Can agencies, marketing teams and media companies work effectively from home? The answer is in and it's a "Duh, of course". While some businesses will have had major hiccups, it feels strange now to think there was ever a concern that remote working would present any true barrier to companies being able to continue. It’s worth noting the technological hero that has made this possible: widespread decent broadband. For all the serious harm caused by this pandemic, the economic impact could have been many times worse had it arrived in the late 20th century.
Broadband isn’t equally good everywhere and there is no end to the complications faced by home workers – from balancing work with childcare to the serious problem of loneliness. But it has gone well enough so far for Twitter to last week declare that staff would be allowed to work from home "forever" – a move followed on Monday by Square, the other company led by Twitter boss Jack Dorsey.
Elsewhere, Facebook and Google have both said that home working will be extended to at least the end of the year; Barclays chief executive Jes Staley said that large numbers of people working together in a central office could become "a thing of the past"; and French carmaker Groupe PSA has said that remote working will become the "benchmark" for any activities not directly related to production.
Just as individuals thrive in different circumstances, though, companies are not all alike – and the fear must remain for many leaders that abandoning an office-based culture will leave them without a sense of shared purpose or simply make people management too arduous a process. And then there’s the social (and romantic) cost that, as outlined in this New York Times piece, is likely to especially affect people near the start of their careers.
So, is Dorsey going too far?
Author, The Joy of Work; host, Eat Sleep Work Repeat; former EMEA vice-president, Twitter
Will we miss office life? The desk chatter about Love Island, speculating about who will be the first to leave I’m a Celeb…, tales of one too many sauvignons on a Tuesday night. Yes, we’ll miss all of it dearly.
But that doesn’t mean that the office as we know it hasn’t gone. I spoke to one boss of a very highly respected content business last week who said they’ve got somewhere shy of 1,500 people with desks in their building. For the last eight weeks, 30 people have been coming in and the content has stayed the same. He told me: "Anyone who doesn’t think things have changed is bananas."
The tragedy of those who live in a world coloured by nostalgia is that, in many ways, it’s the rose-tinted version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages-of-grief model. Rather than going through anger, bargaining, rejection, we find ourselves in fug of fondness, reverie and hope. Nostalgia for banter with the gang sadly isn’t going to turn the tide on the end of the office. Now we need to find a new way to build winning workplace cultures without a workplace.
Chief strategy officer, Wonderhood Studios
Definitely! Not because you can’t find a way of making it work. But because it’s not the best way of it working. There are some things that work OK – writing a deck, creating space for creatives to develop ideas, getting your head down. But the process of "hanging out" around an idea, building, refining, challenging, lateral leaps, fiddling, improving – that’s very hard to recreate remotely.
And then there’s the agency culture. Whilst Zoom quizzes and drinks are good ways to keep contact going, they don’t come close to the local pub, desk banter or the daily chat that makes an agency unique and special.
Chief executive, McCann Worldgroup UK
Every organisation needs to do what is appropriate for its culture and employees. This pandemic has transformed business models – for our clients and for us – and is driving reinvention. Microsoft Teams meetings have replaced many in-person moments of contact, from meetings to "pubs" to the classroom to family events.
Crucially, humans are collective and creativity is a team sport. Remote connection works well so far and while it will change our business, it doesn’t substitute for the fact that our business thrives on that face-to-face collaboration to find the best solutions for our clients.
Ultimately, our people’s health and safety remains our top priority. We will return to the office but judiciously and only when our people are ready.
Joint chief executive, Adam & Eve/DDB
Working from home has been, on the whole, a really positive experience. One that has shown us not only that it can be done, but that it can be done effectively and that it has many advantages over how we had been working before. I hope we remember this forever. But there are aspects of working face to face that play an important part in what we do – the random opportunities that arise from bumping into someone that would never have otherwise happened, learning from each other, laughing together and leaning on each other when we need to.
Rather than think in absolutes – should we return to always working in the office or never again – we should rethink how we use the collective work environment and play to its strength. There’s little point in going back just to stare at a screen.
Group chief executive, The Beyond Collective
This week, we conducted a survey to see how our people feel about working from home in the longer run. Our team are either lukewarm or entirely against it. "Sometimes the best ideas come out the blue through simple chats with colleagues," one said. "I think isolation narrows the thought process."
For decades, the greatest agencies have pointed to their cultures as the mystical place where diverse personalities collide and the magic happens. To compare ourselves with Twitter or Google feels wrong – they are technology companies while we are creative companies (that, hopefully, by now use technology).
Yes, we’ve all experienced some positive symptoms of the WFH infection. But we mustn’t forget that it’s easier to work remotely for a few weeks when you know your colleagues really well and have previously bonded with them over hundreds of pints of beer. Creative companies need creative cultures with creative people who, through chemistry, create amazing solutions to brand problems. So WFH forever just ain’t going to cut it.
Chief executive, Grey London
Adland has had to rapidly adapt to working from home and the advances in technology has – in the main – made the transition smooth. Making a temporary work environment permanent is a very different matter, however. A huge part of our magic is being able to share creative ideas and the electric atmosphere that comes from free-flowing creativity in one shared space – not something a laptop can replace.
For however long we have to accept physical distancing measures, WFH is no substitute for building face-to-face relationships. Creativity needs freedom the same way it needs "fuel" to keep going. That fuel comes from spontaneous chats, unplanned meetings and friendly discussions over a cup of tea or coffee. Being close and together creates those unexpected vibes that help creativity to fly and shine.
Executive chairman, Rapp
For our industry, yes, I think that’s too far. The lockdown will have forced many businesses to embrace flexible working and even the agencies who previously encouraged home working will have no doubt been surprised as how well it has worked across the board. That said, speaking to people via screen isn’t ideal in a highly creative and collaborative industry that has always been high touch.
We all miss the physical interaction with our colleagues, the office banter and the corridor chats that help us build important internal relationships as well the culture of an agency. A new normal is certainly on the horizon, but we’ll always need a space where we can all come together as one.