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The great return to the office experiment: WTF happens when we don't WFH?

Campaign has spoken to more than 20 agencies about how they are grappling with the return to the office, now that more than half of the UK adult population has been double-vaccinated.

The great return to the office experiment: WTF happens when we don't WFH?

The move to WFH was a swift unilateral edict in March 2020 with no room for free will. Although no-one knew exactly how working from home would work, everyone was in it together. If it had been a test of adaptability, creativity and resilience, adland would have scored high marks, plus extra merit for enthusiasm and tenacity. 

Pitches were won, award-winning work was created, cocktails were shaken, banana bread was baked, online karaoke was sung, and no-one gave a WTF about dogs peeing in slippers or toddlers smearing jam on screens.  

But the model is not sustainable, or desirable, for many. Spectres of Zoom fatigue, isolation and an always-on habit threaten mental wellbeing. There are team members hired during the pandemic who have yet to meet their co-workers or collaborate in a face-to-face environment. 

The blur of work and home

As the nation awaits a final decision from Boris Johnson's government on lifting of all restrictions, including the WFH order, on 21 June, getting back into offices will prove a lot more complex than leaving them. The blur of work and home, without the fixed boundaries of an office environment, has led to a reassessment of the rules. How will adland coalesce around a model of work that offers both the flexibility and structure that employees crave?  

And for all the talk of change, will client pressure and increased competition dictate a snap back to the same old routines?

In the City, several businesses have made it resoundingly clear they want their workforce back in the office, with JP Morgan’s 1,800 London employees and Goldman Sachs' 6,000 mandated to return by 21 June (pending the lifting of restrictions). Hundreds are reportedly already attending daily. In the US, clothing retailer Saks announced its Manhattan offices will be the primary workplace for its 500 corporate office employees come September; and that all will be required to be vaccinated before returning.

Platforms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and TikTok, which made WFH a fixture for all employees until at least June 2021, have now united around the idea of hybrid models. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in May 2020 that staff could work from home permanently, Spotify introduced a "work from anywhere" policy in February 2021. Its 5,000 global employees will select a "work mode", whether they’d prefer to work mostly at home or in the office, as well as their geographical location. 

However, investment in new office space by FacebookAmazonGoogle and TikTok, which has signed a 15-year lease on a building for 850 people in Farringdon, is a clear signal that employees will be expected to attend, at least for some of the working week. 

'We will never go back to exactly how we used to work'

So, will adland’s employees feel pressured to return? And won’t everything eventually revert to how it always was? Mark Read, CEO of WPP, says not. The network, which employs around 100,000 people worldwide, is currently “looking at the future of how we will work” .

“One point is clear,” Read says. “We will never go back to exactly how we used to work.”

Across adland, brands and agencies have begun to share plans, tackling issues such as how flexible hours and days should be organised for maximum creativity. How will office environments need to change? How will younger team members learn and progress? How will agency culture be regained and preserved? Will employees need vaccines first? And most importantly, will they be allowed to bring their cute lockdown puppies? 

For a snapshot of the industry’s intentions, Campaign asked agency leaders how they are planning for the great return and we have split them between smaller and independent shops and large holding companies.

Independent and smaller agencies

Red Brick Road

A four-month experiment in flexible working began at the start of June at independent shop Red Brick Road. This month, the agency will work on “ultimate flex”, where employees can do whatever works for them. For July, there will be a weekly “anchor day”, when all 50 staff will come into the office on the same day. In August, the anchor day will continue, plus one department day – in any location where the team can get together. In September, the agency will try Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the office, and the other two days remotely. 

The goal is to select the method that works best for employees, clients and the business. David Miller, chief executive, said: “We're being really open with our clients, asking for feedback through the process. And our management team will be reviewing efficiency and quality of work. What could possibly go wrong?

“We've had such an unparalleled period of time, where personal life and professional life have completely blurred, and I think the duty of care on businesses has completely changed. We don’t yet know what the right modes are going to be to enable us to be at our best, because we've only been all working from home, or all working in the office, with very limited true hybrid working. We're about to embark upon a third stage of working, which none of us have done before. It is a true opportunity to work in a hybrid fashion.” 

Mother

“We haven't looked at 21 June as the day to return,” Chris Gallery, partner at Mother, says. “We're being more cautious and will ease people back into whatever type of future work situation we have.” 

The office is needed, Gallery says, because although remote working is fine for generating ideas, production is not so straightforward. “That's where it can get really hard to be to be apart, because you're working with craftspeople, illustrators and editors, and actually being able to sit and look at something on a screen or point to something on a wall becomes really quite essential. I think the further that creative process goes down the line, [the more] people have felt the difficulty of being adrift from each other.”

Gallery believes the independent agency, which employs around 260 staff in London, is likely to be looking at an autumn full-office launch. “Hopefully there'll be a future with a nice mix of flexibility and real-life seeing everybody. And that will be amazing, but for the moment it's about practicals of what's the safe way of using the office and safe way of bringing everybody in.”

And that includes their lockdown dogs, as Mother is about to bolster its paw-friendly credentials, which already include a dog-booking system, by adding dog-walking options. “It isn't just some graduate trainee that's been forced into walking the dog, it’s an actual professional service. So we're rolling out the red carpet for our new puppies.” 

St Luke’s 

The plan at St Luke’s is to work in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with Mondays and Fridays as WFH or flexible days. Neil Henderson, chief executive, says: “We've said to clients that we will be in those central three days and so far they are receptive. Now, when we hit reality, it might get a bit different.”

For the first six weeks after 21 June, the agency will come in by department: Tuesday for production, Wednesday for creatives, and Thursday for account management and planning, to get people used to being in the office. St. Luke's has already installed small booths for video calls to continue with clients and colleagues who are WFH.

Around 30% of the agency’s 50 people are already coming in regularly, Henderson says: “There’s a big group of people who want to come back, because they’re fed up working at home, fed up on Zoom, and they want to see their friends.”

As the vaccine roll-out reaches employees’ 20- or 30-something age groups, people will be even more confident to come in, Henderson believes. The agency is using twice-weekly lateral flow tests, with added tests before client meetings.

“We've seen that WFH works, but there have been some serious downsides: burnout, endless work into the weekends, work in the evenings. Working on Zoom is hard, but is it as effective? We won't know that until the next year has elapsed. And if you've got your teams working on Zoom two, three or four days, or permanently, how are you going to match up against an agency that's in the office five days a week? We're going to learn a huge amount more in the next 12 months,” Henderson says.

The agency plans to introduce “work away weeks”, in addition to holiday allowance, so that everyone gets one week where they can work remotely, within a two-hour time difference, so they can work “from their parent’s house in Yorkshire, or they could go to Marrakech and work from a riad”. 

BMB

The Cheil Worldwide-owned agency is looking to move to a 3:2 model for all 50 staff over the same three days; likely to be Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays in the office, with the whole agency then operating flexibly on the Monday and Friday.

Jason Cobbold, chief executive of BMB, says: “We're trying to avoid rotational shift patterns because we don't think that that’s a good use of the time that we spend together. It just continues to fragment the company.”

However, Cobbold says the agency would not only be keeping a close eye on Covid rules, but also what the whole creative community is doing: “We have to make sure that what we're doing is right for the brand of BMB, but that it's also right within the context of how talent is operating in this new world, so we can be competitive with that."

Cobbold is looking forward to the “power of a good wall”, where he can see the interconnection and complexity of the projects on a wall. “We've become very good at doing this in the Zoom world. But we want to see the whole pitch, not just the parts.”

Ingenuity

Pitch consultant Ingenuity is planning to use the summer as a trial period for its 50-plus people to come back into the office for a couple of days a week, on a flexible basis, but ideally dovetailing by team. It will then assess the situation at the end of summer and make a plan according to what’s best for its staff and clients. 

Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of Ingenuity, says: “Business leaders have a duty to help and guide people, while also being responsible. We're very mindful that if people haven't had the vaccines, and don't feel comfortable, they don't have to come in.

“We've been driven by what our people want, and the majority of our people have wanted to come back in. They want to learn from each other, so we will move to a flexible way of working, but we will guide people towards what’s right for their team and their clients.”

There will be autonomy for different teams to decide their location on set days of the week, and where employees are comfortable to come in, they will be encouraged to use their time with their teams, and to make sure they have in-person meetings booked in. The company has re-organised its offices with the addition of Zoom-booths, and will operate on a hot-desk system. There is the capacity for everyone to be in the office simultaneously, plus space for 10% extra.

VaynerMedia London

The agency has doubled its employees to 120 since the pandemic hit, and has also moved offices, into a floor of the Ministry of Sound’s converted Victorian printworks building in Borough. 

Sarah Baumann, managing director at VaynerMedia London, says: “Immediately there was huge energy, huge excitement, great facilities, and it felt really fun to come back to the office. Because obviously, people have realised; yes, it is possible to function and work and run a business with everyone working from home. But everyone missed each other so much and missed the creativity, the energy, and hanging out together.”

The building offers yoga classes, a gym, a bar, outdoor terraces, cinema; all perfect reasons to get back to the office, says Baumann: “Everyone’s looking forward to hybrid working models that are two to three days in the office every week, but we have expressed to everyone that the return to work is voluntary, and there’s absolutely no pressure.”

VCCP

Once the WFH order is lifted, VCCP will welcome 1,080 employees back into its London office. A Flexible Working Pledge has been in operation at the agency for the past few years, allowing people and teams to work out what’s best for them and their clients, and this won’t change, explains founder and chairman Charles Vallance: “But we expect there will be more people who’ve found a way of taking a day or two out of the office, so we don't expect there to be much more than 80% occupancy at any given point.”

He says the agency was not planning on setting parameters but warned against “the tyranny of meetings” caused by remote work: “If you're together physically, you don't have to have meetings, you can have something really revolutionary called a chat. And you can't substitute that kind of interaction, it shouldn't be rigid.

“Part of flexible working is being office-based. Creative people need a hub, where unintended conversations happen. Different working styles suit different people, suit different functions. We think an office-based hub is a very important part of flexible working. It is not some sort of remote, abstract, loose affiliation, where you occasionally rent a shared space for half a day. We still do believe in the office as a hub for interaction and co-creation.”

Vallance points out the lack of learning opportunities when working remotely: “It's very difficult for the less experienced people if they don't see more experienced people in action; off the ball as well as on the ball.”

20ten

Digital creative agency 20ten has doubled employee numbers to 50 during the pandemic, and when staff were asked if they wanted to return, 100% said they wanted to get back for the social interaction. The agency has moved, increasing size of its office space to premises with a large kitchen area, plus an outdoor balcony for BBQs. The agency will also hire a chef once a month to cook for staff. Part of 20ten’s health package includes stress-counselling, and the agency is still offering staff the option to WFH if they prefer. 

Imagination

In a survey of the independent experience agency’s 210 EMEA employees, 70% said they wanted to have some flexibility to work from home, some of the time. People expected to spend 40% of their time working remotely.

Rebecca Taylor, head of HR, says: “We are working towards a 3:2 model, because we are people-oriented, we pride ourselves on being collaborative, innovative and creative. We still fundamentally believe that working together in the same place is critical for our future success. When you come to a communal hub, it does provide a sense of belonging and community, and we want to keep reinforcing our culture.”

The agency has also listened to its teams in both Australia and China, where arrangements are slightly ahead, which has helped it “learn and shape a way forward.

Brainlabs

Surveying its 339 UK staff has led to an initial recommendation of three days in the office and two days working remotely, once restrictions have been lifted, with a system to ensure that not everyone chooses Mondays and Fridays as days at home. Jo Lyall, Brainlabs’ UK CEO, says: “The office culture has always been a large part of our working at Brainlabs and we’ve already seen the desire among staff to get back to that atmosphere, with the office being booked out in recent weeks, albeit at enforced limited capacity.”

Lyall says more collaborative work had been “harder to recreate remotely”. The agency is reconfiguring the office to include more meeting spaces and specific team zones. All new meeting spaces are equipped with tech to include those unable to attend in-person and etiquette training on running meetings when some of those taking part are doing so remotely.

Events are planned to get people mixing wider than their immediate teams which, particularly for those who have joined during lockdown, is key to increasing communication, Lyall says

She continues: “With so much learning happening by being in the same room, it’s important for everyone, especially grads coming in, to have that interaction – whether that’s sitting down to lunch together, or in a more formal meeting setting. That said, we’ve certainly seen some benefits to WFH. It’s been great practice for communicating remotely.”

The Creative Engagement Group

Experience agency The Creative Engagement Group is using technology such as seat-booking apps to monitor numbers, manage workflow and help teams manage hybrid team activity more effectively.

Its approach for the return to offices is rooted in four key benefits: "collaboration" – the ability to engage with teams in a more fluid way; "community" – the ability to embrace and enrich agency culture; "coaching" – ensuring that managers can work closely with and mentor their team in a natural way; and "comfort" – ensuring people have the ability to work in a different headspace for wellbeing – away from their kitchen tables, with reliable Wi-Fi and printers.

Russ Lidstone, group CEO, says: “We’ve been committed to ensuring our teams are focused on their mental health throughout the pandemic. This is through a range of approaches such as ensuring line managers and team members are aware of the need to take breaks. This remains the case as we open up our offices, which are key to our ability to deliver, our morale, and our team wellbeing.”

Initials

At independent shop Initials, heads of department will organise which team members need to be in the office for each month, depending on projects and client needs. Plus, the agency is developing its own app that allows employees to see the week in advance, in terms of who's going into the office.

Richard Barrett, managing director, says: “By creating that technology, we can provide people with the optimum tool to manage their time. They could say, yes I want to be in the office on what looks like a really busy day, or alternatively, I’ve got to get my head down and get these presentations written, so I'm better served doing that at home.”

LAB Group

At LAB Group, a four-day week has been the norm for the past few years. The digital agency has surveyed staff and found that no employees want to be in the office full time, preferring a one- or two-day set-up instead. 

Harpreet Bushell, managing director of the independent digital specialist, says: “Everyone's adapted well and they're enjoying not having to commute. But there’s a lot of online meeting fatigue, and as restrictions loosen up a bit people are enjoying coming in and being able to do workshops or meet clients.”

The agency does not plan to mandate that people should come in, especially those who don’t feel safe or aren’t fully vaccinated. Once all restrictions are lifted, the aim is to have people in the office one day a week on a department basis, and to run a monthly meet. “WFH has worked well for us, so we're very much about giving people the autonomy to decide what works best for them,” Bushell adds. 

Large agency groups and their subsidiaries

WPP

WPP, which operates in 111 countries, says it’s taking a market-by-market approach based on local circumstances, while “continuing to prioritise people’s health and wellbeing.”

Mark Read, CEO of WPP, says: “Where we can do so safely, and in line with official guidance, we’re reopening our campuses and people are beginning to return to the office. As you would imagine, there are significant variations between different markets but in the main, people are coming back into work flexibly, continuing to work from home a number of days a week.

“Longer term, we are looking at the future of how we will work, which will combine the benefits of having campuses, and their fantastic working environments, with both the use of technology and the flexibility in working location that we have experienced over the past 15 months. One point is clear: we will never go back to exactly how we used to work.” 

Ogilvy UK

In September 2020, WPP-owned Ogilvy introduced working two days in the office and three remotely, or wherever its 929 UK employees prefer to work, including at the agency’s Sea Containers office. This came to a halt as further lockdowns were mandated, but Helen Matthews, chief people officer, is keen to introduce “flexibility within a framework”. 

Since February, Ogilvy has held 30-plus hours of “watering hole” meetings including leadership teams, its inclusion board, and apprentices. 

“It's about co-creating how we're going to bring hybrid working to life, and how we're going to do it so that belonging is at the heart of it, so nobody gets left behind,” Matthews says. The agency is working to find out when it’s best to be in the office. 

“Because what we don't want to see is hundreds of our people sitting on laptops on their emails if they're in the office. It’s about creating office working with purpose.” For example, she believes Mondays will be useful for teams to be together to start the week so that everyone is aligned and knows what’s expected. 

Matthews hopes the shift will allow adland to welcome more diverse talent. She sees a big opportunity to stop brain drain in terms of women leaving, because hybrid working offers more flexibility, but also for attracting people who may previously have thought industry life wasn’t for them: perhaps those living outside London, or people with a disability for whom travelling five days a week is tough. 

“It's a big experiment,” Matthews says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – it’s ours for the taking, but it's also ours to mess up.”

Omnicom Media Group UK

OMG has set up an "Office of the Future" steering group for a democratic approach to investigating hybrid working models. One method put forward is a set day for when each client team will be in the office, a second day when discipline experts from across client teams will be in, and a flexible third day, depending on business needs.

In March 2020, OMG moved its agencies, Hearts & Science, PHD, Manning Gottlieb OMD and OMD UK, into one Southbank location, a space it has since reconfigured to include dedicated collaboration areas. It aims to allow employees flexibility of locations to suit roles and tasks

Dan Clays, chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK, says: “Over 80% of our people are looking for some kind of blend. It will be essential to keep tracking that sentiment as numbers return to the office. A culture of ongoing experimentation, learning fast and willingness to adapt will be important.” 

Adam & Eve/DDB

One plan being considered by Omnicom-owned Adam & Eve/DDB is to split key accounts across the week, asking those account teams to be in for a minimum of three days, “so that there is always a core group of people that are going to make the office busy and exciting, Mat Goff, joint chief executive, says.

“If you work on that piece of business, you'll be expected to be in, and we'll try to group our client meetings so that we can have as many in-person face-to-face meetings as possible, but we'll split those out across four or five days.”

The creative shop, which employs 442 people in London, is aiming to “find flexibility for people in a way that works for the collective good of the whole, rather than at the whim of individuals,” Goff said. While Adam & Eve/DDB plans to remain an office-based agency, Goff recognises that getting the best out of people means giving them some of the benefits experienced over the past 15 months.

Interbrand

Georgina Collins, global chief talent officer at Interbrand, believes there's just as much of an adjustment required for going back into the office as there was when people started working from home. Omnicom-owned Interbrand, she says, will use the summer as a period of experimentation and adjustment: an opportunity to explore different ways of working for its 75 people, and to allow them to adapt to “another new normal”.

“It's the opportunity for us to do things differently. We've had a lot of positive benefits from the past year and we want to make sure that we don't lose those established new behaviours,” Collins says. “And so we want to bring the best of both for a new, refreshed culture. People are asking for flexibility, and that will certainly be part of the equation.”

Havas Media Group UK

Havas Media Group is changing the way its office is used, removing banks of screens and desks, and zoning the space for different things to enable more collaboration and less anchoring to desks. The agency is offering a hybrid-working model for its 573 staff.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

Bartle Bogle Hegarty, part of Publicis Groupe, issued this statement: “BBH is a creative business and we believe in the power of being together. We are starting to look at the best way of bringing our employees together and how we can make it work in the safest, most beneficial way possible. As the situation in the UK changes week by week, we remain flexible and open with all our employees – with the ultimate aim of a hybrid office working and WFH model.”

Karmarama

Ben Bilboul, CEO of Accenture-owned Karmarama, says: "At the moment it's a 'wait and see'. Prior to any announcement about what does or doesn't happen on 21 June, our number one concern has to be for the safety of our staff. And while the office is currently cleaner than a nasal swab, pre-insertion – if people have worries or concerns, we're not going to insist that anyone come in.

“After that, it’s likely that the future for our staff and our clients will be hybrid. Nearly all of us are missing face-to-face contact and the less transactional nature of office existence. But virtually no one is missing the commute, presenteeism, or mindless adherence to an office timetable, regardless of the nature of your work.

“Yes, our culture is paramount, and the office is one of its best expressions, but not at the expense of attracting and retaining the very best talent."

Images: offices of WPP (Sea Containers), BBH and Omnicom (Bankside)

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