Articles/Navigating through COVID-19: Q&A with Kath Blackham

Navigating through COVID-19: Q&A with Kath Blackham

Versa CEO Kath Blackham discusses the struggles of COVID-19 when running a business and how the disastrous year of 2020 has affected Versa. We analyse the endurance of Versa staff and how they have managed to maintain a positive and productive workplace. 

Tell us how your business has supported and stayed connected to your team in response to COVID-19. 

VERSA has always believed that happy people create outstanding work. It’s why we made our four-day working week initiative permanent in 2019. In 2020, that idea of happiness at work became more important than ever. To support and stay connected to our team while working remotely, we implemented a range of strategies to optimise the mental health and wellbeing of our employees. 

Every day, we check-in with the whole team via Zoom. Everyone takes turns rating their previous day out of 10, calling out any blockers they are experiencing and saying something they are grateful for. Every Tuesday morning, our daily check-in is followed by breakout meetings. Staff are randomly placed in groups of five and given questions to discuss in breakout rooms, giving new and existing staff an opportunity to get to know each other better. 

Our Buddy Program means each team member has a designated weekly buddy to have regular check-ins with, chat about their week and how they are coping, and discuss things you would normally talk about face to face over coffee. 

We made it fun too. We watch inspirational Ted Talks together over lunch. We have a morning ‘Break Off’ each week, where three team members send photos of their breakfast creations and staff vote for the week’s best chef. We do group Zoom yoga together to clear and reset out minds. And we have occasional Friday night group drinks over Zoom to cheers to the week that was.

What do you think was unique about your approach to supporting and connecting to your team during COVID-19?

Our unique approach to supporting and connecting our team started before COVID. After trialing our flexible work initiative that made global headlines for a year, we made our trial permanent in 2019. VERSA became the first Australian company to offer a four-day working week. Our office closes on a Wednesday. Why do it? To improve mental health, an industry wide issue. The result? Staff were healthier, happier and more efficient. 

Our retention went up, and sick days and mental health issues reduced. It was good for our people and our business - profit tripled, revenue grew 46%. We didn’t lose a single client – we added more. The foresight of that approach put us in a strong position when COVID hit. Our philosophy remained the same but we made changes to our mental health driven approach to employee wellbeing that helped our people and our business manage the new reality of remote working.

Pre-COVID, we had office dogs as mental health tools and quiet areas to work or meditate on noise-cancelling headphones. Post COVID’s arrival, we changed morning stand up meetings to daily zoom check-ins asking staff to rate their day and say what they are grateful for, breakout rooms where staff can chat and get to know each other, a Buddy Program pairing colleagues so they can look out for and check in with each other, and weekly Taco Awards were team members can recognise the efforts and achievements of colleagues. 

We supported those with families by providing flexible work hours and continued our four-day working week initiative from the physical office into the remote working world. 

What has been the impact of supporting and connecting to your team during COVID-19 on your business?

Our positive team culture fostered by the four-day week initiative and strong focus on mental health and wellbeing of our team served us well as we pivoted our business quickly, adapting and responding to new client needs for bots and AI solutions for corporate and government contact centres inundated by calls from uncertain citizens. We ramped up work we had already begun in that space and hired more sales staff as we quickly built a reputation for delivering fast, high quality work that improved customer experience for our clients.

Mental health was an industry wide issue before COVID, so we took extra steps to ensure the progress we had made in the world of the physical office continued in the world of remote working. 

Sadly, new recruits had not met any of their fellow team members in person. The break out room chats gave them the opportunity to get to know colleagues who they may not otherwise interact with. They were made to feel welcome and part of the team despite the physical distance between us all.

Our buddy program was especially important for staff who have felt the pressure of isolation, challenges of parenting and working remotely, and induction of new staff who could build connections with other team members and have someone to turn to in time of need.