It was only supposed to be for a few months to flatten the spread of coronavirus.
But little did we know that the government's call to work from home in March 2020 would usher in the biggest disruption to business culture for a generation.
We had no idea that offices would remain largely empty for the best part of a year and that even in March 2021, the work from home instruction would still stubbornly be in place.
But changes are afoot. Some much-needed respite for parents and carers is on the way with the opening up of schools from 8 March and the successful vaccine roll-out means that – barring a scary new Covid variant – the blanket home-working policy should come to an end later this year. When exactly that is, however, is unclear.
The results of a review into social distancing, including the order to work from home where possible, are due ahead of the so-called “freedom day” of 21 June. Until then, it appears that office workers will be expected to continue to make do in their lofts, bedrooms and at kitchen tables.
But while the concept of the “new normal” curdled a while back and the novelty of Zoom meetings wore off after the first few cries of “you’re on mute”, the benefits of flexible working, the wasted hours spent commuting and the ability of businesses to run – and in many cases thrive – remotely, were revealed in a way that would never have been possible had it not been for the pandemic.
So how has this seismic change affected agency life, which places such great store on strong cultures with offices acting as the beating heart? Campaign canvassed leaders for their reflections on a year like no other and asked them to share their highs and lows.
A world turned upside down
The pandemic tested leaders in ways they could never have envisaged.
As the virus hit its first peak last spring, some contracted Covid-19 themselves, meaning they were laid up in bed as the disease wrought havoc on their businesses.
Kate Rowlinson, MediaCom UK chief executive, was one of this unlucky group. As a consequence, “move” is her recommendation for seeing out the pandemic. “The risk with WFH is that we are so sedentary. Get outside every day and walk. The impact of not doing this on mental and physical wellbeing is huge,” she says.
A different personal challenge came for Who Wot Why managing partner Marissa Jennings: “When the lockdown started we were in the middle of renovating our house and were living in a tiny one bedroom flat, with our daughter sleeping on the floor in the living room,” she reveals. “What was meant to be temporary for a few weeks turned into months. All the while navigating new ways of working, facing up to and dealing with the financial impact and downturn in revenue for the business.”
For Camilla Kemp, the chief executive of M&C Saatchi and a mother of two-year-old and four-year-old girls, the collision of family life and work life has been “brilliant and challenging in equal measure. I love having breakfast with my girls every morning, but I don't love the lack of distinction between work and home life”.
Others found that a dose of reality, laced with some humour, was needed in these straitened times. Ogilvy chief people officer Helen Matthews told herself to “set the bar lower”. She adds: “I do not have to be all things to all people. I need to know that I will not be coming out of this two sizes smaller, but I will set the lower bar of reduced alcohol, more fresh air and exercise.
“During the first lockdown, we messed up with the home schooling, but I refuse to carry that guilt. My kids are deeply loved, they get fed and watered regularly and I never shout at them for buying films via my Amazon Prime. OK, that last bit is a lie,” she quips.
'I feel closer to the team and our clients'
The sudden move to video calls, and the stressful circumstances in which this occurred, created an intimacy hitherto unknown between leaders and their staff.
Pip Hulbert, UK chief executive of Wunderman Thompson, sums up the views of many when she says: "We've been socially distanced from our colleagues for nearly a year, but in many ways, I feel closer to the team and our clients.
“We've seen inside each other's homes, met pets, children, partners and shared countless tips and tricks on how to make it through in one piece. The barriers between your work-self and home-self are well and truly down and the result means a closer, more supportive, empathetic workforce.”
Jennifer Black, managing director of Havas London, echoes this sentiment: “We are communicating better on a one-to-one basis, both literally and emotionally. When you are only speaking to people by Zoom and seeing them in their homes, people are more willing to let you in.”
This blurring between work and home actually helped Dark Horses chief executive Melissa Roberston, who started in her role in September. She had a few face-to-face coffees in the brief window when restrictions had eased, but her interactions with her team have in the main been over video.
“What was interesting was how people opened up, perhaps because they felt more comfortable on their literal home turf,” she muses.
The nature of being at the helm of an agency was transformed overnight.
Looking back on the year, Rapp UK chief executive Gabby Ludzker, comments: “When we say that a CEO has a duty of care over their people, we now mean the whole person, their mind, body, safety, career progression and financial security and I feel that keenly every single day.”
Amanda Farmer, the WPP global client leader on the Walgreens Boots Alliance business, found herself “thrown headfirst into the world of home-schooling” during the second lockdown – her now-reception age child had attended nursery during the first one. She admits to “emotional ups and downs”, but adds: “Every meeting I have, I try to bring energy, fun and humour – because, as a leader, we set the tone, and our manner and attitude can have a profound effect on someone else's day.”
The culture war: pulling together while being apart
“The biggest challenge during the past year has been figuring out how best to maintain the powerful sense of common identity, motivation and purpose that is the cultural glue and creative rocket fuel for our agency,” says Adam&Eve/DDB managing director Paul Billingsley.
Like many other shops, the agency rolled out a series of initiatives – in this case under the adam&everywhere platform – designed to aid staff's mental health and wellbeing and to recreate the vibe of its Paddington office as much as possible.
“Over-communication” was one of the ways MediaCom’s Rowlinson looked to foster togetherness. “We took the decision early on to address the company weekly with regular town halls and Q&As. These have strengthened our culture at a time when the preservation of culture is a real concern.”
The7stars founder Jenny Biggam agrees, saying “great communication” was at the heart of the agency’s response to the disruption, “ensuring people felt safe, secure, and understood what the plan was”.
Meanwhile, Creature chief executive Dan Cullen-Shute says after that “crash-landing into everyone's home lives… we listened. And we responded. And we gradually built something that worked for the brilliant people at Creature and our clients.”
He adds: “The funniest thing we realised was that most of that new structure wasn't pandemic-specific, it had just been pandemic-prompted.”
Where do we go from here?
After a period that could be characterised as the biggest experiment in flexible working and digital upscaling, there is a real determination to not return to business as usual.
UM UK chief executive Rachel Forde puts her staff’s mental health front and centre, saying that “this is something that we will carry with us way beyond the pandemic”. She continues: “We have proven that working in an agile way and taking that time to look after ourselves has not negatively impacted our work for clients; quite the opposite, in fact. I feel that this pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that we operate, and given us a new kind of resilience that makes us ready to embrace change more quickly than ever.”
“WFH works,” is FCB Inferno's chief marketing officer Sharon Jiggins’ conclusion. She points out that clients are happy, pitches have been won and all without the “pre-lockdown norm of staying in the office late and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning”.
“What I will be taking forward is a new-found respect that our teams are perfectly capable of managing their own time, workloads and family/friends/dog commitments – it's really quite liberating."
Likewise, Joint founder Richard Exon says it is clear that “[we] are capable of working brilliantly in ways we would have found hard to countenance previously”.
“Yes, true flexible working is something much more profound than a period of enforced remote working. But we've all had our minds well and truly opened to thinking differently about every element of our workforce. If we can hold on to this, it has to be good for greater diversity and inclusion in our industry,” he says.
A better balance between home and work, a slower pace, not always rushing home before nursery closes and reducing the environmental impact of travel are some of the ways that Stephanie Marks, the managing director of Havas Media Group, thinks life will change for the better, resulting in “a greater appreciation of one another”.
TBWA\London chief executive Sara Tate agrees, saying that “the hope is that when we do eventually return to more of a real-world and home-working mix, that we don't bat an eyelid if a parent prioritises collecting their child from school around the work they need to get done that day or week”.
There was a sense of optimism about the industry's future in the majority of the responses, summed up by Krow chief executive John Quarrey: “I thank my lucky stars that I work in an industry that will recover and recover well because of the people it employs and the value it creates.”
Itching to get back
While there is a widespread recognition that work culture can and should change for the better once the virus is under control, people have largely had enough of compulsory home working.
Publicis Groupe UK chief executive Annette King speaks for most when she says that “all the Zooming and Teams-ing in the world won't replace the innate human need for connection and the magic that happens when we're together in person”.
King adds: “I crave the day that we can get back to the office safely, finding our balance between using it for the parts of what we do that make us creatively strong in every sense, and working flexibly from home when appropriate and depending on people's circumstances.”
“I can't wait to get our team together in person again,” Natalie Graeme, the co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, says. “We've been running individual and whole company virtual events, including all company breakfast gathers, Genius Fridays meet-ups to replicate watercooler chats and regular one-to-one check-ins. These are all are great and needed, but they can never replicate the need to see each other in person.”
The last word goes to Lucy Doubleday, managing partner of We Are Social, with a wish that many across adland and beyond will share: “In many ways, being apart has brought us closer together,” she says, before adding: “Having said that, I can't wait to be in the pub with my colleagues in the not too distant future.”