Blexr general manager: COVID-19 pandemic has changed employee expectations in gaming

By Tim Poole

With companies turning to remote work en masse during the coronavirus pandemic, Gambling Insider catches up with Ian Hills, general manager of affiliate marketing company Blexr, to discuss how best to support employees amid changing expectations.

First of all, tell us all about Blexr and what is it your company specialises in?

We’re an affiliate marketing company so we run a number of websites designed to introduce users to casino and sportsbook operators, and we also have some business with forex traders.

We employ about 70 full-time employees, with most operating out of Malta and some in Barcelona. Because we have that geographical setup by default, we’re quite used to working collaboratively and remotely in lots of ways. It’s business as usual for us during the current pandemic situation.

Naturally, with live sports stopping, we’ve seen revenue fall in our sportsbook sites but casino is holding up relatively well, which is good news in terms of being seen as a form of entertainment. We haven’t seen signs of people over-using it as a form of escape; we’re very conscious of that kind of social responsibility.

Being a young company owned by two young owners, we’ve had things like unlimited remote working available to employees for about nine months already. That’s been something people who enjoy that sort of thing have taken advantage of. So that Plan B was already there for us. Everybody in our organisation had a laptop and had the connections available to be able to work remotely.

What advice would you give companies who, unlike yourselves, haven’t been used to this situation?

There are companies out there who have gone as far as providing laptops and connectivity and that’s it. And what we have found is employees actually need more than that.

Remote working can be a very productive work environment. But, in the second month of working that way, you start to see the downsides of isolation. People feel disconnection, so we focus not on the infrastructure but getting people to still feel connected and still feel part of teams.

Even when you’re in an office with people, if you start sending emails back and forth, you start to feel people are not on your team as much. So promoting virtual team meetings is something we’ve done, rather than sending Slack messages or emails. Now we try and have virtual Friday afternoons where people grab a beer and sit down to hang out that way; we also play poker tournaments online. We’re lucky enough to have a person on our team who’s a part-time personal trainer, so she’s been running little exercise and stretching courses once a week.

That’s where companies will have failed the test of COVID-19. They’ve given the materials and basic necessities but have not followed it up with the kind of support that’s needed. It’s about looking after the mental health of employees, trying to make sure they don’t work on a public holiday or a weekend. We encourage them to take time off work and take some leave days, to have time to disconnect from work life. We don’t believe people will be more productive long term by working 20 hours a day. It’s not healthy or sustainable, so we’ve been focusing on the mental health side of things.

How important is this kind of communication during the pandemic; what kind of a message would you send to executives on this?

We’ve seen the benefits of being more open and pre-emptively trying to answer the questions people might have about things. So hopefully communication is something that will hang around even when we all return to our offices – as will that feeling of supporting our employees, not just during the nine to five.

Do you envision changing employee expectations after this pandemic, based on the changes in focus we are currently seeing?

For gaming, in particular – I’ve worked in the industry for a number of years – it is a young, exciting area. It’s a bit like the Silicon Valley idea – Friday beers, free fruit juices, lunches etc. For our industry, COVID-19 has been a real wake-up call. Those things people were previously pursuing are not necessarily what they were looking for anymore. Personally, I do see a lot of changing expectations about what employees will look for when looking at other companies to join.

In simple terms – it sounds terrible – but one of the first things people will do when looking for a new company is to Google how they treated their employees during the pandemic. Did they make a whole bunch of people redundant? What did the company do during a time of crisis? Were they protecting the bottom line at all costs or was it a company looking after the staff? That involves the kind of support they give, not just the perks.

Given the generational mix in the industry, that is something people weren’t looking at before. Previously, people were chasing that extra couple of thousand in salary, or chasing the travel benefits. That’s great – keep doing that stuff – but I think people will look more now at how companies handled the crisis and how much remote working is now promoted. Those sorts of things will definitely change.

That makes me think of ICE London and the trade shows we normally have on our calendar – with boat parties and plenty of networking perks. Without trade shows in the current climate, I guess it’s a case of giving less importance to those kind of perks and focusing more on the day-to-day support network?

Absolutely. We all read up about the virus and the fact there are risks of a second wave in winter or when isolations are relaxed. So if people are looking to change company, they’re either looking at whether their current company can survive the second wave or whether their next company will. Those things are not things people normally think about when changing job. They’re usually just looking to get away from their terrible line manager or get a little more in salary.

Do you think remote working will become more frequent after this pandemic? Some CEOs I’ve spoken to have said they would be prepared to be more flexible, although they still don’t see a major shift for fear of losing company culture.

The simple answer to that question is Blexr will still have offices! They may be slightly smaller offices but I don’t see that changing. As much as we try and focus on culture remotely – we are lucky to have recruited half a dozen people virtually – people will never feel totally on board unless they are at lunch with their colleagues etc.

I do believe remote working will be used in a better way. Both managers and staff will understand what works better at home and works better in the office. Sending a detailed email to a lawyer, for example, is perfect at home. But getting updates from my teams? That’s a lot better face to face.

So people will use remote work more intelligently. I’d probably echo the sentiments of remote work being used more but I don’t see it replacing the norm.

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