The Great Return to the Office Experiment

A four-month experiment in flexible working began at the start of June at independent shop Red Brick Road. For month one, the agency will work on “ultimate flex”, where employees can do whatever works for them. For month two, there will be a weekly “anchor day”, when all staff will come into the office on the same day. During month three, the anchor day will continue, plus one department day – in any location where the team can get together. In the final month, the agency will try Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the office, and the other two days remotely.

The move to WFH was a swift unilateral edict in March 2020 with no room for free will. Although no-one knew exactly how working from home would work, everyone was in it together. If it had been a test of adaptability, creativity and resilience, adland would have scored high marks, plus extra merit for enthusiasm and tenacity.

Pitches were won, award-winning work was created, cocktails were shaken, banana bread was baked, online karaoke was sung, and no-one gave a WTF about dogs peeing in slippers or toddlers smearing jam on screens.

But the model is not sustainable, or desirable, for many. Spectres of Zoom fatigue, isolation and an always-on habit threaten mental wellbeing. There are team members hired during the pandemic who have yet to meet their co-workers or collaborate in a face-to-face environment.

The blur of work and home

As the nation awaits a final decision from Boris Johnson’s government on lifting of all restrictions, including the WFH order, on 21 June, getting back into offices will prove a lot more complex than leaving them. The blur of work and home, without the fixed boundaries of an office environment, has led to a reassessment of the rules. How will adland coalesce around a model of work that offers both the flexibility and structure that employees crave?

And for all the talk of change, will client pressure and increased competition dictate a snap back to the same old routines?

In the City, several businesses have made it resoundingly clear they want their workforce back in the office, with JP Morgan’s 1,800 London employees and Goldman Sachs’ 6,000 mandated to return by 21 June (pending the lifting of restrictions). Hundreds are reportedly already attending daily. In the US, clothing retailer Saks announced its Manhattan offices will be the primary workplace for its 500 corporate office employees come September; and that all will be required to be vaccinated before returning.

 

Platforms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and TikTok, which made WFH a fixture for all employees until at least June 2021, have now united around the idea of hybrid models. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in May 2020 that staff could work from home permanently, Spotify introduced a “work from anywhere” policy in February 2021. Its 5,000 global employees will select a “work mode”, whether they’d prefer to work mostly at home or in the office, as well as their geographical location.

 

However, investment in new office space by Facebook, Amazon, Google and TikTok, which has signed a 15-year lease on a building for 850 people in Farringdon, is a clear signal that employees will be expected to attend, at least for some of the working week.

 

‘We will never go back to exactly how we used to work’

So, will adland’s employees feel pressured to return? And won’t everything eventually revert to how it always was? Mark Read, CEO of WPP, says not. The network, which employs around 100,000 people worldwide, is currently “looking at the future of how we will work” .

“One point is clear,” Read says. “We will never go back to exactly how we used to work.”

Across adland, brands and agencies have begun to share plans, tackling issues such as how flexible hours and days should be organised for maximum creativity. How will office environments need to change? How will younger team members learn and progress? How will agency culture be regained and preserved? Will employees need vaccines first? And most importantly, will they be allowed to bring their cute lockdown puppies?

For a snapshot of the industry’s intentions, Campaign asked agency leaders how they are planning for the great return and we have split them between smaller and independent shops and large holding companies.

Red Brick Road

A four-month experiment in flexible working began at the start of June at independent shop Red Brick Road. For month one, the agency will work on “ultimate flex”, where employees can do whatever works for them. For month two, there will be a weekly “anchor day”, when all staff will come into the office on the same day. During month three, the anchor day will continue, plus one department day – in any location where the team can get together. In the final month, the agency will try Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the office, and the other two days remotely.

The goal is to select the method that works best for employees, clients and the business. David Miller, chief executive, said: “We’re being really open with our clients, asking for feedback through the process. And our management team will be reviewing efficiency and quality of work. What could possibly go wrong?

“We’ve had such an unparalleled period of time, where personal life and professional life have completely blurred, and I think the duty of care on businesses has completely changed. We don’t yet know what the right modes are going to be to enable us to be at our best, because we’ve only been all working from home, or all working in the office, with very limited true hybrid working. We’re about to embark upon a third stage of working, which none of us have done before. It is a true opportunity to work in a hybrid fashion.”

Jennifer Small, Campaign

June 07 2021