Working from home in the ad industry has become so ubiquitous over the past 18 months that the most pressing question now on everyone’s lips is: are you back in the office?
Yet it is becoming clear that it is not as straightforward as simply reintroducing the old ways of working that were in place before the pandemic struck.
Ideas about flexible working prior to Covid were limited largely to options including tweaking start and finish times to fit in with personal commitments, or compressing the same number of hours into fewer days. Now there is widespread interest in the "hybrid" working model.
This model, in which employees work part of their week in the office and the rest of it at home or remotely, is proving popular at agencies.
A recent Campaign survey of 90 agency leaders found that, among the 91% who said their offices were open, about one in five was seeing most staff come in three times a week. About 50% said it was more like twice a week, and 16% once a week.
Some staff have relocated altogether, meaning their agencies are preparing for a long-term mix of an office-based and remote workforce.
Keeping the option of home working in some shape or form seems likely for most of the sector. It will remain popular for staff who want to spend more time with family and friends instead of commuting to and from an office.
But there are other issues to consider. What does it mean to have teams split up, with those not in the office potentially missing out on the creative spark that is often set off by being in the same physical space as colleagues?
For those working at home, it might be easier to be more productive away from any office distractions. But that may also contribute to the flipside of a higher burden of work – a phenomenon that appeared during the pandemic when client satisfaction scores were higher than ever while agency employee scores were at their lowest.
Campaign asked agency leaders how they are navigating the hybrid working model and what their main concerns are.
Chief executive, Ogilvy UK
Hybrid working is such a big opportunity that I think if we crack it, it can help us all sleep easier for years to come. Ogilvy is blessed with an office that is the envy of London (and beyond). And after months away, everyone is really feeling the wonder again of when we first moved in – having a central riverside office with floor to ceiling windows, spacious seating and our own rooftop restaurant with a view does make coming in pretty special after months at the kitchen table.
But what adds to that is the excitement of finally meeting new people in the flesh you have never actually met (some people are really tall!), creating ideas with them in our new collaborative workspaces and pitching together in real life.
Authentic hybrid working, underpinned by a commitment to flexibility and ongoing adaptation, where we can work with more freedom on the right task in the right place, can be truly liberating and it will enable us to attract and keep far wider talent, both in terms of diversity and geography. If anything, it’s the meeting-room technology to make it all seamless that keeps me awake at night.
Chief operating officer, MediaCom UK
So what keeps me up at night? Lots of things, and hybrid working is one that’s top of my list right now.
We have built a completely flexible approach to hybrid working, where people choose where to work on any given day, based on the answers to three key questions: where should I work to do the best work for my clients; where should I work to work in the best and most collaborative way with my team; and how will where I choose to work affect those I’m working with – for example, is it inclusive?
For me, it’s the last piece of this puzzle that keeps me awake at night, because ensuring our people, our clients and our industry partners feel like they are included is the single most important aspect of hybrid working.
As leaders we have to model the best behaviour and I believe empathy is the first thing we need to consider. If someone doesn’t feel comfy coming to the office due to the risk of catching Covid, we have to respect that and put procedures in place so that hybrid meetings work for them.
Likewise, if someone is choosing to work from home and the rest of those attending the same meeting are together in a meeting room, it’s our job to ensure that they’re not left out, that the meeting works for them as well. So I am worried that we won’t always get this right, but I think as long as we try, and are transparent in, our journey and that we share what we learn as an industry, we will all find the way through, together.
Co-founder, Gravity Road
Time well spent is our mantra. We want everybody at Gravity Road to spend their own time well, in ways that allow them to perform brilliantly.
So, for me, there’s something a bit odd about championing a flexible, dynamic approach, then witnessing companies mandating which days of the week everyone has to be in an office. It makes people feel like they're in sixth form.
More crucially, it can feel like a slightly parochial, anachronistic debate as all businesses are global now. Through the pandemic, Gravity Road has accelerated across geographies and timezones. We are a much more distributed, tech-enabled business, and for that to truly work, it means letting go – letting people and teams exercise their own judgment and decision-making.
That’s not without its challenges – and it means we have to work extra hard to create moments of "congregation" (to borrow a term from Bruce Daisley).
But we’re learning fast and improving as we go.
Marketing director, Clear Channel
When speaking to our people, someone said "we’re a melting pot of age, gender, race, sexuality and backgrounds”, and I think this is the perfect reflection of what's keeping us awake, and how we should approach the future of work. To me, it's about striking the right balance of keeping people happy, but keeping everything fair, given the broad scope of our people's personalities, preferences and roles.
Everyone has a view on what the future of working looks like from their own perspective and circumstances: no commute, walking the puppy, doing the school run, getting deliveries any day and time, home working environment, seeing friends at work and so on.
So the challenge is offering the right level of flexibility for people to feel they have a perfect work-life balance, while remembering there's space for those real-world office experiences that foster creativity and build culture that, I feel, are best done through human connection.
Managing director, Leo Burnett London
Where’s my office pass, do I need an umbrella and have I left enough time in my diary to commute to the office in-between Zoom calls?! These are the thoughts keeping me up at night.
Luckily, the benefits of being in the office, seeing people in the flesh, working together and bringing a bit more fun and banter into the days far outweigh these minor concerns. But I do worry about learning and mastering a new way of working again.
Hybrid working isn’t the same as being in the office and it isn’t the same as being at home. We need to learn how to have good meetings when some people are at home and others are in a room together. It’s about making sure that when people are in the office, they have the right kit that our office environment supports the way we need to work and that there’s enough of a vibe to make the commute worth it.