Will more WFH break agency culture?

As the government encourages people to work from home where possible, what does it mean for agency life?

Will more WFH break agency culture?

People should work from home wherever possible, the PM has announced as part of a raft of new measures designed to stem the rising rate of Covid-19 infections. But what effect will this have on adland, an industry that relies heavily on the spark of connection between its people to achieve the creativity for which it's renowned?

Johnson's announcement is a blow to agencies, including Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Rapp, St Luke's and Adam & Eve/DDB, undermining their efforts preparing workspaces and encouraging their teams safely back to work, in order to recoup what Mat Goff, chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, describes as their "shared energy".

But he acknowledged after the government announcements that the agency was "probably now in a position where we shouldn't be encouraging people to come in and have a department day, because it increases their number of contacts".

While the return to work at Adam & Eve/DDB has, of course, been voluntary, it has been designed around getting people together for a "meaningful energetic worthwhile experience", Goff says, "so people can see the faces they want to talk to, otherwise they may just as well have stayed at home".

The agency, in common with the rest of adland, found creative ways to communicate and keep its culture alive during the worst of lockdown. But having long since Zoomed its way past cook-a-longs, cats-on-laps and the child who peed under a desk during a pitch (yes, really), adland is facing WFH-fatigue. And with every remote meeting, does another little part of its fun, creative heart dry out, or can adland withstand another long spell of WFH?

Goff sees challenges ahead, especially as winter arrives, with little opportunity for the kind of socialisation that usually provides the industry with its cohesion and glue. He is mindful that for the mental health of teams, the onus will be on leaders to think about energy levels on a daily basis. "We're going to have to double our efforts to make sure everybody still feels collective energy and glue," he says.

Cultivating culture

At Leo Burnett, managing director Carly Avener has encouraged colleagues catching up on the phone during one-to-one calls to go for a walk "together", "helping address any feelings of cabin fever, which can arise from working from home".

Although she believes the office has always been a place to cultivate culture, Avener points out: "There have been positives too in the way we've all opened up to each other and had conversations we never would have had before."

This is echoed by several agency leaders, who say WFH has led to a greater sense of camaraderie and compassion as team members see the whole person, and often their families and pets, inside their homes.

As Rapp's chief executive Gabby Ludzker says: "You're more connected to people's real life than you ever were in the office, and I love that, because it's accelerated how we get to know each other to a whole different level."

Yet most, including Ludzker, also acknowledged being together in the office was key to producing energy, keeping culture alive and generating creativity. This was borne out by Campaign's back-to-work survey, which showed 86% of respondents were not looking to downsize or shed their office space as a result of the pandemic.

St Luke's, which has just moved into a "shiny new office" in Covent Garden, has been "mostly altogether" one day a week, with the aim of three days a week, Covid permitting, and, in the meantime, regular virtual agency meetings and interactions have been plugging the gap.

The new space is designed around informal interactions, flexible working and the ability "to hang out". "For those who can get in safely, it's been a real injection of energy," Ed Palmer, managing director, says.

"Home working has heaps going for it for some of the time, but fundamentally we're a 'together first' agency. With all the Zoom parties in the world, we can only really hope to maintain our culture when we're apart; it's when we're together that it really gets built," Palmer says.

Because those times together are less frequent right now, Palmer acknowledges the "need to make them count", so, instead of just having teams coming into the offices to sit at their desks and work, St Luke's has organised a series of presentations, along with socially distanced roof-terrace drinks, to help to reinforce its culture.

Of course, adland is famed for its well-lubricated post-work, post-pitch socialising, which has formed a cornerstone of many agency cultures. Yet there's an argument emerging that the drinking culture adds to the exclusivity of adland, with some agency leaders taking note of the fact that not everybody wants to celebrate by drinking alcohol, much less in a pub.

Goff says: "One of the legacies [of Covid-19] might be that drinking together in the pub isn't the only way to be part of the game, to celebrate or spend time together. There might be other, more inclusive, things that we should be doing."

'Being in the trenches'

Quiet Storm reunited teams in person to work on the latest iteration of its Create Not Hate programme during August, its first in-person project after lockdown. The team experienced the opportunity to come back together as a "reinvigoration of energy".

Not that they hadn't been productive during lockdown, explains Rania Robinson chief executice and partner, in fact they may have been more productive than usual. But with that came the risk of becoming increasingly task-driven and fatigued by remote calls, with little room for creativity. During the process of working with the young Create Not Hate participants, being face-to-face was an imperative in order to build trust and bond.

"I realised being in the trenches with team members when you're working towards something together, is actually really bloody important," Robinson says. "It's about the joy and enjoyment. It's not always about just getting stuff done. We're in this industry because we're people-people, we are social creatures. It's always a real testament to great culture in an agency when you find you've made friends for life through work."

For some larger agencies, navigating the Covid crisis has required a more regimented approach. At BBH there's a big open office space, which can accommodate about 150 people at any one time with the necessary regulations in place. The agency has been split into two parts, based on client teams, and people have been encouraged back to work as they feel comfortable.

The agency's chief executive Karen Martin says people had missed the sense of community and culture of being at work: "Our culture is our competitive advantage and we are much better when we are together. The joy of seeing each other again has proved that over the past few weeks."

The agency has installed a Sheep Cam, a live camera in the atrium, to share the office feel with those working from home.

Hybrid working, with sections of the workforce at home and some teams or departments in the office, has been key to many agencies' return to work over the past few weeks, and a way of working that looks likely to continue well into the future.

One of the more positive upshots of working from home, Goff says, is that all levels of the agency are more often in the same virtual meetings, often getting to see work they wouldn't normally.

"The frequency of collision might be less in terms of bumping into each other and talking about ideas, but the process of making work has been unbelievably democratic – a lot of people have had a lot more exposure," Goff adds.

For Oliver, an agency designed to work out of client and hub offices spread out geographically, a disparate way of working has always been the norm. It has always been light on office space and never had the same rental overheads as some competitors. The agency is accustomed to remote working, and has now embraced it to the point of cultural shifts.

Sharon Whale, CEO for global markets and operations, explains that whereas before people would work from home only if they had a specific piece of work to complete, now WFH has become the norm, and heading into the office has become the "special occasion". The increased level of homeworking has also allowed employees to feel they have more autonomy.

"Our hierarchy has become somewhat flattened," Whale says. "People feel their work is more meaningful, because they have more control over it. They have the sense that they are able to make decisions for themselves. That's one of the real cultural changes that's happened for us over the last six months."

A brainstorming hub

And it's these kind of benefits that have prompted smaller agencies, such as Elvis and Pablo, to question the need for "offices" per se. Worried that creativity would suffer through remote working, Neale Horrigan, executive creative director at Elvis, has realised that because "creatives have an inherent desire to still create brilliant stuff", they found new ways to do it, often meeting in pairs or smaller groups.

The agency has left its office and will instead use a creative studio within the London Bridge premises of holding company Next 15.

"I've never liked the fact we called our creative agency an 'office' but it was always geared up to have clients come in, with a nice reception, teas, coffees and posh biscuits, but now we don't need that. We need a hub – somewhere we can feel creative, stick things on the walls and have brainstorming talks."

For Horrigan, the inability to socialise and celebrate in its most-decorated year to date, having won 27 major awards, "really hit us hard". Indeed, with awards usually providing a whole season of parties and bonding experiences, celebrations this year have been a damp virtual squib, with the awards themselves still sitting in boxes in Horrigan's home workspace. "Receiving an award should be the absolute highlight of the team's career, but the reality is, they're still sat staring into their laptops."

Pablo also jettisoned its Shoreditch office space earlier this month in favour of a "team room" in Farringdon, to enable small groups to work together as needed to complement remote working. The arrangement, with a significant amount of the rental cost saving to be donated to Shelter, is not permanent.

Founding partner Gareth Mercer is concerned that agency culture would suffer "if this level of remote working went deep into next year". Their plan is to get back to an office around February, he says, which not only gives a focal point, it also allows the business "to find a venue that allows a different shape of working".

This kind of consolidation of space; a shift in how much commercial space is used, and for what, will be a feature for years to come, predicts Adrian Walcott, managing director of Brands With Values. He cautions that an increase in holding-group consolidation, coupled with a likely rise in M&A activity, could mean more agencies are forced together, leading to potential culture clashes.

"Creatives love the craft of what they're doing, so it can be a bit of a red herring for agencies to keep thinking they need to manage creativity," warns Walcott. "Instead they need to make sure they don't get blindsided by limiting factors, such as cost reductions, that can take an agency down."

Even with the ricochet back to home working, agencies will continue to rely on a base that belongs to them, and as Robinson says, "reflects their culture and values", with such spaces becoming more important than ever to a workforce scattered and scarred by the Covid crisis.

Picture: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images