Coronavirus crisis will change how we work forever
A view from Sarah Douglas

Coronavirus crisis will change how we work forever

We will emerge from isolation ready to work in a way that is more empathetic to how people live now, AMV's CEO says.

Those of us who work in the communications industry like to think we are more connected to people than professionals in any other sector. We believe, irrespective of whether or not there is a global pandemic, that we are closest to people’s hopes, dreams, desires, frustrations and fears. Our job is to understand human motivations and drivers, and help clients build brands that meet real consumer need with meaning. 

Right now, the advertising community is living and working more vitally than at any moment in our collective history. In the chaos of the stockpiling and the emptying of our streets, I think there is a real opportunity to open ourselves up to learn even more dynamically about people and their individual, fluctuating lives – something that will help us not only adapt more readily and then recover more quickly, but also become better practitioners by developing new levels of empathy. 

Now is a time when boundaries between home, work and family are blurring, because there are none left available. As a leader, I want to help my people relax into being just that – my people. It’s their brains I need, not their timetables. The more we are in the world, the more we become of it, and in our business understanding is everything. The more we understand, the more empathetic we can be. Call it the discipline of the tight brief. The more you know, the sharper your creative incisor will be.

It is in the experience of living chaotically and finding order within it – of pivoting from Peppa Pig to PowerPoint – that we demonstrate the real colour and breadth of our creativity and that we all become ever more human. For a creative industry designed to connect with humans, this can only be a good thing.

With the collapsing of all the boundaries, people’s well-being at home is a big concern for me. As leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure that working from home does not mean "always on" – even though there is no one-size-fits-all for how people manage their own domestic juggle and worries during this challenging period.

From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been very open with staff and freed individuals to work out their own daily rhythm within their teams. We are also supporting our people with a variety of communal online meet-ups and support to facilitate much-needed downtime – be that our regular pub club quiz, parents’ elevenses or our at-home-with-the-kids club.

Maintaining culture is important. Company culture is a particularly important anchor in times of crisis, not least for our people who live alone. Our teams are enjoying video-conferencing happy hours and reflections at the end of each day. We’ve created a weekly community newsletter of the serious and fun stuff happening in all the corners of remote working. As leaders, Alex [Grieve, chief creative officer] and I continue to talk to the whole company every Monday morning via Webex. This involves sharing the things we are doing in different teams to support our clients through this time while continuing to celebrate our people with "news" such as birthdays, anniversaries and top viewing recommendations of the week.

As a company, you must care about two things: quality in everything you do and each other, as David Abbott used to say. In this strange and challenging time, this guiding principle has never been truer.

Removing structures and being knee-deep in the things that really matter is also a timely reminder that family is everything and, as such, it doesn’t live in a tidily segmented time slot at the beginning and end of each day. 

What this crisis does is dismantle all our structures and cause us to reconnect fully with life in all its chaos and complexities. Blending working from home with family, and combining this with schooling at home and caring for elderly relatives and neighbours, is raw, challenging and bloody. Some days you win, some days you lose… and some days you just power on through and surprise yourself. 

Ultimately, this period will change how we work forever. Although the technological revolution showed us the promised land of flexible working, working cultures continued to constrain the new-world methodologies with a lagging old world order. Soon, I think, we will emerge from isolation match-fit and ready to work in a way that is more empathetic to how people live now and more flexible and fit for 21st-century living. 

Sarah Douglas is chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO