Being People-First: A Solid Business Strategy

Co-Author: LeAnne DeFrancesco

LeAnne DeFrancesco: In the Manager’s Chair

When one of our staff approached me in December 2019 about the possibility of keeping her full-time job at Vanguard while working on the West Coast, I wasn’t enthusiastic. Vanguard is D.C. based and for decades our staff have lived right here in the DMV area and commuted into our K Street office. Even though she was (and is) a rock star on our Design and Editorial team, I felt that her physical absence would be too much for our small team to absorb. We relied on her in so many ways, including those “roll up your sleeves” moments that happen in agency life, from getting mailings out to cutting binder covers.

I desperately wanted to keep this individual’s expertise, can-do attitude and positive personality, but I just couldn’t see how it could work seamlessly if she were thousands of miles away. We continued to talk about the scenario over the next several months.

March 2020 humbled me, along with the rest of the world, when all of us were forced into a new working paradigm. Being together to get projects out the door was no longer on the table. Everyone had to learn how to move beyond the old ways of doing things. And I had to change my own attitude from “Let’s keep a good thing as it is” to “Let’s think through how to make that happen.”

My colleague did move back to the West Coast a few months into the pandemic, and when she made that decision, I was 100% supportive. One of the reasons was that I had realized that she was an essential member of our team, not her position.

What makes our team and our firm great are the people who compose it, not a collection of job titles and skill competencies. It’s the “soft skills” such as good judgment, a strong work ethic, a focus on quality, and more than anything, being people-first — putting people at the center of every decision — that make us productive, resilient and able to deliver for our clients.

Karen Linscott: In the COO’s Chair

Over my career, I’ve helped manage operations at five companies, all of which allowed some version of remote work. While some of these organizations were initially resistant to remote work, all eventually came to find that it was a key tactic to recruit and retain the best staff — many of whom had unique skills or a proven track record at the company.

Prior to the pandemic, the success of this type of arrangement — which was individual rather than company-wide — depended on a few factors. In all cases, the biggest barrier to acceptance was concern from management and, even more frequently from colleagues, that the remote staff person might not be working a full day. And this certainly did happen occasionally. However, as conference calls and video calls became more common, those concerns started to fade, because remote staff tended to be as easy to reach as the staff down the hall.

But after this year, helped by an expansion of remote work technology, this concern has virtually disappeared. Multiple surveys show that most companies that went remote, including Vanguard, will allow a much more flexible remote work structure going forward.

In the last year, four of our staff have relocated to other states. These individuals have proven time and time again that the geography does not get in the way of producing impactful, creative work. And they’ve shared that they are happy, because they get to do a job they love in a place they call home.

Some things will inevitably be lost. It simply isn’t possible to have those same moments of laughter in the break room or random ideas generated when you can jump into unplanned hallway brainstorms. Also, happy hours are less fun for those participating through a screen, especially if happy hour falls at 2 p.m. in their time zone.

Still, our people-first value has proven to be a sound business strategy. We have made difficult situations work because we care about the people we employ. We care about the relationships they have with our clients. And we care that their individual talents and personalities make us the firm we want to be.