By Maggy Wilkinson, Chief Executive Officer
Athena is a different company than we were in March 2020. In many ways, the pandemic pushed us to be the organization we were always meant to be.
On March 12, 2020, I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to learn that sometimes evolution happens in a huge gush and not in small, often unnoticeable increments.
As I stood in front of our company’s large conference room table filled with employees and others dialed in on the Polycom (remember Polycoms?), I announced we were going to “practice” working remotely starting tomorrow. I encouraged everyone to take absolutely everything home that would allow them to do their job. This included laptops, keyboards, monitors and, for a few ambitious souls, even their office chair. The idea would be to experiment to see if we could be completely remote for a single day, with a return to office planned for the following week. I still remember walking back to my apartment that evening and being puzzled that all the restaurants in Center City were full. It reminded me of when I lived in New Orleans, and everyone went out the night before a hurricane was due to hit and bought booze and salty snacks to ride out the storm instead of following the mayor’s pleas to evacuate the city.
Shortly before our practice work-from-home day ensued, the government announced we were entering a formal lockdown. What was meant to be a one-day practice was now our reality for the foreseeable future. To start the day, we had a conference call and literally called roll as if we were in grade school—it was becoming clear we were on the precipice of something none of us had ever experienced before and were doing our best to keep going. Rollcall was followed by a few general announcements and then I called each team leader and told them to call every person on their team and assure them we were here for them.
I was not sure what “here” meant anymore, I just knew we needed to stay connected. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
What all but two of my employees did not know was that a number of high-profile client events requiring in-person attendance had been cancelled the week before in the span of 36 hours. It was the first of several rounds of project cancellations in the weeks and months that followed. There was no talk of any type of federal rescue at that point. And so, similar to many other CEOs of small businesses, I was also in the process of figuring out how to stay financially afloat. I also knew that, somehow, we were going to get through this, and it was not going to be by sitting around in a stunned state. We were in this with our clients; they also were in uncharted territory, and it was up to us to be proactive, present creative solutions, and lead the way.
For our clients at the NFL, this meant supporting them as they pivoted from their annual Draft to a virtual experience. The team worked around the clock for the next six weeks to support the league in hosting a four-day COVID relief fundraiser known as Draft-a-Thon in conjunction with the first-ever virtual Draft, raising 8 million for Covid relief efforts.
For our clients and partners at a large telecommunications company, it meant helping them understand how to partner with school districts across the country to ensure no-cost internet access to all school-aged children. For our clients at a large hospital system, it meant setting up the database to track all PPE. Like everyone else we knew, we were thinking and acting in real time doing the best we could to react to the circumstances put before us every day. And it was evidence of our ability to be flexible and work together in a virtual environment.
Our morning conference call soon evolved into a video conference on Microsoft Teams. We had long since quit taking roll. This daily touch point became our virtual hearth, allowing us to gather around the ‘campfire and created an unexpected and wonderful leveling effect across the company. Today, it’s still a place where everyone has a voice and gets face time within the entire organization. Groups take turns leading the call allowing for cross-department collaboration and creativity.
The work veneer that had been terribly thin but wonderfully polished when I was entering my career just over 30 years ago had vanished.
Cats crossing keyboards, babies crying in the background, younger employees taking calls from closets to ensure roommates’ morning antics weren’t on display for all to see—it was all out. For over two years, we had done our best to hang on together and had learned that our personal lives could be quite messy. Yet, despite this, we could all still get work we were proud of across the line.
As the world moved from pandemic to endemic, we were faced with new challenges. In many ways, figuring out the best way to return to work proved more challenging than going out in the first place. We had no choice in March 2020, but the decision to return would present many options and not everyone agreed about the best way to do this, or even if it was necessary to do at all. Simply put, the gig was up. It was clear we no longer all needed to be together all the time, in an office from 8:30am – 5:30pm, seeing each other face-to-face, in order to produce superior work. We had rocket launched ourselves into a place where it was evident that the rat race was just that.
And so, other than my own vanity, I could not come up with a reason to insist that we all return to how things were before the world changed. It didn’t make sense anymore. As best as I could understand in that moment without the long lens of time to assist me, we had two choices: dig in and do what seemed more comfortable and likely lose what made Athena special (we call it “the Athena shine”), or march boldly, if shakily, into the future. And while we’ve not chosen the latter all the time—after all, we are human—mostly we’ve looked ahead, with the help of a very talented leadership team and a dedicated workforce who’ve been willing to take this journey too.
Here’s what we look like today.
We’re hybrid. What does that mean to us? It means that people are mostly in the office three days a week and working remotely the other two days. Team members are empowered to manage their day-to-day schedules to make the best use of their time. They can adjust depending on meetings, client events or in-office gatherings. To have this degree of flexibility, there are underpinning principles we take to heart. We call this “Trust + Tools.”
Trust is knowing we’re all accountable to the teams we support, both internally to ourselves and externally to our clients. We owe each other our best effort to do our best work always. Additionally, we work to actively demonstrate the maturity to understand when it’s important to collaborate and when that needs to be in person. Teams work to ensure these moments happen and don’t hesitate to require in-person presence when it makes sense. This happens frequently which means that most days there is a hum of activity in our post-pandemic office, a palpable energy you can feel. We’re often asked to solve complex problems for our clients, and these require complex solutions. We embrace this and push ourselves to constantly improve and do better. Skimping is not an option.
Now for the tools. We’ve made a commitment to invest in the best. We’ve installed superior teleconferencing equipment, trained ourselves and our clients in the latest project management tools, and adopted sophisticated security tools for 100-percent cloud-based work environments. The net result is that both our employees and our clients know we have made a commitment to be at the forefront of what works best for unparalleled results in a virtual environment. This has had the added benefit of our being called on frequently to facilitate hybrid meetings with both live and online participants. We will often pre-produce some content and then live produce the event itself. It’s become a full-blown practice area for us.
What this will look like a year from now is anyone’s guess. Surely it will continue to evolve. At Athena, we’re committing to making the effort required to discern what is working best for us knowing that it might not work for different organizations given their own size, culture or the nature of the work at hand.
We too will continue to change. Getting this new hybrid model right will require vigilance. By encouraging open dialogue among our team and committing to continued experimentation, I’m excited to embrace what is in store for us all.