The government roadmap out of lockdown had earmarked 21 June for the last remaining coronavirus restrictions to be lifted in England, but last night Boris Johnson confirmed the widely expected news that "freedom day" in England would be pushed back – by four weeks to 19 July – as Covid cases once again begin to surge.
Most agencies are a few steps ahead, having eyes on September for realistic return-to-the-office plans. Last week Campaign reported on the plans of 20 agencies. Here, a further nine reveal their own road maps.
As a group with more than 4,000 UK employees across agencies including Carat, Merkle and Dentsumcgarrybowen, Dentsu operates in nine offices across the four UK territories. Having to react to the decisions made by governments of three nations has provided an extra challenge, Euan Jarvie, chief executive officer at Dentsu UK, said. The group has taken a “lag-not-lead” approach throughout the pandemic, waiting two weeks for each government or local authority decision to settle before it followed, he added.
“I'm delighted that we took that conscious decision. To run a business through the pandemic on that level of adjustment, notwithstanding the welfare and wellbeing of your people and your clients, just made it really complicated, so we're still doing ‘lag-not-lead’,” Jarvie said.
“And we're doing an awful lot more listening through our employee committees and councils; they're very vocal. They're very quick to tell us what they think, and we put a huge amount of that into how we plan our business going forward.
“We've taken a realistic approach and we have plans in place, but those plans have got a high degree of flexibility and agility too. We're not just talking to our people, but our clients, about how this is working and evolving.”
The group has developed team and client charters, where individual teams have the responsibility to work out their own plans and rotas for returning to the office. It has also developed technology to allow the physical booking of space, which has enabled it to reduce floor space around the UK and Ireland, as part of its consolidation strategy.
With 1,500 people across seven UK offices, and 180 clients in the UK alone, WPP-owned MediaCom UK has a lot of people-pleasing to do. Luke Bozeat, the agency’s chief operating officer, said: “It was really important to us that whatever we do works for meeting the needs of our clients, the needs of our people, their developments, and their wellbeing, and also that it is inclusive.”
During July, as restrictions are lifted, the agency is planning a "designated-day" approach, where every team will have a set day per week to come back in, but Bozeat is quick to point out that they're not being forced to come in. “If they're uncomfortable because they've not been vaccinated, they don't have to, but we're encouraging people to come in so that they can reconnect with people face to face and get used to what it's like coming back in.”
Then, from September, Bozeat hopes the agency will be able to move to a fully flexible approach, where core hours will apply, but location is left up to employees. The agency has three questions it expects employees to ask as a self-checking mechanism: where should I work to deliver the best output for my clients? Where should I work to best serve the needs and development of the people I work with? And is where I am choosing to work inclusive, and not putting anyone else at a disadvantage?
“If you ask those three questions of yourself, we think it will work in terms of creating a good hybrid model. What we're not doing is stipulating a set number of days in or out of the office,” Bozeat said.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Returning to the office will be a step-by-step process for Omnicom-owned Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which is planning for a gradual return over the summer (restrictions permitting) and a more complete return in the early autumn.
Michael Pring, acting chief executive, deputy chairman and chief marketing officer at AMV BBDO, said: “There is plenty of pent-up demand to get back together, but also understandably some concern. Also, not all those who would like to be fully vaccinated are yet, and that is a further factor we need to be sensitive to.”
The “overwhelming majority” of the agency’s 329 staff want to return, but the agency would rather take a gradual approach than have to retreat if government guidance dictates.
“We’re a people business and we get energy, inspiration and support from being together in the same place. Our culture is primarily office based. Although the pub is quite important too,” Pring said.
Its end-game is for most people to be in the office most of the time, but with some flexibility built in where it makes sense both for the staff and the business. It is adding collaboration spaces and meeting rooms within its offices, along with more flexible desk space and additional places from where people can join calls and Teams meetings.
Mindshare UK says it won’t be making it mandatory for people to return until things are safer. It is recommending that, in future, when restrictions are lifted, employees spend 50% of their working hours in the office. With a move into a new space slated for the end of 2021, the agency is ensuring these will accommodate new ways of working, with more spaces for collaboration and meetings, while allowing for a mix of virtual and office working.
The agency has developed a flexible working framework, which will continue to evolve based on employee feedback, to give its 400-plus staff the opportunity to test out flexible working and determine how comfortable they feel about coming back into the office. It is introducing core hours (10am to 4pm) to alleviate concerns and pressures around the commute and retain the benefits of working more flexibly.
Fleur Stoppani, managing director of Mindshare UK, said: “Women in business, and working parents in particular, have seen this as a step to progressing equality and rebalance, and will hopefully make progress with our and the industry’s gender pay gap.”
Mullenlowe Group UK
Having discovered through research that, until they are vaccinated, a large percentage of employees are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to the offices, much of Mullenlowe Group UK’s planning has been focused on September, when the bulk of its 300 employees are more likely to have received both jabs.
Siobhan Brunwin, people director at Mullenlowe Group UK, said: “If the guidance is still working from home, then we don't expect anyone in the office. But if we are back to whatever normal is going to be, then we’re going to ask them to start coming back to the office, two days a week, from September.”
The group will rely on department heads and line managers to decide which days per week their teams need to attend, but is not mandating this across the agency. However, it will run one day per month on which is mandatory to attend, and on that day the entire agency will get together in person. This will be a sociable day, with activities and catering arranged to allow people to come together.
About 65% of people at Engine Creative are “open to returning to office-based working”, according to surveys carried out by the agency. However, flexibility is crucial, with 91% of employees wanting to maintain some form of hybrid working.
Ete Davies, CEO of Engine Creative, said: “Employees have told us that they are motivated to return to the workplace, primarily because it offers culture, social connections and collaboration with clients and teams.”
Davies says the independent agency, which employs 235 people, is “not pushing rules on anyone because we want everyone to have the freedom to make the choices that work best for them, their teams and their clients”.
Having long been an advocate of fluid working and a culture of performance over presenteeism, the agency plans to continue this approach. Its research shows an even split between people wanting to work two days or three days in the office, so it is exploring a structure of 2:3: two days in the office and three working remotely, depending on upcoming government guidance.
“We want to create a space where people can drop in and collaborate and connect with each other safely and securely. Our office is open-plan and we are in the process of revamping it to further accommodate our collaborative style of working, including upgrading our meeting rooms to ensure we all can connect to Zoom seamlessly,” Davies said.
M&C Saatchi London
M&C Saatchi Group will adopt hybrid working across all its UK companies, to suit the specific needs of each agency and its clients. For M&C Saatchi London, this will be a 3:2 model. Once social distancing is no longer required, full-time employees will be asked to aim to be in the office, or a client’s office, three out of five days. Teams will discuss and agree the best days to come together in the office.
Camilla Kemp, chief executive, said: “People who do come back have a real spring in their step. It feels really good as soon as you physically reconnect with people in person. People feel more passionate about what they're doing, rather than just going through the motions, and it had started to feel a bit that way.”
While Kemp acknowledges the “benefits of the work routine” in providing structure and the ability to have thinking time and decompress, which people may get on their commute, she doesn’t believe that adland will go back to everybody being in the same building five days a week.
The agency is closing for the day on 21 June, regardless of what happens with the restrictions, in order to provide employees with “the longest day off”.
“We've told our clients we're going to have a screen-free day. It’s the longest day of the year, so we want to be able to give everybody the longest day off, to do whatever they like,” Kemp said.
The agency is also about to kick off a partnership with nursery chain Bright Horizons, which will allow working parents to make last-minute childcare arrangements if theirs fall through.
It is also adapting its Golden Square offices by creating zones for different types of activities and tasks. It will increase quiet thinking spaces, Zoom-friendly rooms, and collaborative areas. If people don’t have a suitable set-up at home or prefer not to work remotely, they are free to come into the office every day. But if anyone is not comfortable coming into the office – for example, if they haven’t yet been vaccinated – they are encouraged to talk to their line manager about the best approach.
Publicis Media had introduced flexible working before the pandemic hit and over the past few months this has evolved further. The new hybrid working model, which aligns to Publicis Groupe’s "Heads up, heads down, heads together" framework, is designed to support employees’ different needs and ways of working.
Once all of it's 2,000 UK staff have been offered a second dose of the vaccine, Publicis Media expects everyone to spend at least two days of their working week in the office and a maximum of three days working from anywhere (which for some may still be the office). These principles will be interpreted by agency leaders according to what works best for their agency.
Having jettisoned its Shoreditch office in September and pledged a large proportion of the attendant savings to homelessness charity Shelter, Pablo is now looking at getting back into a fixed premises towards the end of 2021. The independent agency has continued to donate to Shelter during this time, and founder Gareth Mercer is pleased that the agency has been able to do some good by not being there. Now however, it’s time to look at getting back, he said.
“We've enjoyed this experience but like everybody else were keen to get into the new world, we just want to make sure we do it properly,” Mercer said.
He is not convinced that a rigid three-day week is going to suit every particular project due to timeline shifts and workflow, but is keen to offer flexible work based on client and project-needs. Mercer highlights the importance of maintaining the input of introverts who have found their voice during the pandemic.
“We are focused on making sure we've got a place that's big enough to get different pod systems and collaborative spaces in place, so we don't lose the introverts from the creative conversation,” Mercer said.
Mercer points out that clients who are downsizing their own offices are requesting more time in agency offices. So, while Pablo is going to cater for less employees needing to be in at all points, it will allow extra space for clients.
Images: offices of MediaCom, Dentsu UK and Publicis Media