Were you in the camp hailing “Freedom Day” on Monday, or more likely to be found posting social media missives using the #freedumbday hashtag?
No-one is short of an opinion on this week’s significant move to end all legally binding social distancing restrictions related to the coronavirus crisis and move into an era of personal responsibility.
That it comes as the Delta variant of Covid causes a rise in cases and plunges society into a “pingdemic” has sharpened the debate.
Since March 2020, at differing times, the UK public has lived with some kind of stricture on their lives, whether that’s being unable to visit non-essential shops, go for a haircut or having to wear a mask, through to curbs on spending time with relatives or attending the funeral of a loved one. The state’s encroachment on citizens’ private lives has hit – yes, it’s that word – unprecedented levels.
While the government softened its original “work from home” directive to “work from home, if you can” it was only on Monday that the advice finally lifted.
First identified in India, the arrival of the Delta variant on these shores has added a dose of uncertainty to this year's unlocking. In the spring, the success of the vaccine roll-out had made the prospect of “Freedom Day” – first set for 23 June – a reason for uncomplicated cheer for many.
But while revellers flocked to nightclubs to mark the delayed occasion – prompting an overnight U-turn on Covid passports for crowded venues by the government – there was little talk of the parties and days off that some agencies had planned to mark the original date.
Planning a return
Anyone reading this in a sweaty flat instead of an air-conditioned office will be painfully aware that the world of work has been radically reshaped.
That is not to say that offices have been completely empty all this time. In the agency world, most have been open for a while and workers have trickled back in. It’s a similar story for brand-side marketing departments and media owners but no-one in adland has returned to pre-pandemic levels of office working.
Whether it’s a hybrid two days in or three days out or devolving the frequency decisions to individual teams, leaders have spent time trying to get the balance right between the flexibility offered by homeworking and the benefits to team-building and creative thinking that comes with office culture.
It’s a mixed picture; there are start-up shops that have started up without offices and, notably, tech platforms such as Twitter declared that employees are free to work from home “forever”.
Meanwhile, agencies such as Pablo relinquished their spaces to move to a default homeworking model until the autumn. Its joint managing director, Hannah Penn, sums up below a common dilemma, when she says of her workforce: “Lots of us are desperate to be back together. Lots of us are desperately anxious still.”
So in the light of the volatile environment, Campaign asked adland’s leaders whether they are changing their office working policies?
Our policy hasn’t changed. We’re not hosting a rave downstairs @Mother this week. That would be crazy, right? Who would open up fully when cases are this high, and not everyone is double jabbed? But the office is still open. I’m in here most days. Largely for the air con. Also, the joy of meeting colleagues in real life.
We are keeping distancing measures and reduced capacity for now. We will be cautious, but if people want to use the space for meetings or escape from a heatwave, it's here for them. We will keep alert to any changes and listen to how our people are feeling before any major shifts in policy this summer.
Chief executive, Publicis Media UK
Our approach has always been to take things slowly and prioritise keeping everyone safe, which is still the case today. There’s still no pressure on anyone to go into the office but for those that do, we’re asking that everyone continues to wear a face mask when moving around the building. We’re also keeping our desk booking system in place, with a limited number of desks available, so we can still socially distance and track and trace more easily. We’ll review things again at the end of August, but with “Freedom Day” adding to the anxiety for some, we’re not making any drastic changes too soon.
Chief executive, Droga5 London
No. As the pandemic situation constantly evolves, the single constant that will guide our return is the safety and well-being of our talent. Right now we’re operating at 15% capacity so we can use our office as a facility for talent and the client meetings who need to use it. But all under clear protocols (negative testing, distancing, face masks) – which will stay for a while. We’re all eager to get back to the office and work together in person again, but we won’t do anything knee-jerk. We’ve planned a phased and cautious return to the office over the course of the summer and autumn. We’re being caution-led and won’t be tempted by any shortcuts.
Chief executive, Elvis
We are currently suggesting that people work from the office two days a fortnight as a minimum, but we are not enforcing this. What has become very apparent to me is that, unlike anything else we have experienced, this is a profoundly personal point in time. In every other situation, the business pretty much acts as a single unit, trusting leadership and sharing values. Covid-19 is just not the same. Choices you make regarding work and travel can actually affect your health and wellbeing, as well as that of your friends and family. The stakes are so much higher. It’s also clear that we all have a different (and quite honestly a transient) set of principles around what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour – a lot of them based on purely selfish reasoning. So, for me it’s about being as flexible, sensitive and supportive as possible to ensure that everyone’s needs are met to some degree.
Joint managing director, Pablo
The Delta variant hasn't changed our office policy, because we believe in the individual freedom of our staff to choose how they work. Our office policy throughout Covid has been simple: don’t get all consumed and distracted by an office policy. We had no office while we didn’t need one, to remove any pressure and to focus on making remote working work. We’ll be back in a new, permanent home in the autumn, but deliberately aren’t rushing into one, so people can take summer at their own pace. Lots of us are desperate to be back together. Lots of us are desperately anxious still. We’re taking on an interim space so we have the best of both worlds as people work out their own, individual new rhythm.