COVID Forced Me to Abandon My Company - And That Was a Good Thing

Sheldon P.
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It was the last days in March when I got wind of the fact that the border between Quebec and New Brunswick could soon be closed. At this point, nothing had been reported in the news and it was through a chain of acquaintances who had some contacts with the local government who had passed this information along.

My girlfriend was living in Saint John while I was home in Montreal. Everything in Montreal had already been locked down the week before and my staff was already working remote. We thought this would be life for the next few weeks, maybe a month or two before things blow over.

I was on the phone with my girlfriend as we discussed options for what life could look like during a full-scale lockdown.

Her job was considered an essential service – helping at-risk and homeless youth. My job – president of a boutique marketing agency – is barely considered providing a useful service to society in the best of times.
 

If I could make it over the border, it made more sense for us to be together, in Saint John to ride things out. It would mean that I, a reputed workaholic who spends more nights at the office than at home, would need to drop everything and drive 10hrs during a global pandemic and lockdown in an unfamiliar city.

We decided that I should at least try. At worst, they would send me back and we would be no worse off than what our current situation already was.

I quickly packed all my perishable food and enough clothes to last me a few weeks. I had no car at the time so I had to make reservations to pick up a car later that day.

 

I felt like I was running away from my company and my life.

I hopped on the metro and made my way downtown to the rental office. It was like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie. In a city of 4 million in the middle of the day on a warm(ish) Tuesday, the metro was empty. The downtown metro station (Guy), which houses one of the city’s largest university campuses, was empty. There were no cars on the street. No people anywhere to be seen. Businesses were all closed. I had never seen anything like this in my 38 years living in Montreal.

I grabbed the car and made my way home. The roads were clear and it only took a few minutes to get back.

I packed up the car and hit the road.

It was a strange feeling, leaving the city like this. Logically, I knew that it made no difference where I was physically during a lockdown where everyone was already working from home. But it felt very different. I felt like I was abandoning my city in a time of need. I felt like I was leaving my team behind to fend for themselves. I felt like I was running away from my company and my life.

I never really stopped to think about it before but, in many ways, to me the “company” and the “office” were one-and-the-same. The office was the physical embodiment of Drive Marketing and whenever I wasn’t physically in that space, I wasn’t “working”. The thought of leaving the office behind as I left town weighed heavily on my mind as I drove.

When I arrived at the border, things were tense. Every vehicle was being questioned. Many were being turned away. No one knew what to expect. All of the normal protocols had gone out the window.

I had driven through this “border” dozens of times to visit my girlfriend without so much as a passing thought. This time the experience was very different and very much top-of-mind.

This was early on when provincial governments had no clear guidelines and everyone was just “winging it”. The “border guards” were not from any specific bureau, strung together last minute by the New Brunswick government in an effort to keep their province safe and COVID-free.

I explained that I was heading into Saint John to lock down and be with my partner. Told them the exact address, my planned route, and my quarantine plan for the foreseeable future. They confirmed that I was not simply coming in for a “short visit” or just visiting the province recreationally before they waved me on my way.

Relieved, I drove straight through towards Saint John, only needing to stop once for fuel. I arrived late that night and got a well-deserved night’s sleep.

Little did I know, at this point, that this would be my new home for the next 8 months.

 

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Two weeks earlier, things had been getting tense as news of this novel virus kept surfacing as the top story in news cycles. Everyone had their own opinions about how worried we should all be about it.

At the time, everyone was still meeting at Drive, though I had made a point to ask everyone to thoroughly wash their hands when they first arrive. I had bought new soap for the washroom and had started wiping down surfaces each evening after everyone had left.

As more and more information came out about how the virus spread and, more alarmingly, where the new cases were popping up, things started becoming clear. The virus was already here.

 

Before there were any official government mandates, I made the call to shut down our office. Being in Montreal, my staff and I all travelled to the office using public transit. It was clear now that it was a risk not worth taking.

We were in good shape because my team was already used to remote work. Over the years, I had made a point to very carefully, and purposefully, craft a very specific corporate culture.

My personal mandate, for building Drive Marketing, has always been one thing: create the company that I would want to work for. That’s it.

Create the company that I would want to work for. That’s it.

So, being that I am not a morning person and don’t like clocking in, no one on my team would be required to “clock in” either. Drive’s team regularly came and went as they pleased. Everyone tracked their own work hours. As long as everything got done and everyone got paid for their work, I didn’t care how they split up their time.

Since a few of us are night owls, working from home, in the middle of the night, was not uncommon. Slack had already been in place for over a year and we were all very comfortable communicating remotely.

The office was always available to anyone who cared to use it but I had purposefully set it up as more of a “free café” that we could use for a change of scenery. I kept the place stocked with free snacks. The coffee and tea flowed freely. During the summer months we would have almost daily BBQs in the back deck. But now, in an instant, all that was off-limits.

Over the years, many of my friends, some of them who run their own companies, were perplexed about Drive Marketing’s culture. They couldn’t understand how I could let my staff have so much freedom and still run a profitable venture. They always saw it as a weakness that I didn’t have a strong sense of who was coming or going, who was available at any given moment. That the staff didn’t feel the need to report in to a physical space.

But now, in the chaos of COVID, they suddenly saw that we clearly had the upper-hand.

I watched as other companies had to struggle with something that had happened for us with such ease. We had a leg up on competition as they had to figure out and set up remote work stations. Communications for many were disrupted and any small technology gap that existed was instantly widened into an impassible canyon.

All it took was a quick Slack message to let my entire team know that no one was to come into the office that, from here on out, we are all to be working remote. Done.

 

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I settled into my life in Saint John with surprising ease. Since my girlfriend’s job still required her to physically go to work, I had the apartment to myself during the day. I would wake up, make myself coffee, and settle in to the day’s work.

I eventually had to break it to my staff and my clients that I had left town. Truth be told, I was a little embarrassed at first, again, feeling like I had somehow abandoned Drive Marketing and Montreal in a time of crisis.

What I was met with was indifference. “Oh, I thought you were still in town. How is it out there?” Clients, partners, staff. No one seemed concerned.
 

As time went on, I felt more and more comfortable simply stating that I was in New Brunswick, waiting out the storm. All these years feeling like I had to be physically in Montreal came into question. Had I been free to leave the city this whole time?

The days became weeks, the weeks became months. The going joke became “Sheldon accidentally moved to Saint John”.

This shift in mindset really changed my outlook on life and the company. In time, I let go of the idea that the office was the company. It also forced Drive to change the way we work as a team.

I had to let go of certain responsibilities that I thought were mine to shoulder alone.

No longer could I jump from team member to team member, hovering over their shoulder to give my two cents about what they’re working on. Now, if I needed to check in on someone, we would have to schedule a quick call.

This forced me to be a better manager. I had to delegate tasks and let the team handle things. I had to let go of certain responsibilities that I thought were mine to shoulder alone.

My team stepped up across the board and took over aspects of our day-to-day operations that should have been delegated long ago. Again, I questioned what I had been doing this whole time when I should have been letting go to focus on working on the business instead of in it.

As luck would have it, New Brunswick handled the pandemic better than most other provinces. Restrictions loosened up and, as the warmer weather rolled in, summer activities became viable. Anyone who knows about my relationship knows that my girlfriend and I are rarely in the same city during the summer.

We took the opportunity to spend quality time going on hikes and to nearby beaches. We spent the summer hanging out with friends, traveling within the “Atlantic Bubble” and building backyard fires at least twice a week.

All this forced me to take another large step back from my workaholic lifestyle. No longer was I afforded the time and energy to work 14hr days, 6 days a week. It was good for me to let go. And to my surprise, the company did not suffer for it. Quite the opposite. During this time, we won new contracts and grew our team.

 

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Fast forward to the end of 2020 and the pandemic might finally have an end in sight. Recent news of the successful vaccine candidates is giving people hope that a few more months or another year down the road and the worst of the pandemic life will have passed.

I’m currently back in Montreal while my girlfriend is still in Saint John. The trip back was much less eventful as everyone has just learned to live in these strange times. Check points are still at the border but they’re old news now.

Coming back has been a little strange. Yes, there is a pile of physical paperwork that I need to get through. The Canadian Government does everything through snail mail when it comes to small businesses. Yes, I have a few in-person meetings with some partners and clients who need to hand over physical products. But it’s now constantly lingering in the back of my mind “do I really need to be here for this?”

At the beginning of the year, while COVID was still just a news story a world away and I was still working 14hr days as a lifestyle choice, I never would have dreamed of stepping away from Montreal at such a crucial time in Drive Marketing’s growth.

Now, I think about what tasks I need to knock off while I’m here in town before I can run off to my next destination. It’s funny, COVID forced me to abandon my company office. And, in the end, I guess that was a good thing.