The debate around how we organise our work lives has emerged as a key issue as we try to adapt in a Covid world.
In March, most city centres turned into ghost towns and have largely remained that way up until this month, when a slow trickle of people, including agency and media owner folk, began making their way back into the office. The tech giants, however, are in no hurry to return; Google and Facebook are happy for employees to stay at home until July 2021 while Twitter in May said its staff could do so “forever”.
Only 3% of WPP employees were back in the UK by the end of August; in the US, the number stood at 1%. Mark Read, the chief executive, told Campaign: “People are now looking to us for a reason to come back into the office, rather than work from home.” But he admits that it will be hard to persuade significant numbers of staff “if all you’re going to be doing is video calls to people who aren’t in the office”.
Some parts of the news media have painted home workers as indolent and selfish because of their reluctance to go back to the office. These crass exhortations ignore the fact that as the winter comes the virus is still with us, as is evident from the growing number of cities subject to local lockdowns. People’s fears about contracting it or passing it on to loved ones cannot be dismissed.
The chronic lack of wraparound childcare and depleted nursery provision is all too often ignored in discussions about returning to the office. Every effort must be made to ensure workers dealing with these issues – who are disproportionately women – are fully supported.
However, for many people a taste of a different working day, free from long commutes, jam-packed trains and getting ripped off on overpriced sandwiches and coffee, has come as a blessed relief. No-one wants to see baristas or shopworkers out of a job, but what a world we live in where the chance for a better work/life balance is deemed as self-centred.
The suggestion that people are leading a cushy life at home will jar with many. As one Zoom call merges into another, with lunch snatched in between, millions of home workers feel their days are more intense than they ever were in the office when banter and tea-rounds broke up the day.
Which is why it would be hasty to write the office’s obituary. At the start of September, Dettol came under fire on social media for its poster ad that attempted to celebrate office life by positioning colleagues as a “second family” – but while the execution was cringeworthy, the sentiment had merit.
The serendipitous conversations that spark great ideas, the buzz, the companionship, especially in a creative sector such as adland where people and relationships are so important, are priceless. Face-to-face collaboration is also essential for staff to learn, train, network and more.
Campaign’s online series, “Reimagining the office”, which shines a spotlight on how adland is plotting its return, has shown creative businesses at their problem-solving best, determined to not just survive but thrive in the changed circumstances and doing so with empathy.
The leaders who have contributed to the series are mostly self-confessed office fanatics but they recognise that times have changed.
Dan Cullen-Shute, the ebullient chief executive of Creature, says: “We have the opportunity to build something inclusive. Something progressive. Something exciting, with the people that make Creature what it is at its heart.” Inspired by his post-lockdown diet, the agency is pursuing what it calls the “3:2 model”, which means “two days every week where we’re asking everyone to be in the office; and three days where folk can work from wheresoever they choose”.
“Progressive yet productive” are the watchwords for Lucky Generals’ chief executive Katie Lee, who plans an “all in, all out” model, which she describes as “a few flexible days and a few office days with core working hours that avoid rush hour”. Lee says: “We want the office to be a place you look forward to going to, a meeting space – not somewhere we drag ourselves five days a week.”
Mother, an agency famed for its unique culture, has tried to make the return as fun as possible to ensure the office does not lose its character as it adapts to the new normal. Admirably, it is also using the opportunity to support a small brand and is stocking up on Hande, an organic fairtrade hand sanitiser.
Meanwhile, Rapp is undergoing a “home from home” refurbishment with collaboration at its heart. Desks have been ditched and replaced with kitchen tables, sofas, armchairs, stools and a “mountain of soft furnishings” within parent company Omnicom’s Bankside HQ.
“Crucially, our space must be somewhere people will want to leave their actual homes for,” Gabby Ludzker, Rapp’s chief executive, says.
If the government wants inspiring case studies aimed at coaxing people back to work, it should look at the excellent blueprint provided by adland’s creative minds.