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What UK ad agencies need to know about keeping their offices open right now

All of the major agencies have kept their offices open for “essential reasons" only

With the UK workforce advised to WFH for the foreseeable, The Drum explores what policies advertising's biggest agencies have put in place for employees and what others can learn from them.

Last week, UK prime minister Boris Johnson set out a raft of tighter Covid-19 restrictions for individuals and business, including a plea to office workers – mere weeks after urging them to "go back to work" – to revert to working from home if they could.

For the 25,142 employees who work at ad agencies — and their bosses — the announcement was another setback in getting people to return to huge offices, left largely vacant for months.

Though 90% of UK professionals that don’t want to return to the office full-time, Paul Bainsfair, director general at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), expresses some concerns about what this means for the output of ad agencies.

“Their creativity thrives on energy, interaction and magic, which is of course made easier by physically being in a room together," he says. "Which is why, the general sentiment from our agencies is that, in an ideal world, that is where they’d be. Physically together. Perhaps not all day, every day as was the norm pre-Covid, but at least some of the time.

“These are far from ideal times, however. Our agencies know that with the potency of the coronavirus this isn’t entirely possible; they must prioritise their people’s health and wellbeing, while also continuing to protect and drive their businesses."

The Drum explores how large advertising agencies have responded to the changes and what others can learn from their approach.

1. Get ready to embrace a more ‘hybrid’ way of working

It's understood all holding companies have asked employees to work from home if they can, in line with the UK government’s messaging. This includes WPP, Publicis, Omnicom, Denstu and IPG.

The tightening of restrictions represents a setback for those that had begun reopening, such as Omnicom, which in August began phasing back staff to 25% capacity.

However, the best thing agencies can do right now is prepare themselves for a more flexible working scenario post-pandemic.

“Our experience of primarily working from home for the past six months has generally been very positive and not disruptive to our business operations,” explains Dan Clays, chief executive of OMG UK.

“We’ve learned a lot from the experience and are very actively considering people’s preferences between working from home and at the office, and the ways we can continue to be agile operationally in the future.

“That said, everyone who had been back to the office has very much valued the human interaction and that is something we believe is an important aspect of fostering cultures longer term. So we look forward to a time when restrictions ease again, when we will build more hybrid ways of working.”

2. Some people might need to be at their desk – for work or personal reasons

All of the major agencies have kept their offices open for “essential reasons,” operating on a restricted opening basis for those that are unable to work from home due to business or personal reasons.

“We are currently encouraging all our people to work from home and are committed to providing the technical and mental health support they need to allow them to work effectively from home,” says Euan Jarvie, chief executive at Dentsu Aegis Network.

“However, those individuals where this is not possible must complete a personal risk assessment form to receive prior approval for entry to any of our offices.”

For IPG, the majority of its offices in the UK are open, but purely on a “voluntary basis” for employees who wish to come in.

Priority is being given to those who need to “work together, safely, on projects and tasks that cannot effectively be completed while working remotely,” says a representative.

“We have told employees to be judicious about why and when we come into the office and first consider if we can just as effectively accomplish the task remotely. When we are in the office together, we will be there intentionally: to collaborate, co-create and connect.

“If any employee wishes to come to the office, we are asking them to use an app to reserve a seat or to request approval from their direct manager and HR, depending on the company, and to conduct a personal health check. We are limiting density significantly in our workspaces. That said, occupancy remains low and we have not come close to reaching our reduced density guidelines.”

Over at Omnicom, its London Bankside building remains open for people to come in for work that cannot be done at home or if their personal situation is such that they need the office environment.

“All safety measures remain in place, and we have also introduced QR code registration at reception for the NHS Test & Track app. Naturally we will continue to review the situation carefully and respond as required,” says boss Clays.

3. Ensure you’re prioritising safety for those who do come in

Like all businesses, ad agencies have had to quickly introduce a raft of safety measures to ensure employees’ wellbeing when they do attend the office.

For IPG, each location and business has taken a different approach – including producing handbooks, toolkits and video guides – on what a return-to-the-office looks like for employees. New cleaning and visitor guidelines have also been introduced and all offices have signage in place marking social distancing, as well as PPE for employee use.

Dentsu’s Jarvie says that all office openings in the UK have followed strict guidelines and measures designed to protect staff.

This includes limiting building occupancy with a requirement for all employees to gain prior approval before entry. Each employee is allocated a desk and must follow set routes to navigate their way around each office.

“We only permit face-to-face meetings or external visitors in exceptional circumstances and where social distancing and strict Covid-secure guidelines are followed at all times,” he says.

“We’ve established a regular communications programme that is designed to keep all our people connected and help share advice and best practice when working remotely. We’ve found that the technology we put in place before Covid-19 to enable agile working has performed well throughout, including real successes when pitching remotely.”

Omnicom has been taking temperatures as employees enter the buildings, enabling people to book desks in advance of arrival at the office and putting in place enhanced daily cleaning around the agencies to provide further reassurances.

It’s also increased cycle storage to help with alternative transport into the offices and everyone who has returned is met with a ‘welcome back’ pack to outline all the safety measures in place at Bankside and guidance on how they should interact when in the office.

4. And don’t forget to support those who are WFH

Amid the chaos of Covid-19 it can be easy to forget that an entire workforce has been adapting to their own ‘new normal’, most likely within the same four walls, since March.

For Dentsu’s Jarvie, the transition to full-time WFH has been aided by the company’s long-standing flexible working policy introduced in 2016.

He says: “This policy has evolved over a number of years to incorporate a number of agile working practices including an office redesign with a greater emphasis on hot-desking and a greater variety of working spaces to allow every individual and team to work in a way that suits them and their clients.

“We have been working throughout the pandemic to ensure our employees that had not previously worked from home on a regular basis, have the support they need. This has allowed our business to continue to operate effectively during the pandemic, while also accelerating the continued evolution of our working practices.”

Associations like Nabs are also willing and ready to work with agencies and employees to support those working from home in a variety of situations, including offering up advice via its support helpline. Nabs chief exec Diana Tickell praises agencies for their “proactive” approach at the start of the outbreak.

Publicis Groupe has been running its ‘Publicis Plug-in’ as a way to support the mental wellbeing of its UK employees. It’s a daily schedule of online activities such as yoga, coffee mornings, mindfulness sessions and foreign language tutorials that people are encouraged to tune into to help them feel more connected to their colleagues.

Meanwhile, Havas has ramped up the investment it’s making to the Havas Equalise programme; a regular schedule of events both globally and regionally for people to tap into.

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