S3 E2: Team-First Culture in a Remote-First World

Episode two of our second series of minisodes sees regular host, Steve chat with our Digital PR Manager, Alessandra Carriban, who joined Propellernet in 2020. You might remember that was a fairly big year and a very strange time to start working, remotely, with a new team. Despite that, Alessandra – and other remote team members who’ve since joined us – is very much one of the team and a huge part of our thriving culture. In this chat, she and Steve share how they keep the team feeling like a real unit, despite rarely being together in the same office.

Have a listen or read the transcript below.

Go back to all episodes

0:00:07 – Stephen Baker

“Hello and welcome to the Digital PR Podcast. I’m Steve Baker and my co-host, Lou, is off doing the rather more important job of raising a tiny human, but the show must go on. We’re in-between seasons at the moment, but thought we’d give you all a little treat by bringing back our mini episodes throughout June and July. We’ll be jumping into all of PR land’s hottest topics, as we always do, and hearing from members of the Propellernet PR team on everything from pitching to personality types. So get the kettle on, get those headphones charged and make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any of our episodes. 

“Delighted to be joined by our brilliant digital PR manager, Alessandra, who will be talking to us about maintaining team culture in a remote first world. Hello, Alessandra, thanks for joining!”


0:00:56 – Alessandra Carriban

“Thanks so much for having me.”


0:00:07 – Stephen Baker

“Hi! We’re going to start easy and then get progressively harder with the questions. Easy one: How did you land in the world of digital PR?”


0:01:09 – Alessandra Carriban

Like a lot of people, sort of half by chance. So I did an international business degree in Sussex and I moved down here for that and there was a marketing module within that which did intrigue me. But actually I started off in property management and that wasn’t for me after a couple of years and I kind of fell into being a junior outreach specialist, which is much more SEO-based, and slowly worked my way up to digital PR manager. So here we are.” 


0:01:38 – Stephen Baker

“Here we are. Indeed, we should do another podcast at some point about your brief property management career, but that’s for another time, because I want to hear more about that. For now, though, tell us a little bit about your role within the Propellernet digital PR team.” 


0:01:52 – Alessandra Carriban

“So almost all of us work on multiple accounts – a manageable amount, which is nice. So I work on a few accounts and I also lead on a couple of them too. So, for example, I lead on SportsSports and Premier Inn, which means that I’m the main client contact, although we all have contact, and kind of assure the smooth sailing the account, if you will. Yeah, and I’ve been here since 2020, the pandemic year, as I’m sure we all remember. But, yeah, that’s me.” 


0:02:20 – Stephen Baker

“I do remember that year very well. It was a joy for you to join us, but our time in the office was cut very short indeed, before we were working from home quite a lot. So we’re going to dig into that a little bit, because so much has changed from when you joined. Could you describe, or how would you describe, the working set up at Propellernet, so within our team but also kind of the wider agency?” 


0:02:43 – Alessandra Carriban

“Yeah, I mean it’s constantly evolving and adapting, which I think is really great, depending on what the company employees want, but the general setup is that we work where we do our best work, which I think is the biggest thing, probably, because it means that people have complete autonomy over how often they come into the office – and there is an office space for people who need that, but also you can work at home, like I do, with my dogs surrounding me, so you’ve really got the option. And then the structure is very flat, which I’ve always really enjoyed. I think everyone enjoys that really. So everyone gets stuck in on everything, really, excluding like the senior management, who are just like assuring the smooth running of the company. For example, you’re head of PR, I know that’s no surprise to, but you get involved, you muck in on every task, which is really nice, and I think everyone values, no matter how junior or new you are, and ideas and opinions are engaged with, which I think is really cool and really unusual!”


0:03:40 – Stephen Baker

“How unusual would you say it is? I mean because for me it is and, well, still is after 13 years at Propellernet but yeah, from previous places you’ve worked, do you think it is really unusual that that is the case?” 


0:03:51 – Alessandra Carriban

“Yeah, I do. I think a lot of companies talk a good chat and then when you give them your idea, they go yeah, yeah, yeah, and then you never hear about it ever again. So I think a lot of a lot of companies say they do that, but I’ve actually seen people have their suggestions taken on board and implemented, which is really great, because I think with Propellernet they walk the walk, they don’t just talk the talk.”


0:04:16 – Stephen Baker

But we’re – I agree – I think we’re a great company and we are unusual in some ways in the way we work, but we’re not without our challenges, both in the team and and the agency, because obviously a lot has changed in the last – wow, has it been four years? It’s been four years already – since the pandemic and working practices changed a bit. What would you say are the main challenges you face, the team faces, you know, from that kind of team culture perspective?”


0:04:46 – Alessandra Carriban

“I think it’s the usual challenges that a lot of companies face. So, for example, the new starters in particular, getting a sense of the culture, building their confidence and trust and being able to ask questions and point out when they need support or things are too overwhelming for them. That’s a big challenge, and I think as well getting everyone sort of cozy with each other. I think especially in digital marketing, where you’ve got some techie people, there’s a lot more introverts in general, you know? So I think a lot of people do need coaxing out of their shell a little bit and a little bit of what I like to call organised fun, which I’m sure we’ll get onto later. But yeah, I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges, is making people feel comfortable around each other to collaborate efficiently and effectively.”


0:05:35 – Stephen Baker

“Yeah, I would agree. It was easier when we were in the office, let’s be honest about it. It was easier because you could have a quick chat when something popped into your head, rather than having to like Slack a voicenote or a message and wait for that meeting and that kind of thing, so I totally agree with that. But you’re in quite a unique position in that I had lots of time in the office at Propellernet with the PR team pre-pandemic, but you had, what a matter of, I think, three months? Something like that. So you you experienced quite a sharp change. Was there a moment for you that you kind of realised that the team needed some more structurein terms of – what’s the best way of putting it? Like culture focused processes to be put into place?” 


0:06:21 – Alessandra Carriban

“Yeah, absolutely. I think for Jimmy and Sam, the MDs, I spoke to both of them about this, like maintaining the culture was really important, despite growing quite rapidly as a company around that time and moving to remote at first and now hybrid. So, yeah, I think I think there were definitely processes we needed to bring in, because people were joining and no one had really met them or spoken to them and people didn’t know who other people were in teams and things like that, whereas it’s always been a real agency-wide team feeling before, and it started to feel a little bit more segmented. And I also think being on video calls is draining and awkward for some people, so you could see some people switching off and not getting as involved in the chit-chat and the cultural side of things. I think that’s when it kind of dawned on us we need to implement some things here.”


0:07:11 – Stephen Baker

“Yeah. Me and you both, I think, share a love of like, thinking about improving team culture, morale, like always thinking of ideas on what we can do, but you’ve done quite a lot in this area. What and how did you go about putting things into action? On the PR team, what did you do and how did you do it?”


0:07:31 – Alessandra Carriban

“We’ve got a lot of casual channels within, like I think we have a few within the PR team. So for starters we’ve got like a media monitoring channel where we share things that are relevant to PR but also just things that we’ve seen online that are interesting to us. We do get into little discussions on there and I also brought in topic calls, which are kind of infamous.” 


0:07:52 – Stephen Baker

“Tell us about the topic calls. Tell us – we need more detail, because I love them. But it was very much your idea, like what do we do on those?”


0:08:02 – Alessandra Carriban

“So I’ll normally pick out a number of icebreaker questions and people vote on which one they want to answer on Slack, and then we have half an hour where all work chat is strictly forbidden and you have to talk nonsense and, crucially, every person gets called on by me. So it’s kind of an introvert’s nightmare, but it’s not like we don’t know each other well enough as a team. But everybody gets involved and gets to have their say and it’s gotten very heated at times, particularly around food-based topics like god-tier snacks and deathbed meals, like what would be your deathbed meal? But it also, it’s, everyone’s always smiling and laughing on them. I’ve had really good feedback on them because it brings people out of their shell in a way that’s not just going to happen, naturally, at the beginning of a standard status call or team call. So, yeah, I think they’ve been really good and I’ve had feedback from the newer starters that it helped them get to know people quicker and break down those barriers to intimacy, shall we say?” 


0:08:57 – Stephen Baker

“It was such a clever, like a lot of the best ideas, simple but clever and very effective, because it’s the kind of thing that we were chatting about in the office, sort of amidst work and meetings and all that kind of stuff anyway, and it’d be nice to do that on a day-to-day, but we can’t do it all the time, so, like having that almost like allotted time with people just to have permission to switch off from work and just talk some silliness. Plus, I agree, it does teach you about others and who has dreadful taste in food and films and books and all that kind of stuff and who has the best, and we won’t delve into that, though that’s again maybe another another podcast.

“What else have we put into into practice to help kind of team culture? Can you think of any other examples?”


0:09:45 – Alessandra Carriban

“Oh, absolutely. I mean there’s tons. There’s quite a lot that have come from higher up in the company and there’s a lot that we’ve initiated ourselves. So, for example, Abi, the lovely Abi Bennetts, had the idea of us doing PR-esentations, and I’ll never forget her for that pun. But that’s where we all, we each, throughout the year, will share a presentation on something that interests us. So it can be PR based, but it also can be personal. So I think we had one of our most recent highlights was when Raquel, a Portuguese member of our team, took us through the most, the weirdest things about Brits, and David Attenborough was was slated within that, and I don’t forgive her for that either.” 


0:10:22 – Stephen Baker

“I missed that one. I was away on holiday. I’m going to need to get a copy of that presentation because that is, I mean, potentially libellous. Um, we’ll look into that, we’ll look into that.” 


0:10:31 – Alessandra Carriban

“Yeah, and we’ve also had other ones, like Hannah took us through why having kids has helped her with client management. You know, things like setting expectations and communicating clearly, but we also have other things. So, coffee catch up is something that I believe Steph introduced – so you can see a lot of these are coming from the team members themselves – which is just every week, we’re prompted to have a 30 minute chat with someone, book in a call and just have a coffee and a natter. Which is really nice because you get to talk to them one on one, especially if you don’t work within the same client teams. And then, additionally, we have our anchor days, which is more of a company-wide structure. So that’s, I mean, I think it’s quite common jargon now, but we meet once a month as a team and we work together in like a remote setup, so either in our Brighton office or in London, and then afterwards we do something silly. So recently we went and did loads of arcade games together, and I mean, a certain someone might have taken the crown slightly over you just saying…” 


0:11:35 – Stephen Baker

“Yes, well done. Well done for winning that one. A rare win, but a win nonetheless. I’m not bitter. I haven’t thought about it since.” 


0:11:42 – Alessandra Carriban

“He sounds fine, but his face is fuming.” 


0:11:52 – Stephen Baker

“There’s quite a lot that we do that you’ve just sort of talked through. What would you say has had, the process or the thing that we’ve introduced that’s made the biggest impact?” 


0:11:59 – Alessandra Carriban

“People focus… Probably the anchor days, I think, from a team perspective and then as a wider agency, it would be the agency socials. So we meet once a quarter, I think it is, and you get to muck in with all the other teams. But just having that structured face to face time so that you haven’t gone more than a few months without seeing people in the agency and actually like seeing them in 3D and chatting to them and doing something fun together, I think it’s just really crucial to team bonding and it makes people more comfortable with each other and then they’re more comfortable at work to say, to give difficult feedback or to just work together collaboratively on something or to ask for help. It just, I think it really smooths those and makes everyone’s work life much more joyful.”


0:12:46 – Stephen Baker

“Agreed, agreed, 100 percent. I guess a large part, we talked a lot about the processes that we’ve put in place for the team that has grown since since you started, you know, quite significantly. We’ve done a lot of hiring and we get everyone involved in the sort of the hiring process and we tend to, I say tend to – we always operate, I guess you’d call it a personality focused hiring process; we’re really keen on, like team fit. In your experience, you’ve been involved in that process, how has that been implemented in interviews and how important would you say it is when building a remote first or sort of hybrid working team?” 


0:13:24 – Alessandra Carriban

“I mean absolutely essential, because I think one of the biggest reasons Propellernet excels is because everybody likes each other, wants to see each other succeed. And it sounds obvious, but it’s true, you know? And within the hiring process, I think it’s always been really nice that, I mean, from the time I started and you’ve been head of with Lou, everyone gets involved in the interviews. You can’t, you’re not considered too junior to have your say, which I think is really important and the interviews… that person will meet several people from the team so that everyone, or a lot of, a decent amount of people, can have their say. And I’d say cultural fit is almost the biggest thing. Obviously, you can teach PR, you can teach that skill set, but you can’t teach personality. 

“And for someone to have the shared values of the team, like the diligence and the trustworthiness and the honesty, that’s what keeps us running smoothly, because we work hybrid, because we have flexible hours, because we have unlimited holiday, because we have all these amazing perks, first of all, I think someone with those values deserves those perks. But also, it wouldn’t work if someone was, for lack of a better phrase ‘taking the piss’. You know, it wouldn’t work if someone wasn’t wasn’t respecting those perks and because of that it means we get to have that autonomy. But I think if you start hiring people just based on how they are on paper, then they’d potentially be a little bit of a sore thumb if they didn’t have those values and didn’t fit into the team, because everyone in the team is always doing their best and always going that extra mile.”


0:15:01 – Stephen Baker

“Agree on all of that. I often wonder, because I’ve been at Propellernet a long time, I often wonder how it’s done at other companies. But at Propellernet it’s pretty much always been done where the people that are going to be working with that person kind of get to meet them and offer an opinion on on them, on like how they think they would fit and that kind of thing, and it’s just one of those things that just feels like, why wouldn’t you do that, if you don’t do it? Because surely the other way of doing it is having a, like, a top-down approach where it’s just like one person so it could just be me, me and Lou or something who just interview the person say, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be working with Alessandra”. Like it just doesn’t… it just feels, like intuitively right to do that. 

“And as we’ve grown, I guess the challenge is we can’t all meet that person, so like we can’t have, you know, lots and of people on the Zoom call, it would feel so intense. But I’m glad you think it’s important and it helps with that, that kind of maintaining and preserving that autonomy and the perks we have, because I think you’re right; those shared values, so, so crucial. Yeah, let’s end with, I’m really keen, because you’ve covered a lot of ground and, you know pretty much one of my favorite topics; team culture and how to maintain and enhance it. But from you, Alessandra, what would be your, let’s say three, three top tips for other agency leaders, managers, heads of, etc. who feel that their remote teams are a bit disparate and would like to foster a better team culture?. Not an easy one, but let’s have three top tips from you. I’m going to hold you to that as well.” 


0:16:40 – Alessandra Carriban

“I don’t want to, like, toot my own trumpet, if that’s the expression, because, you know, I’m not an agency leader. I am in my head sometimes, but yeah, but I’ll still give my two cents because at Propellernet, everyone’s ideas are valued. And it’s funny what you say about the hiring process. Doesn’t everyone give that personality focused approach? But I actually think a lot of people… it takes time and it takes that extra bit of effort and I think people cut those corners and then they pay the price, which sounds ominous but it’s true. So one of the main things would be to get your team involved in that hiring process and it’s a great experience for them; it makes them feel more accountable to that person who’s been hired, to training them, to making them a success, because they’ve been part of it and it makes them feel like they’re part of building that team, no matter what level they’re operating at or no matter how new they are. And I think it almost matters more when you work remotely, because in an office you’re kind of forced to collaborate, you know, and you’re forced to iron out your tensions, but remotely you can let them lie under the surface and you can actively avoid working with that person, which is really detrimental, and those issues don’t get ironed out in the same way. So if you have people who are naturally a personality match and the team have chosen that person, then it’s more likely to have that synergy and to be harmonious, whereas if some senior person who is just one person in the team, thinks they’re a good fit, then it’s just not going to have quite the same team culture. I don’t think so. That’s the first one. 

“The second one is to introduce some face-to-face structure. Again sounds obvious, but you can do this less than you think you need to. I know a lot of people are saying, “Oh, people should go into the office two to three times a week”. I think putting that level of structure on people might make them a bit resentful if they do prefer working from home or have gotten used to that, or their families have gotten used to that. It can even be like a biannual thing, but having that face-to-face time where you see the wider team, where you feel the size of the agency in a room or in, I don’t know, a park or whatever, is so crucial to actually remembering that you’re part of a bigger whole and having those team bonding experiences, which is an expression I kind of love and loathe. That’s number two. 

“And thirdly is to get the team involved. Like, I think we’ve already covered the fact that most of the initiatives come from us, come from us in the team, but at the same time, you know, the general management of the company have introduced lots of things that we have, like a well-being fund; we have subsidised group activities, which means that if a certain amount of Propellernetters get involved, like going to the cinema, for example, or playing laser tag – which I’m still trying to set up! – then Propellernet will pay for part of it, which is so nice and it really encourages that out of time, out of work time together. 

“But yeah, putting the onus on the employees to be part of it, to bring up their own initiatives, means they can create the culture they want, as opposed to, you know, you hear about it all the time, “Oh, we have perks of like pizza on Fridays!” and everyone’s like, “Well, we don’t really want that, you know, we want, we want our own day…” and I think here, we even have like votes and polls on things. So there was a poll on whether we should go hybrid, for example, and I think every single person voted yes. What was so nice about that was even people who didn’t want it said “No, I don’t want to be hybrid, but I don’t mind if other people are”. So you know, it means that everyone’s kind of agreed to it and had their say and their chance to raise any concerns. So things move a lot more smoothly and people are just more invested in their own culture.”. 


0:20:11 – Stephen Baker

“Totally agree. I mean, you touched on something I think, well, lots! But that particularly, I would 100% agree; really, really important. Because you see some other companies where you know, like job ads and things like that, where, like, free fruit is listed as a perk and like that’s fine in lots of ways but it’s not really a perk and it’s not going to foster better team culture, whereas at Propellernet you’ve given some examples, but I love that there’s like a plethora of things you can dip into, like some things aren’t for me or I don’t have the time for, but that’s besides, the point, you know. Someone, for example, there’s a whole volunteering program that’s been set up by people that are really into that. I think that’s great. You know, I can dip into that at any point. 

“But there’s, as you said, you know, like subsidised gigs and trips to the cinema and the theatre, and I love all that because, you’re right, it’s come from a place… it’s not just come from me or the MDs or someone going, “I think they’ll like that, so that’s going to be brilliant!” and it feels like almost every week there’s a new, or every month, let’s say, let’s not go overboard, but every month there’s like a new idea for an initiative. And some drop out and some add in, but I agree – I’m glad you feel that too and that it’s important because I absolutely love it and it’s one of the many reasons, but a key one, that I’ve stayed at Propellernet for such a long time. I think they treat people well and foster a lovely culture. 

“And you stuck to the rules. You gave us three, so thank you. Three top tips there. Alessandra, it’s been a pleasure, as it always is. Thank you for joining us and talking to us about team culture in a remote first world. We’ll be back with more mini episodes very soon.”