Before the coronavirus forced him into the confines of a home office, Michael Kalman, the founder and CEO of MediaCrossing, enjoyed life as a free-range manager. 

Kalman, whose $17 million-a-year digital advertising agency grew 454 percent the past three years, would roam the offices of his Stamford, Connecticut-based headquarters, periodically dropping by employees' desks to check in, ask questions, or simply chat. It was his favorite part of the day, not to mention a crucial part of MediaCrossing's creative process: These impromptu meetings often led to ad hoc huddles, where several executives would pile into a conference room to talk ideas and solve problems.

"I'm used to all of us sitting around big tables and collaborating," Kalman says. "It wasn't uncommon for me to have four meetings a day with four separate teams cooking up  strategies and plans, and thinking around client problems."

But then Covid-19 hit, forcing him to send his 23 employees home, effectively putting the kibosh to Kalman's kibitzing. At first Kalman struggled to find virtual substitutes for his free-flowing office culture. Conference calls meandered; he felt like the lack of eye contact killed the jazz. "I was pretty sure that most people weren't listening to a thing I had to say." Video meetings helped somewhat--"If you're on a call with me, you better have your camera on"--but still felt rigid and halting. 

Meanwhile, there was the open question of what they were all supposed to be strategizing about anyway. Many of his advertising clients, which include universities and producers of live events, put their advertising spending on hold.

Kalman didn't want to lay off employees any more than he wanted them close-talking back in the office. Nor did he want them twiddling their thumbs, on-camera or otherwise. Instead, he's using two techniques he thinks helps his team make the most of the given moment. 

 inline image

The first shift: He's asked his staff to stop most of the spitballing over the phone about ad strategies and start blogging about working through coronavirus instead. Last week MediaCrossing launched a website that offers Covid-19 related resources and advice to small and midsize companies, with his strategists writing the articles--a way that allows his company to help current and prospective clients with the problems that face them now, so they remember them fondly when it's time to spend again. 

"Our customer's journey isn't ending, it's transforming," he says.

Meanwhile, Kalman's adjusting his free-roaming rhythms to an always-online world. "I was a big believer in managing by walking around. People expected me to walk over to their office or cube at least once a week." To replace these impromptu face-to-face meetings, he's started doing something he calls a "random act of management."

Time for an impromptu one-on-one? He taps the Zoom app on this phone and suddenly his desk becomes virtual. Kalman says he's still figuring out the best way to conduct these virtual drop-ins in ways that give his employees a jolt that boosts their morale, rather than petrifies them. ("There's one guy who, every time I call him, thinks I'm about to fire him.") 

But it's started to bring some of the old spontaneity back, and made his team feel like they're needed right here, right now. "I don't like having my whole company remote," he says, "but I'm not telling them I don't like it. We can still huddle. We can still say: This is what we've got to deliver."