Always Striving to do More: Leigh Ober, Chief People Officer, RAPP

by Jamel D. Nelson , AdForum

RAPP Worldwide
Marketing/Creative Services
New York, United States
See Profile

Leigh Ober
Global Chief People Officer RAPP

As Chief People Officer, have your responsibilities shifted in recent months?

My role is all about empowering our people to grow and thrive by giving them the tools and support needed. And those needs have evolved in several ways. For starters, we no longer have that central connector of being together physically, for socialization or collaboration, which spawns the innovation and creativity at the core of who we are and what we do for our clients. Going deeper into my discipline, our talent is leaning on HR exponentially more – as both business partners and people-partners, who care for individual needs in an even more holistic way than ever before. Accounting for the safety and health concerns around the pandemic, fighting against racism and social injustices, and adapting to working from home amidst caregiving, homeschooling, and the distractions inherent in our homes, we’ve invested more time and resources into check-ins, training, and sharing sessions as well as wellness and parenting tips and assistance – all with extra listening for empathy and understanding.

As we make the workspace more available, we’re working on a more hybrid style of working through which people can work where they do best while still feeling a sense of connection by joining together where and when it’s valuable. A silver lining to these past few months has accelerated healthy progress and the adoption of new ways of working. We’re revamping and amping up our recruiting strategy to focus on new sources of talent, layered with a lens of how people can add to our culture and add new capabilities to our business, recognizing that we haven’t done enough. Period. With a lot of humility and ambition, we are doing a lot more re-learning sessions, listening forums, training, and education and fundamentally looking at every process to make real systemic change. Among a multitude of things we’re doing, we’ve mandated 50% of candidate slates represent diverse candidates, and we are building partnerships with diverse vendors.

Since employees have transitioned to working from home, how have you been helping them adapt?

We’ve been 100% work from home since mid-March, so, early on, we focused on fundamental needs – like ensuring technology enablement, access to the right tools and systems, and overall connectivity. We’ve provided an allowance to accommodate office set-up, so people have the right tools to work productively; this includes desk chairs, standing desks, monitors, and more. Immediately, we also shifted into high gear to support everyone’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. We regularly offer group sessions with experts as well as sharing platforms for parenting & fitness tips that include yoga and dancing, mindfulness and meditation, and overall health and nutrition, along with highlighting additional resources for mental and emotional well-being. We’re doing more one-on-one check-ins than ever to ensure people know that we’re genuinely here for them and want to support them. If we don’t have the resources needed, we’ll find the expertise and make connections wherever we can.  

How are the attitudes of employees evolving as the crisis continues?

We regularly conduct pulse-check surveys to be sure we’re staying on top of what our people are contending with during this unusual year. Generally, our people are very resilient and are adapting well, as evidenced by high productivity and engagement. The most significant gap has been social connectivity – which we’ve worked to address through various virtual events and programming. Still, it’s the impromptu cooler-chats and collaboration that we think our teams are missing. That’s why we’re pursuing a flexible future way-of-working, that allows people to work where they work best, so that we can accommodate those who are thriving in this work remote mode, those who want to meet up for collaboration a few days a week, and those who feel they’d like to work in an office more regularly. We anticipate this will continue to evolve through the winter months – and until there’s a vaccine, kids are back in school full time, and all businesses are open. One thing we’re monitoring closely is stress and burnout as we’ve seen people’s workdays extending, so we’re working to help everyone with setting healthy boundaries, but of course, that’s easier said than done.

From your experience, what has been the most challenging part of working from home for team members? 

Without question, it’s been the lack of social interaction that comes from being together. While we’re all certainly adjusting to new ways or connecting via technology, we’re humans, so we crave impromptu interactions and/or planned meet-ups whether it’s over a coffee, a meal, or just to have company in our ‘space.’ This is especially true during intense work periods, where the shared experience over the internet can still enable communication, but sometimes falls short of allowing for full immersion. When you’re in the same physical space, you can really tune into other colleagues’ emotions, observe behaviors, and get a general EQ check. That’s hard to replicate when we are all working in our own ‘room.’ Also, work provides human interaction and purpose, which means it can be hard to sign off or ignore the occasional message that pops in the evening or weekend. So we’re encouraging people to take time off and really disconnect to recharge and refuel.

Have there been any changes made within RAPP to ease the process?

We’ve always been about flexibility, but there’s a real joy and appreciation for understanding that we are all people with lives outside of work. This time has given us a lens, literally, into people’s home life. We’ve enjoyed seeing children, partners, pets, workspaces, backyards, and more. We’ve included added support and tips for helping everyone embrace the needed flexibility to do whatever they need to do to support them. In some cases, we’ve adjusted work schedules, expanded people’s ability to get involved in new projects outside their current assigned work by tapping into bandwidth across the network, and encouraged to take a vacation and really disconnect even when travel options are limited due to the pandemic.  

Has anything been done to try and preserve the office culture of RAPP? How has the reception been internally?

Our culture was and is based on fierce individuality that supports working flexibly to provide what you need – so that has remained our foundation. We are all about 1:1 relationships, so our leadership team’s priority is making time to see how people are doing and what they need at that moment. And, truthfully, figuring out how to provide what’s needed has required more time and energy from everyone. Where we see trends in needs, we are providing development opportunities and resources to help. We also see more outreach from employees who are expressing a sense of pride and comradery in working at RAPP – and that speaks to the kind of amazing people who work here and genuinely care about each other. However, we’re always striving to do more.

Is RAPP currently planning to return to the office? Is there a plan to make some of the initiatives started during the pandemic permanent? 

In states and countries where it’s allowable, RAPP offices are becoming available for those who are comfortable and choose to use an office. In recognition of how well everyone has been working from home, we’re continuing to survey everyone so that we’re able to stay close to what’s best for our employees and our clients – and keep finetuning all we’re doing. The best things we’ve been doing are, in many cases, empowering employees to tell us what they need – and then to offer it. People have come forward to host sessions on their passions, share POVs on concerns, and host listening and sharing sessions about what they’re experiencing and working through. It’s our goal to continue this all, post-pandemic.

What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from agencies transitioning to working from home? Do you have any tips? 

Every agency has its unique challenge and cultures, so it’s up to each to find the path forward. Far be it from me to criticize others without knowing their circumstance, but what I would say is that those who succeed are those whose leaders and managers are in front of their teams, communicating what’s going on, and listening to understand what their people need – and then personally helping to make that happen. One of my biggest takeaways from 2020 is how important it is to listen and be open to what’s needed. It’s not just about getting to a solution; it’s about understanding what’s really needed and continuing to adapt and adjust to the endless changes.