Is the office a competitive advantage in media?

After a year of mostly WFH for so many, how should we view workplaces in media as we think about returning to offices?

Clockwise from left: Frogley, Carter, Wolfson, Baughan, Stacey, Gordon
Clockwise from left: Frogley, Carter, Wolfson, Baughan, Stacey, Gordon

In the before times, the idea of "working from home" was considered by many to be a treat for office-based employees. It offered a reprieve from the daily commute, an opportunity to complete involved tasks away from colleagues' distractions, while perhaps accepting a home delivery or letting in a repairperson.

Covid-19 forced all office-based businesses to adapt at breakneck speed and now many company leaders are rethinking permanent changes as the UK looks forward to finally returning to normal social behaviour this year. While many (including this author) are extremely keen to return to the office, there is no doubt that advertising and media businesses will be expected to offer flexibility, not just because they proved home-working is possible during a pandemic, but because it's part of encouraging a diverse workforce to thrive.

Last week Reach, the publisher of titles including the Daily Mirror and Daily Express, announced that it would significantly start downscaling its UK office space – including giving up one of its two floors at its Canary Wharf HQ. Only about a quarter of its staff would still be office-based in future, Reach said, after polling employees on their working preferences.

This seemed fairly inevitable, particularly given the years of pressure newsbrands have faced to cut costs in a declining print market. Reach, formerly Mirror group, cut 10% of its workforce last summer. Over the past 10 years, total staff numbers have shrunk by a third (6,650 in 2010 to 4,483 in 2020) – and that's taking into account the acquisitions of regional publisher Local World and Northern & Shell's titles (including the Express and Star).

However, homeworking carries risks. As Campaign and agency leaders discussed recently on a special podcast with Snapchat, younger employees in particular may suffer disproportionately from increased homeworking.

Media, for the most part, attracts bright and sociable people, many of whom develop friendships with colleagues. Not all of us have the luxury of setting up a home office, nor do all workers have the confidence or experience to raise difficult issues during video calls.

In other words, could offices be seen as a competitive advantage in media, rather than the necessary evil we might have thought of them as in pre-Covid times?

Sue Frogley

Chief executive, Publicis Media UK

There’s no denying that some aspects of our jobs can be better done from home, but I don’t believe we can truly thrive without our office. It’s where we come together to spark ideas, inspire, innovate and enjoy the fun moments of being in a team. Of course, we’ll be working differently when we go back, so we have three principles to guide how and where we work. These are "heads up", "heads down" and "heads together". I don’t doubt that we’ll see more downsizing for some in media, but that’s not our plan and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve when we get our "heads together" again.

Nick Baughan

Director of agencies UK & Ireland, Facebook

Like most organisations, we’re learning as we go here. So much of Facebook’s ability to work remotely is bound up in the strength of our own products across messaging, Workplace and VR. As our products develop, so too will our collective ability to work and hire remotely, giving us advantages in geographic diversification and flexibility. Can I see a role for the office in this future? Absolutely but I think its fundamental advantage will derive less from a default destination from 9am to 5pm and more as a focus for meetings and events where personal connections are at a premium.

Karen Stacey

Chief executive, Digital Cinema Media

Company cultures and your people give you competitive advantage. People’s ability to adapt to remote working has been astonishing and we can’t deny the benefits of WFH (work from home). But there is still huge value in being together and WFTO (working from the office) needs a bit of publicity. Offices are the infrastructures that create the environment for your teams to flourish. The spontaneous conversations that spark some of the best ideas, not forgetting the importance of human interaction to promote wellbeing and improved mental health.

It’s not about coming to work, it’s about coming together. You can replicate components at home, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether it’s a sports stadium, the cinema, a gig or the office, it’s the physical spaces that create shared experiences. There’s no doubt that there will be a change in the way we use our office spaces, but employers should think carefully about the commercial impact, not just the cost savings.

Dominic Carter

Group chief commercial officer, News UK

The pandemic has taught us a lot about ourselves. Much of it confirmed learning: we’re resilient, we’re creative, we’re innovative. And fundamentally, we’re collaborative. Technology is brilliant. But as we work towards what’s on the other side of the pandemic we’ll be guided by our two most fundamental learnings: we collaborate and learn best when we’re physically together; and our people deliver their best when we flex to best accommodate their domestic lives. We’ve reaped the benefits of investing in wellness programmes for colleagues, giving time back to homeschooling parents and abolishing presenteeism. Our offices will remain our collaboration hubs, but with a recognition that flexible working is a long term win:win.

Jane Wolfson

Chief commercial officer, Hearst UK

It remains essential to us at Hearst UK that we are still able to collaborate, innovate and share our creative expertise collectively, and we know from our people that they are missing that, so we are working on plans for what our future of working will look like moving forwards.

I am looking forward to being back, not just to socialise but to better connect with my teams and ensure that they are developing in their careers. People will miss out on the osmosis of learning by just being in the office, looking around and seeing what good performance looks like if we spend all of our time working remotely. We have a responsibility to drive a more diverse workforce: how are we going to attract new people who may never have worked in a media environment and expect them to progress the way we did, if we can’t bring them into our office space to meet in real life and give them the chance to thrive? We also know that not everyone can work from home for practical or mental health reasons and to take the option away entirely wouldn’t cater for those who have struggled with remote working.

Duncan Tickell

Chief revenue officer, Immediate Media

My response would be absolutely and, do I see the office of the future being the same as before? Absolutely not.

Immediate is a creative business and, whilst we’ve thrived in recent months due to high demand for our special interest content, we’ve really missed the spark and energy that comes from human interaction. This has been felt across the business, particularly by our content creators and technologists where creativity is at the heart of what they do.

Our office of the future will undoubtedly be different, laid out to support new flexible ways of working, hybrid meetings and even greater collaboration. It will be designed encourage people to come in, work together and continue creating great products, across all our platforms, that help our consumers get fulfilment and happiness from their passions.

Mike Gordon

Chief commercial officer, Global

For some roles working remotely makes sense and businesses have shown that they can still function with an entire workforce working from home. We pride ourselves on creativity, innovation and customer care and we do some of our best work when we come together. This is still easier in the office and we don’t plan to cut back on space for people whose roles are centred on that. We thrive on ideas and that is considerably easier when people are face to face – for all the enhancements digital tools have enabled in the workplace, there’s still a huge value in coming to an office environment. It’s also important to recognise that some people don’t have perfect home working set-ups and much of the appeal of a company like Global is the energy and invigoration you get from coming into the office.

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