Republik cures staff isolation with cottage country escape

For three months only, the work-and-live space will give mental health refuge to the agency's Montreal city dwellers.

Republik Pop Up

While COVID-19 has kept most people locked up, some have been fortunate enough to escape to homes and cottages outside of the city. And since escape isn’t an option for everyone, one Montreal agency opened a retreat in the mountains for its staff.

In early July, Republik cut the ribbon on Republik N46, an outdoors-inspired summer pop-up office in Mont Tremblant, giving employees exclusive access to a space designed to inspire creativity and boost morale. Republik 46N will remain open until the end of September, when many employers expect at least a portion of workers to return to the office.

The roughly 25-person agency has always been close-knit, with many staffers typically getting together outside of work – which was no longer possible when physical distancing measures were put in place, says Martin Bertrand, manager of culture at Republik. Come May, after one-on-one virtual meetings revealed employee motivation was waning, the shop figured a shared cottage space could help boost morale and carry staff through the remainder of the pandemic, he says.

Within weeks of the official lockdown, Republik decided that no one would return to its usual office until at least September. That’s when a handful of employees, including Bertrand himself, escaped to relatives’ homes and cottages outside of the city, two of which were already in Tremblant, he says. “We felt like most of the other employees were kind of jealous of us, being in nature and doing meetings on a patio with a view of the lake.”

Republik N46 – named after the 46th parallel on which Mont-Tremblant is located – is more a campus than a standalone office; employees have access to a cottage and, within walking distance, a separate office space (pictured below) located in the Old Town part of the ski resort.

To maintain safe physical distancing measures, only three team members can camp out at the cottage at one time, says Bertrand. However, the office contains a lounge area, conference room and two other rooms and can safely accommodate up to six. The extra space means that the two staffers working full-time from their own places in Tremblant can also set up there.

Republik Office

Employees were given the chance to select their cottage roommates. Then, a draw was held to determine which weeks of the summer those groups could claim as their own. Bertrand says the groups that have stayed at the cottage have used the opportunity to take early-morning swims and evening hikes. A polaroid camera was left so that experiences could be captured and left to find by the next group.

As a creative agency, Republik felt it was important that the initiative not only be “nice,” but also aesthetically “beautiful,” says Bertrand. So graphic designer Tyran Trieu created a Republik N46 logo and branding, which could eventually be applied to employee merch or other internal creations. “We want it to kind of be a lifestyle for the summer.”

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“The mental health, motivation and happiness of our employees is something that we [always] focus on,” says Bertrand. From May to August, for example, the agency runs a steps and fitness challenge to encourage physical activity and also moved in-person office yoga classes online. “We are really into making sure our employees are fit with their body [and] their mind, so their work is normally better.”

Even pre-COVID, someone approached agency leadership with the idea of creating an outdoor space where the creative team could occasionally spend time brainstorming ideas, says Bertrand. While the virus has postponed that initiative, the agency may look to bring it back once the situation returns to normal.

Last September, Republik (alongside Toronto-based multicultural agency Barrett & Welsh) made the Best for The World: Workers List, a competition administered by the B Lab that recognizes the top 10% of B Corps with employee-friendly practices, such as “ownership opportunities, job flexibility and fair-chance hiring policies.”

Bertrand says Republik N46 is only a small part of what it has done to keep its culture alive throughout the pandemic. It held weekly “State of the Nation” virtual meetings (through which employees could have their anonymous questions answered by leadership), followed by a happy hour and games. It also recently held a five-hour town hall featuring special guest entrepreneurs, a dinner delivery and beer tasting and a company-wide roast by a local comedian.

“The work-from-home situation was hard, because as a small team, we really have a family vibe,” he says. “To go from seeing each other every day, [doing] activities at night, even during the weekend, to nothing at all – it was really hard, mentally, on people. We felt this initiative would really bring back that team vibe.”