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The first workiversary: WTF happens when adland couples WFH for one year?

On the anniversary of PM Boris Johnson's stay-at-home order, adland couples share their stories from one year of enforced WFH.

The first workiversary: WTF happens when adland couples WFH for one year?

Clockwise from left: El and Aine, Gen and Emma (with Zorro), Caroline and Ben (with Frank), Chris and Dean, Trevor and Rania

From pitching for the same business in adjacent rooms to talking far too loudly on Zoom and the battle for the kitchen table, Campaign asks adland’s couples about how they’ve managed to work at home together for a whole year.

Gen Kobayashi, chief strategy officer at Engine Creative and Emma Kobayashi, communications director at Rapp

Together: 18 years | Live: East London | Kids: Nine and seven years old | Dog: Zorro the Bichon-Russell Terrier (meant to be a Cavapoo but we got conned in lockdown!)

How have you navigated / negotiated a whole year of WFH together in the same space?

EMMA: It’s certainly going to make for a boring 2020 photo book for the family. We’ve managed it though! We’ve tended to work in different rooms so at least I can ask him how his day was without already knowing the answer. Gen took the playroom at first and I took the kitchen table. We are a proper lockdown cliché and got a puppy last summer – so being in the kitchen, I realised I was also homeschooling at least one child and toilet training a puppy. I think I may have lost it – so we soon decided to mix it up and swap rooms. I also bought a desk for the lounge, which has helped us both have the option of avoiding children and puppies, should we need to.

GEN: I think the key word here is “space”. We’re fortunate enough to live somewhere where we have the room to create two separate working spaces for one another. I think without it, it could well have been marital carnage. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over this period of time it's that we’d be terrible office buddies.

What annoying or endearing habits have you noticed about each other that you weren’t aware of before?

EMMA: He types really loudly. He also talks quite loudly on calls.

GEN: I’ve realised I talk VERY loudly when on Zoom. Emma must have the patience of a saint to have endured a year’s worth of overhearing me on Zoom. I’ve also really noticed that Emma never quite fills up your mug with tea to the top. I tend to need a step ladder down into it.

What new habits have you developed; breakfast together, or a lunchtime walk?

EMMA: I introduced him to vegan Nakd bars, which he previously found too healthy to be nice. We’ve also developed a new love for cream of tomato soup. It’s the lunch highlight of the week. Working from home has also meant that we all eat dinner together as family. Back in the old pre-Covid days, the person not on pick-up duty would generally not be home in time for this to happen. It’s also meant that both kids have had to widen their food palates beyond lasagne and spag bol. They still pick the onion out of everything though. When do they stop doing this? I actually feel compelled to give Gen a shout out here – he’s pretty much cooked every meal for a year – and often three different lunches if one kid has asked for eggs and the other a sandwich. I know – who does that?

GEN: There’s been so many things that I’d be quite happy to never do again during lockdown, but one of the things that has stuck with us and I hope we carry on doing post-lockdown is having breakfast together as a family every morning. Gathering thoughts and talking about the day ahead. It’s something we just never used to do, and I want to make sure we keep doing it.

Have you developed a closer relationship or better understanding of one another as a result of working together at home for so long?

EMMA: We’ve been together for 18 years, so I feel pretty confident we have a good understanding of each other. I have quite enjoyed overhearing the odd pitch though and how Gen presents. He actually pitched when we had Covid just before Xmas. I was insistent he pulled out; he was insistent he didn’t. I went into the room after the pitch to check on him and he was lying face down on the floor in a cold sweat. I’ve always known he’s dedicated to the ad cause, but I think this cemented it for me.

GEN: Working so closely together all day means that you know if someone’s had a tough day “at the office” or if you know it’s going to be a late one at work, which means you both know immediately and one of us can jump in to help support one another far more quickly than we would have done when both of us were apart. In that sense, mine and Emma’s tag team skills have definitely levelled up.

What lessons have you learned from each other?

EMMA: To communicate! At all costs – tell each other when you have an important meeting. Under no circumstances should one of us be on an important call and supervising a maths lesson with a grumpy seven-year-old.

GEN: I’ve definitely learned that I’m better at making tea.

What has it been like for you working in the same industry together at home?

EMMA: We keep the chat to a minimum unless I need his help on something. He’s quite good at helping me look clever.

GEN: It’s important to put strict curbs on “ad chat” out of working hours.

What has been the funniest moment when working together from home over the past year?

EMMA: Not sure it was funny at the time, but it would have to be our son hoisting himself up on to the kitchen sink and drinking straight from the tap, while I was on a call with my CEO. I think Zorro might have done a number two on the kitchen floor shortly afterwards. Did I mention I nearly lost it and bought myself a desk for the lounge?

GEN: Our puppy weeing over the floor and my feet during a pitch creative review.

Are you planning to go back to your respective offices, and if so, are you looking forward to that time?

EMMA: I really can’t wait to go back to the office and I’m looking forward to Gen hopefully being able to enjoy more flexibility too when we do. It will make such a difference to parenting and family life without impacting how we perform at work. If there is anything positive out of Covid, I’m hopeful that flexibility at work will become the next new normal. I also can’t wait to put nice clothes on again.

GEN: Yes and yes. I don’t think office life will go back to five days a week like pre-Covid. But I think creativity thrives when we’re together in the same physical space, so I don’t believe we’ll see the end of offices, I just think there’ll be a radical change in how and when we use our offices in the future.

Aine Donovan, head of art buying and partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and founder of They Made This, and El Jones, freelance digital strategist and founder of Watt-Watt

Together: 17 years | Live: North London | Kids: four-year-old boy

How have you navigated / negotiated a whole year of WFH together in the same space?

EL: There were some tense moments at the beginning, I am not going to sugar coat it. Before Covid we were already feeling a bit stretched for time as we both also run fairly busy side hustles. So for the first few days we were sort of just staring at each other blankly in a state of shock and panic. We have a four-year-old son, and the nursery closed overnight, and with it, our childcare routine went up in flames.

AINE: We were dealing with huge changes at work. I remember on the second or third day of lockdown speaking to my boss (Stephen Ledger Lomas, head of production, BBH) and we were trying to figure out how to do a shoot for Tesco, who were incredibly busy in those early days when all supermarkets became so essential. It was such a surreal moment as neither of us had the answers straight away, and as a producer you are used to always having solutions up your sleeve.

Have you worked in the same room or separately?

AINE: We’re lucky enough to have a home office so that did really help hugely as we had somewhere quiet to concentrate for work. I think that also helped us separate work-life from home-life, which has been key to carving out some down-time away from work. I think we found it better to have a workspace separate from personal life/family space.

EL: At the start of the first lockdown, we decided to give ourselves a little project, mainly to take our minds off the chaos of the pandemic. So, we spent one hour every day building a deck in our garden. We were so time-poor we couldn't dedicate more than that, but there was something really lovely about the discipline of it. And with the whole world turned upside down, it was really calming to physically build something together. It gave us a sense of purpose and some control over our situation. It took us six weeks and when it was finished, we named it the "Lockdown Lounge".

Have you taken turns to use the same part of the house or piece of equipment?

AINE: When our son's nursery was closed, we had to set up a work and childcare roster for each day, so we were never working at the same time or in the same place as one of us was always on childcare duty. BBH was incredibly accommodating and supportive of working parents, so I could be quite flexible with my working day. Occasionally I was able to spend a lot of the day focusing on childcare and work in the evenings instead.

EL: We both also run our own businesses on the side so the main time we work together is when we are focusing on those. During lockdown our print shop was incredibly busy and so every evening when our son was in bed, we’d take over the kitchen table and start processing print orders.

What annoying or endearing habits have you noticed about each other that you weren’t aware of before?

EL: As I work freelance, I’ve been working from home for years, so I was very used to having free run of the house with our son at nursery and Aine in the office at BBH. It took quite a bit of adjusting to share space with Aine and our son as they are both unbelievably distracting and chatty (they literally never stop talking) and are both really loud too. It was like instantly going from a really peaceful quiet working space to an all-day rave with those two. So that was a bit of an adjustment. Also, the frequency of the tea making (Aine is Irish) was, frankly, alarming and quite unexpected, but also quite nice.

Have you developed a closer relationship or better understanding of one another as a result of working together at home for so long?

AINE: El is very methodical in her working day. She also takes her time to do things properly, whereas I can rush around a lot trying to do a hundred things at once. So I’ve definitely learned to slow down and take each day as it comes and tackle one problem at a time.

EL: We are certainly closer as a family. It’s amazing how adaptable we all are as people. And how amazing couples can be at adapting too. We’ve been together 17 years so have weathered our fair share of storms, but this one will definitely go straight to the top of the list. I am so proud though of how we pulled together and got through these past 12 months.

What has been the funniest moment when working together from home over the past year?

AINE: Our son slammed my laptop shut in a heads of department meeting in the first few days of lockdown, because I wasn't paying him any attention. It was highly amusing and also mortifying. He’s still doing it now. He hates the laptop. I don't blame him. I hate it too sometimes. Kids are great for reminding you of the important things in life, like playing in the garden or going for a walk in the woods, which is a far better use of your time than staring at a screen all day.

Are you planning to go back to your respective offices, and if so, are you looking forward to that time?

AINE & EL: Like most people, we are hoping for a better work/life balance going forward. If this lockdown has taught us anything, it is that we do not need to be chained to our desks 24/7 and that change in the way we work has certainly been a silver lining for us. We get to spend more quality time together as a family and we sincerely hope to have a more flexible working structure when things reopen later this year. We’ll miss the amount of time we have been able to spend together.

Ben Middleton, chief creative officer at Creature London and Caroline Rawlings, creative director at VCCP

Together: 19 years | Live: London | Kids: eight and five years old | Dog: Frank the cockerpoo

How have you navigated/negotiated a whole year of WFH together in the same space?

BEN and CAROLINE: Live. Love. Laugh. Lager. Malbec. Disaronno. Sleep.

Have you worked in the same room or separately?

BEN: It became apparent within minutes of homeworking happening that we were incapable of working in the same room. The Pavlovian triggers of either "that thing we meant to talk about last night", the (still) mild fluttering embarrassment of not being able to concentrate because you fancy someone in the (home) office or the constant "have you got a sec to teach the kids maths?" meant it was nigh on impossible.

Have you taken turns to use the same part of the house or piece of equipment?

BEN: While being fortunate enough to have space at home for both of us to be able to work separately without disturbing the other, the hallowed silence of the "meeting room" at the top of the house is still hotly contested, and is now block-booked for client calls for the next three weeks. The upside in all of this is that the kids are now a dab hand with the biscuits and can make a mean flat white.

What annoying or endearing habits have you noticed about each other that you weren’t aware of before?

CAROLINE: We found out early doors that despite his best efforts at monotone mumbling, it turns out Ben’s voice really “carries”, which has (so far) peaked with a VCCP client meeting enjoying a surprise aural guest appearance from a CCO from another agency talking about another brand.

What new habits have you developed: breakfast together or a lunchtime walk?

BEN: Our five-year-old has taken to running into the back garden every night at about six o’clock and shouting the rudest thing she can think of (“bum”) as loud as she can. Does that count?

Have you developed a closer relationship or better understanding of one another as a result of working together at home for so long?

CAROLINE: Lockdown, and the schools being closed, have been an enormous challenge for all of us to have to navigate, but the way in which both we, and the kids, have adapted is something we’re enormously proud of. As a family, we’re a very close-knit crew, and we feel incredibly fortunate to have had to spend this time together with people we love, which means naturally we have all become even closer and more understanding of one another’s various quirks. And the weekly game of "scream into the wind" has also really helped.

What lessons have you learned from each other?

BEN: Having met 3 million years ago at art college, we’ve been thick as thieves for most of our adult lives, with us now knowing everything there is to know about one another. But it took a global pandemic for me to find out that Caroline can do a fucking brilliant Welsh accent.

What has it been like for you working in the same industry together at home?

BEN: We joked that it’d be funny if we ended up pitching against each other while working from home. We’d have to engage in a code of silence, or erect a wall down the middle of the house, taking a child each and half the kitchen, so we could both work in isolation without fear of overhearing a cracking end-line or a pitch-winning strategy.

We were both on the same pitch within a fortnight of the first lockdown. But, once the wall was up, it wasn’t so bad. Granted, the kids miss each other terribly so we let them meet in the garden on Wednesday afternoons, but all in all, we've adjusted to our new normal pretty well. Which is just as well, because neither of us won the bloody pitch.

What has been the funniest moment when working together from home over the past year?

CAROLINE: At the start of the pre-Christmas lockdown we made the inspired decision to get a dog. Looking back, that was a pretty funny thing to do: take the crushing pressures of another national lockdown, increasingly feral children and a million spinning plates and lob in a furry four-legged baby that shits, shouts and bites everyone. What could be funnier?

Christopher Kenna, founder and CEO, and Dean Evans, head of delivery at Brand Advance

Together: 12 years | Live: London | Kids: 16-year-old (living in Germany)

How have you navigated/negotiated a whole year of WFH together in the same space?

CHRIS: We’ve been together 12 years, which in gay years is a long time. It's just like dog years: multiply by seven. So we had already got used to each other.

DEAN: We work at the same company so we're together all the time. Usually, Chris is more social than I am. So there'll be events or panels that he will be out of the office for, and I will have time to myself, which I have been missing.

What annoying or endearing habits have you noticed about each other that you weren’t aware of before?

DEAN: Chris is always here. Before Covid, he may be at an industry event two or three times a week. I would go to some of them but mostly I would come home, eat what I want, watch what I want and just relax.

CHRIS: And I've had to suffer Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And it's not just one series; I've had to watch the UK one, the US one, and any other camp TV show. I’ve had to suffer it because I'm here and he makes me put down my phone and watch it, he says if we're stuck in the same house, you're going to watch these shows with me.

What new habits have you developed: a lunchtime walk, breakfast together…?

DEAN: When there's a big meeting going on, and there have been some big ones lately, we’ve just been having a hug at the end. I’m thinking it’s just going to be a quick hug and then 45 seconds later we’re still there, because it is just horrible, because life's just horrible at the moment.

CHRIS: I get lonely, so we've had arguments, where I want Dean to come out of the guest room office and just sit with me, but he wants quiet time and says he’s busy. And I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for the next live panel discussion.

To what extent have you felt self-conscious when having meetings that your partner can overhear?

DEAN: Because Chris is the boss, it makes me nervous when he's on a call. It’s easier for me when he's not on the call. And it’s not just him but any senior people can be the cause of stress, and it can sometimes stop you from being your best.

CHRIS: I knew Dean was good, because he helped me build the company, I just didn't realise how good he is. Because he's shy, he never speaks if I'm in the room. I know it's not the greatest dynamic and I hope our relationship is equal. I've always been the career-minded one, but overhearing Dean on calls with our clients has made me realise how good Dean is.

What has been the most memorable moment when working together from home over the past year?

DEAN: At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, Chris fell and knocked out his front teeth. He was OK, but there was a time when his front teeth were missing, and even the prettiest of faces looks terrible without front teeth.

CHRIS: So, I was the rude person with my camera off. To be fair I would turn it on for a second just to explain, and everyone would agree that it was much better if I kept it off.

Are you planning to go back to your offices, and if so, are you looking forward to that time?

CHRIS: We are privileged with where we live, in Canary Wharf, at the top of a big skyscraper with two levels to our apartment. But many of our staff don't have that privilege and they might be living in a house with four or five other people, working from their bedroom.

DEAN: We open the office every time we’re allowed. It opens again on 29 March.

Trevor Robinson, founder, Quiet Storm and Create Not Hate and Rania Robinson, CEO and partner, Quiet Storm, director, Create Not Hate

Together: 15 years | Live: London | Kids: 12, 13 and 30 | Dog: Pugsy the pug

How have you navigated / negotiated a whole year of WFH together in the same space?

RANIA: We definitely leave work at the end of the day now. Before Covid, I’d come home and start talking to Trevor straightaway about work stuff. I don't do that now. We leave work at six o'clock or whenever the day is over, and we psychologically leave it, and emotionally leave it, rather than physically leaving it. And I think that's a good thing because we are also respecting each other's rituals.

TREVOR: Sometimes I need to shut off and have a hot bath and a glass of wine, read, put on music, just to show that the day's shut off, otherwise it’s whirling around my head, all night. We both have our ways now of just putting a line in the sand when the working day is over.

Have you worked in the same room or separately?

TREVOR: We do a lot of meetings together, and at first we were doing them at the kitchen table. I don't know how we did that. I'm very much a doodler and looking for references all the time and trying to try to work and come up with ideas, during meetings. And that can be quite off-putting if that's not your way of working. So in the end, the fight for the kitchen table was won by Rania, because she gets up earlier than me. Now, we are all in separate zones, and it’s a lot more conducive towards working together.

RANIA: In the beginning we got on each other's nerves; I got frustrated with Trev not appearing to be paying attention to the meeting because he's checking references and doing various things, something you wouldn't notice necessarily if he was in his office, or he wouldn't be doing if he was sat in a normal meeting room. Even under these challenging circumstances, I think we fared pretty well. We’ve probably had just as many rows in the office, if not more in the office, than we've had at home. It's been more minor irritations.

What new habits have you developed; lunchtime walk, breakfast together…?

RANIA: We sometimes get lunch where we all sit down with the kids when they've been home, that's happened once a week or so when timings work. I think what we've realised is we need to take time away from each other as often as we can. We'll spend time doing separate things at the weekend.

TREVOR: I've been recovering from a bike accident and shoulder injury. So for me, I have physio and go for walks or back out on my bike again. I need to discipline myself in that, at lunchtime, I just put my headphones on and go outside. Pretty soon, if you don't do those things, you're just sat here.

What has it been like for you working in the same industry together at home?

TREVOR: I think this year has brought us closer together because we rebooted Create Not Hate again. It has been a very emotional year, especially the whole George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, and feelings have bubbled up from racist incidents that have happened to me and that happened to Rania. So we have been able to put that cathartically together and use Create Not Hate to do something positive about the very negative world that we live in. That's something I wouldn't underestimate about this year.

Have you developed a closer relationship or better understanding of one another as a result of working together at home for so long?

RANIA: As a couple, each thing that you go through that's challenging either breaks you or it brings you closer together. Our relationship has got stronger and stronger, and actually, the battles and the challenges and the misunderstandings become fewer and fewer. In the early days of working together, it was tough getting to know each other and getting to figure it all out. This was another thing we've gone through, and we've gone through a lot.

What has been the funniest moment when working together from home over the past year?

TREVOR: During meetings when one of the kids is trying to cook, it's crash-bang-wallop and you're trying to talk to the client… But it’s the same reality for everyone. We've seen clients with kids coming in, snotty noses and jam everywhere.

What lessons have you learned over the past year?

RANIA: We’ve got a busy household with quite a few people. Now we’ve got a Robinsons' WhatsApp and I say the times when I don't want anyone in the kitchen, and can someone please take the dog. Otherwise, it's so distracting. Both of us have been doing quite a lot of podcasts and panels, and then suddenly you've got all this stuff going on in the background, so we’ve learned to manage it better.