilliantly, bringing their own energy, creativity and determination to making remote working ‘work’. Of course, that puts demands on the leadership team too, but it’s mostly self-generated. To create a successful remote working environment, you need a shared sense of the value of what you do; the trust and support of partners and clients as well as clear roles and responsibilities for every member of the team. You also need more communication than you think you need, and then some more. However, we’re lucky that was all already part of our culture.

RB: Has your industry been badly affected by COVID-19? 

IH: It’s hard to generalise about the effect of coronavirus on the agency world. Although we know of events-focused agencies who already have had to lay off all their staff. Obviously, travel and leisure accounts aren’t going to be busy; but again, we’re fortunate that our clients are heavily involved in the business and financial space and at turbulent times like these, they tend to need more advice rather than less. The people most affected will probably be the large freelance population in the sector, who may fall outside the Government’s safety net. We’re doing what we can about that.

RB: What’s your advice for other employers who are struggling to keep staff morale up during this time? 

IH: Keep busy, keep it fun, keep focused on doing what you do, keep the business alive with careful cost control. And maybe…open a virtual pub!

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