The office is still critical to creative excellence
A view from Adam Arnold

The office is still critical to creative excellence

Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global chief marketing officer says offices are now free from presenteeism.

As the pandemic continues to progress, there have been lots of big pronouncements about the status of the office. Some have already issued its death notice. Others have filed for divorce. Most are extending their trial separations. A trend that will gain renewed momentum after the UK government issued a change in its advice and told people to work from home “if they can”. And, for many types of office, I can fully understand this angry sense of estrangement.

If you work nine-to-five in an out-of-town beige box with a David Brent for a boss, then why would you ever go back to that clock-watching monotony? If you work in a Mayfair hedge fund headquarters, then you've probably deduced you can mark off your investors over lunch in Scott's without the overhead of a lush office next door.

But in adland, things aren't so straight forward. Our offices are purposefully designed to be opposite of the bland, boring, corporate spaces that most other professionals have to endure. Cast your minds back to the heady days of 2019 and you will recall they were positively alive spaces where we all communed to create greatness. So we need to proceed with caution before returning the keys.

When agency leaders simmer off 2020, what will be left at the bottom of the pan? What has Covid crystallised beyond all doubt for us about the way we work? Well, first of all, it's crystal clear that flexible working really can make our insanely busy lives easier to handle. Secondly, most of our overseas meetings were just unnecessary bursts of carbon dioxide. And thirdly, our online collaborative working tools are essentials, not sidebars. All are powerful lockdown souvenirs.

In truth, flexible working wasn't universally embraced by our industry – and it needed to be. The long hours we spent flying around the world was a Kafkaesque madness, but no one had the guts to call it out. And way too much of our work was still linear, desktop and unproductive.

Positive changes indeed, but they need to be weighed against the fact that – at BBH at least – we still believe the magic happens when we are truly together. A lot can be achieved on video calls when needs must, and we've all proven this fact. But we can't honestly say we are at peak creativity when our talent are just tiny tiles on a Zoom screen. Waiting to talk. Missing subtleties. Battling broadband.

I'm convinced there are dozens of missed moments, lost thoughts and ignored sparks that never lit up our synapses because we are no longer in the same room, taxi or pub. To say we can live without these bonds and these catalysts is, frankly, too Black Mirror for my liking. And it's a very brave new creative world that believes there's no risk to jettisoning the real world around us. We draw inspiration from our environment, and my converted spare bedroom most definitely is all out of inspo.

We also need to recognise how the natural differences between extroverts and introverts come into sharp focus under lockdown and remote working. The introvert wonderfully draws energy from their own inner world and is less dependent on others to feel energised, therefore less likely to be frustrated by enforced isolation (indeed, for some, it's their Nirvana).

In contrast, the extrovert draws energy from being externally attuned and by being in the company of others, therefore more frustrated and less energised when unable to be around people. And while the wider world is fairly evenly divided between the two, our dear profession has a strong bias toward extroverts.

By our own research we estimate this to be 70:30 of extroverts to introverts. This means we believe it is fundamentally important for BBH-ers to be close to each other if they are to fulfil their potential. That's why, in London, we are doing everything we can to make the office as safe and secure as humanly possible for a carefully phased return to our much loved 60 Kingly Street.

Similarly, we think it's naive to say we no longer need to meet our clients #IRL. Relationships can be maintained digitally, but they can't be meaningfully grown online. As a creative industry that prizes the power and the beauty of human connectedness, we need to speak up for the importance of meeting, working, reviewing, challenging, building and socialising together. And we need to remember that our offices are where we ultimately create our own unique agency cultures, without which we are nothing more than commodities. With many market forces encouraging us to race to the bottom, we do not need another, surely.

But this love letter to the office isn't without pause and reflection on the lows as well as the highs of our relationship. If we were in front of a relationship counsellor, the bricks and mortar would be claiming they are "unappreciated", while we'd be taking the opportunity to say how "needy" they are. We want the freedom to come and go more as we please and not feel bad if we haven't checked in for a couple of days.

Now is the moment to strike up a far fresher, much healthier relationship with our offices. The key is ensuring they feel more open than ever before. For us, this new openness will be formed from three principles: first, offices finally and forever free of the plague of presenteeism. Second, offices with malleable spaces configured for maximum collaboration. Third, offices that are less office-like, more social fabric throughout. Our homes allowed the imprint of our work lives to become a part of them. Now, by the same measure, our offices need to allow us to feel relaxed, inspired and comfortable in them.

All this monumental change has left us with two equally valid truths to hold in our minds simultaneously. Flexible working really works now. And the office is still critical to creative excellence. It's an enticing new relationship for us – or will be, when we get this balance right.

Adam Arnold is global chief marketing officer at BBH