Suddenly, the thought of returning to the office doesn’t seem like such a far-off concept for the advertising industry.
The world’s biggest marketing services companies have set out their roadmaps for returning to their usual places of work, albeit amid unusual circumstances for the foreseeable future.
The so-called "big five", which have thousands of employees spread across various locations in London and the rest of the UK, are beginning to signal when offices will reopen. Smaller networks, which have fewer staff and offices to juggle, have generally been able to set clearer timeframes for office reopenings.
Unless there is a resurgence in coronavirus cases because of lockdown restrictions being eased this month and schools partially reopening in June, we can expect the UK’s biggest agencies to reopen their doors between July and September.
Crucially, however, all companies have indicated that their return-to-office policies are meant to be flexible and voluntary, given the apparent success of individuals adapting remote working.
This means it now looks likely that a very large number of employees won’t return to the workplace again in 2020. Within just a year, the industry may have moved from working from home being seen as a perk to par for the course.
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The holding company that owns Carat, Merkle and iProspect wants to bring in a "globally aligned, phased approach" that will be put into place by management in line with each country’s public-health guidelines.
A DAN spokeswoman told Campaign that it has a phased plan in which a gradually increasing number of employees are offered the chance to return to the office. However, each phase will only be brought in "at least 14 days after local government policy allows it".
Havas announced the first major London office reopening last week, with its King’s Cross headquarters set to be open on a limited basis from 1 June.
The company said that it will provide staff with face masks and only allow 50 people to enter the building each hour. Every employee will have their temperature checked upon entry and will need to follow a one-way stairs system. Meeting-room capacity will also be reduced to 50% and no external visitors will be allowed.
Chief executive Michael Roth has insisted that Interpublic will "take its time" and that employees do not need to rush to return to the office. It has already reopened offices in countries where lockdown measures have eased, such as China, New Zealand, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
The parent of McCann Worldgroup, R/GA and MullenLowe appears to be using this time to see how other industries fare with returning to the office before committing to its own plans.
In a note to staff, Roth wrote: "We have proven without a doubt that we can accomplish the fundamentals of our work responsibilities and service our clients with 95% of us working from home. Which means we can learn from watching how other industries such as retail, manufacturing and hospitality return physically to the workplace ahead of us."
It’s a similar story at Omnicom, where agency leaders are clearly advised that no employee should return to the office if they feel uncomfortable.
The company behind DDB and BBDO has laid out a three-stage approach for returning to the office, having been the first ad company to close a London office this year after a PHD employee tested positive for the virus while on international travel.
Publicis will unlock its Chancery Lane building on 1 July. That office, home to Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett, will reopen with a limited capacity for up to 225 people, monitored via a booking system.
Publicis has said that it plans to open one office per city, meaning its other London sites – including White City (Publicis Media), Baker Street (Publicis.Poke) and Kingly Street (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) – will remain closed for now.
It is also saying that no employees will be made to return to the office before 2021 and it will share its "STEP" (safety, travel, environment and people) plans for returning to work in mid-June.
The owner of Ogilvy, Wunderman Thompson and MediaCom has talked about a "slow and measured" process that varies depending on market. In London, the company is not expecting significant numbers to return to the office until September at the earliest.
Importantly, chief executive Mark Read told employees last week that returning to the office will be "voluntary and flexible". There are also likely to be limits on the number of people who can go into places of work due to anticipated social-distancing restrictions.
Anna-Louise Gladwell, managing director at AnalogFolk London, told Campaign: "We’re following government advice on reopening the office. To date, our folk have been extremely effective at working from home and it’s clear that it is not essential for us to be physically in the same place to do great work and service clients. We have a plan in place to reopen, but will only execute it when we feel comfortable to do so."
Engine has set a target of 6 July to reopen its offices in London and Manchester. However, working from home will remain the "default option" for most, chief executive Jim Moffatt said.
Moffatt told Campaign: "We have developed a system where our teams will book their workspace for the day to ensure we comply with social-distancing occupancy rates. For our colleagues who don’t feel comfortable returning to the office, they are welcome to continue working from home."
A Mother UK spokesman said: "Firstly, any return to our office space has to be safe and our people need to feel safe to, from and during their working day. We’re involving them in designing what that’ll look like, but we’re not rushing to temporary solutions. It’s important to us that we’re able to look back on everything we’ve learned over the past few months in figuring out the best approach."
The in-sourcing specialist is reopening its London hub in early July on a "completely voluntary" basis. The company, which is majority owned by You & Mr Jones, said its managements teams are working closely with employees to accommodate those who want to return to the office and those who want to continue their working-from-home routine.
Sharon Whale, Oliver’s chief executive of global markets and operations, told Campaign: "'Everyone’s in the same boat’ has been a recurring theme of the pandemic, with Covid-19 being the great leveller. At Oliver, we share the sentiment, however, that everyone is in the same storm and that we all have different-sized boats. That’s because every person in our business has been impacted differently. Everyone has needed to show – and has shown – great empathy and compassion for one another. How we get back to the office therefore starts with consideration for the individual."