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'Full flexibility' is key: What agencies are learning from reopening offices

With some premises having reopened already and others set to do so in September, how are agencies tackling the return?

'Full flexibility' is key: What agencies are learning from reopening offices

When Publicis Groupe UK chief executive Annette King returned to the office with a handful of colleagues in June, the office felt like working on a pitch out of hours – there was a distinct lack of the usual atmosphere provided by agency staff. 

So, with such a large space in Chancery Lane and so few people in the agency, spread across different floors, the company decided to create an area where employees could go if they wanted to be surrounded by others.

“The social-distancing and safety measures we put in place allocate zones and desks to particular agencies and teams,” King explains. 

“As a result, we were quite spread out so we created a ‘friends zone’ on one floor for anyone who wanted to be around people they don’t normally work with, so you might have a couple of people from Starcom sitting with people from Leo’s [Burnett] and Turner Duckworth. It’s made the office feel more normal again with more buzz and interaction.”

This is just one of the ways that agencies are tackling the return to the office after the coronavirus lockdown. As the strict government measures continue to ease, since 1 August employers have officially been urged to welcome staff back to the office where it is safe to do so, although some agencies have been trialling the set-up for a couple of months. 

Publicis Groupe began a pilot in June for about 30 people and then opened its doors for 200 staff (5% of its 5,000 workforce) in July. 

The initial trial was to bring those working on a Groupe-wide pitch together. “Some of the pitch team went in for a few days to collaborate in a shared workspace,” King says. “They worked in a hybrid fashion with the rest of the team who were on video conference from home.”

King explains that the company wanted to offer the space for anyone who needed it and established the four Cs as a criteria for going into the office: collaboration, computing, concentration and clients. The agency had between 40 and 50 people in the office over the first two weeks in July. 

“Now that the guidance has changed, we’d expect to see a few more people coming in during August and a lot more in September when the schools go back and people return from their holidays,” King says. 

A couple of miles north in King’s Cross, Havas also reopened on a trial basis on 1 June. It set up the 10-storey building for a maximum of 30% of 2,000 staff but current levels are closer to 15%. 

“We quickly identified the office as the place where we come together and collaborate to prepare for and manage signature presentations,” Paul Ward, chief operations officer, says. 

“Of all the things people have missed while working at home, a solid infrastructure with working wi-fi, printers et cetera has been right up there. Clients tend to put up with the odd wi-fi fail from time to time – but if it keeps happening, it begins to grind.

“In reality, there’s a myriad of reasons why people are choosing to come in. Some miss the company, others have been working from less-than-ideal home set-ups and have relished the chance to be back in the office.”

For independent agency Creature, the office in Hackney has essentially become a hub, chief executive Dan Cullen-Shute explains. “By and large, I think it's being used in two ways: for people who just want a change of scenery, and for big meetings that really benefit from being in the same space.” 

Much like its bigger rivals, the Creature team has also found it beneficial to get together for a pitch. “Our creative work lives on walls, with people gathered around it, and while we've managed to replicate that remotely, it's definitely more effective in the real world,” Cullen-Shute says. 

Creature's return to the office will be a different process for the agency, which is made up of 32 people, with a six-month trial beginning in September when everyone will be asked to work from the office on Wednesday and Thursday only.  

“The buzz and energy that you get from being in the same space as like-minded, different-minded, smart, interesting, brilliant people will never go away but we think that there's a way to enjoy that without forcing people to fit their lives into a box that wasn't designed for them,” Cullen-Shute says. 

“The 3:2 model will give everyone the best of both worlds, and serve to make Creature an exciting place for more people to work, wherever they happen to live, and whatever shape their lives happen to be.”

For fellow independent agency Goodstuff, based in Fitzrovia, the plan is also to return to the office in September when more than half of its 120 staff are comfortable doing so. Chief executive Andrew Stephens says that the office will have a capacity for 50% and adds that there is an appetite for "full flexibility". 

“This has really shown us how flexible and resilient our teams are and many have appreciated the positive impact that working from home has had on their work/life balance, so we anticipate home and office-based working to be much more fluid in the future,” he says.

'The way we work with each other and with our clients has changed'

Winning the hearts and minds of employees is going to be key, with government scientists having warned about the risks of a second spike in Covid-19 infections. 

A survey of Campaign readers at the end of lockdown found that just one in eight (12.2%) wanted to return full time to the office. 

Although half (50.5%) were willing to go to the office on certain days each week, more than a quarter of participants (27.7%) said they would prefer to go in only for occasional meetings and one in 10 (9.5%) would like to continue to work from home at all times.

Time horizons are also lengthening. Google said last month that it will let staff work from home until July 2021.

Publicis Groupe, which was one of the first of the holding companies to announce a move to flexible working, talks about “rethinking the way we work”, as King puts it.

“There has been a fundamental shift and we know that people no longer expect to travel to work to do what they could do from home," she says.  

“We have 5,000 people with 5,000 different personal circumstances and feelings about safety. Our job is to create a vibrant environment that’s a destination for people when they want to see their teams and clients, and a place where wonderful creative accidents can happen. The office is no longer the assumed place of work.”

At M&C Saatchi, which reopened its Soho office on 6 July for 25% of employees, chief executive Camilla Kemp foresees a split of two-thirds of people in the office, with the rest working from home even when there are no concerns around safety.  

“The way we work with each other and with our clients has changed, in many ways for the better, so we want to hang on to those improved working practices as much as possible,” she says. “We are looking at how to change the way our space works more smartly to fit the way people will use our buildings in future.”

This means there will be fewer desks and more communal spaces, as well as areas staff can use to do video calls. Kemp says this will give the office more of a club feel.

“People do want to be part of a culture so it’s important we protect this,” she says. “The key is flexibility and we expect almost everyone will have a mixture of office time for collaboration and remote working in the future.”

She is hoping that these changes will help the agency attract new talent and also retain its current employees.

The return to the office is taking place in many shapes and forms but it seems that flexibility and bring teams together is high on the agenda for most of adland.