Jos Ortega
Apr 15, 2020

How a strong culture and mental health awareness now helps teams working remotely

Organisational culture has a huge role to play in ensuring team well-being and keeping up morale, says the CEO of Havas Ortega Philippines.

Havas Philippines social group chat
Havas Philippines social group chat

It begins with culture.

One of the most important career decisions people make is the culture they choose to grow in.

So what exactly determines an attractive culture - that resonates with the talent of the organisation? Is it the pool table, the nap pods, the yoga corner? Or is it something intangible - the values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and emotional well-being of people? While the former is certainly appealing, it is actually the latter that makes for a sustainable culture - where mental health is a priority - that leads to engaged and supported employees.

Now, mental health is an area that has often been swept under the rug, as it is a subject that makes many of us uncomfortable primarily because it is misunderstood and ignored. We often take for granted that mental health is just about the absence of illnesses/disorders like depression and anxiety. What we often fail to understand that it’s also about our ability to cope with the normal stresses of day-to-day life and to work productively and fruitfully.

If coping with regular life was hard enough, we are now in the thick of an unprecedented pandemic situation that is testing our resilience and laying bare our vulnerabilities tied to deep-rooted anxieties and frailties.

And just when we thought we (Havas Ortega Philippines) had a strong organisational culture humming – one that is deeply embedded in providing a safe pace that supports well-being at work - we were struck by the 'enhanced community quarantine', forcing our company to go 100% work-from-home.

While remote work can be exhilarating in parts—no soul-crushing commute, no need to don that perfect office attire, being closer to family, etc— it’s not without its challenges. The first concern is undoubtedly to ensure the well-being of your people and keep their morale up. That’s where organisational culture has a huge role to play.

Over the last few weeks, as we faced our moment of truth by migrating to a new reality manifested with the transfer of  the workplace to our homes. We undertook the task of moving our culture online and learnt some valuable lessons in the process. We are also guided by COPING-19 tips created by our culture team to help us check-in with our mental health in this time of COVID-19.

Mental health programmes are not frills but a must-have

One evening, almost two years back, one of our employees posted a rather alarming note on social media - a very unhealthy status message of depression and dark thoughts brought about by work and life, which reached one of our the executives. That was our watershed moment, when we swung to action to launch TALK – our mental wellness programme with InTouch Philippines. The efficacy of the programmes is reflected in the preparedness of our people in dealing with the current situation as they know that they are supported which is huge confidence and positivity booster.

So, don’t wait for an alarming situation to make mental health a priority – do it now – and make sure they are underpinned by digital capabilities.  For example, we developed an in-house app as part of our TALK initiative that allows anonymous complaints and suggestions on operations which has helped people to air their voice without the fear of being judged. This has come in very handy in these uncertain times where there more questions than any other time.

The other thing to note is that senior leadership has be to vested in these programmes and ensure they are managed effectively. The drive from the top helps it from being just a tick-in-the box item and makes it authentic and sincere.

Inculcate a culture of open communication

As a leader – talking to my people takes up almost 50% of my time. The more time you spend at an individual  and collective level communicating with your people, the better it is to deal with challenges and pressures. What is important is to create an environment where people can express themselves without fear and openness and camaraderie is nurtured.

As our work life moved online, our emphasis on open door (or zoom) policy continued with additional rigour and may we add – more fun?. This meant that not only did our formal meetings, town halls, strictly business meetings move to virtual but also the casual ones like themed get-togethers (under the umbrella of 'Bored meetings') where we kept the momentum going through DJ nights with a lockdown themed Spotify playlist (but of course!), team lunches (food and drinks are integral to our culture) and pictionary bonding.

Remote Collaboration

Even before COVID-19 disrupted our planet, remote working was moving up the value chain to be a standard component of the workweek. While mastering remote work is all about finding the right tools to stay productive and connected, the need to integrate technology with the organisational culture has never been so prevalent before. While, we have a new-found respect for our IT team, the biggest learning has been that we have to step to understand and know the basics and not wait for the IT team to come at your rescue for every little thing.

Creating video tutorials for easy reference on Office 365 apps and functionalities for all employees was definitely a step in the right direction.


While the functional transition from the office to the WFH environment was a given, moving our culture online (with a few tweaks) has been most gratifying. As we adjust to a new reality, and our new space of being completely virtual at this time, I hope as an industry, we continue to nurture our people. By being aware of their mental wellbeing, staying strongly connected, and bringing fun office traditions in digital form, we can help them evolve successfully in a healthy, positive and inspiring work environment – no matter what the circumstances are.

Jos Ortega is chairman and CEO, Havas Ortega Philippines


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