Talent Deutsch 4As

Top agency leaders offer return to the office advice


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

March 25, 2022 | 8 min read

The return to the office in adland has been full of fits and starts. But, as many agencies now begin to welcome their staff back to in-person workdays, there are plenty of new realities to be mindful of. Here are seven key pieces of advice to help employees ease back into the flow during this unprecedented moment.

Return to office

As agencies speed up return to the office, don’t forget to slow down and listen to employee concerns

Remain location-flexible

“As our studios are now open for those who wish to use them, it’s vital to remember that the remote world we’ve been living in over the last two years will continue to be an asset to the workplace and an important benefit to employees’ lives. Agencies should start negotiating hybrid ways of working and communicating by identifying tasks that are location-flexible, meaning that we can provide teams with more freedom, establishing principles that promote outcome rather than reinforcing cultures of presenteeism.

“It is important not to lose the sense of connectivity that we gain from in-person interactions. Meetings need to remain accessible to all, regardless of whether you’re based in the studio or working remotely. Think about who is or isn’t in the room and make sure that everyone’s voice is heard whether next to you or on a screen. It’s important to be aware of where everyone is based and in what time zones and be mindful that some people may be waking up, or at the end of their day, or need to finish on time to meet other commitments. A work-life balance should stay at the center point of our strategy around returning to our studios for those who want to.” Amy Batchelor, people director EMEA, AKQA

Create micro moments for inclusivity

“As agencies return to the office, especially in flexible working environments, it is so important that people at all levels are mindful of inclusivity. By this I mean, ensuring those in the office and those joining meetings and events virtually feel equally important and included in all conversations. Small, but significant actions that help foster a more inclusive working environment for all employees include, opening meetings with a roundtable of intros starting with those dialing in remotely first, sharing agendas well ahead of the meeting, and ending meetings with clear follow up instructions to avoid only those in the room getting post-meeting feedback that often happens when packing up or in hallways. This micro moments and commitments make all the difference and allow remote team members to share in a similar experience to those experiencing it live.” Nikki Lamba, global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, DDB

Listen to what your employees have to say

“The most important thing you can do as an organization is to listen to your employees. Ask your employees what matters to them, don’t make assumptions. Ask them where they do their best work. Don’t create return to office policies that are focused solely on company finances (eg, calling people back into the office because of expensive real estate costs) and don’t force your people to go into the office for some arbitrary number of days per week without communicating the purpose of them being there. Your employees can’t and won’t unsee being able to work remotely for the last two years during the pandemic. With that in mind, companies that want to remain competitive in this crazy talent market should lean into flexibility. Your employees are adults, trust them and treat them as such.

“We’ve been encouraging each department to meet with their teams in-person once or twice a month. The department meetings are not mandatory for every employee to attend in-person but highly recommended as Zoom will never be able to take the place of in-person connections. So far, with this new model, we’ve been receiving positive feedback. In a way, this is giving employees the best of both worlds.” Celeste Bell, executive vice-president and director of HR, Deutsch New York

Encourage employees to be intentional about their time

“Remind employees to be intentional with their time and energy and set realistic expectations for themselves. As employees think about returning to the office, they should think about how they want to show up. Do they need to limit their time in meetings to ensure they have time set aside for productivity? Are there certain projects or individuals they want to be more connected to? Are there things they should stop doing or do more of? By being intentional about their time and energy from the outset will help set them up for success when they return.

“Be mindful, patient and respectful of your employees. Everyone has had to adapt to a new normal over the last two years. And it’s important to remember that not everyone is sprinting back to the office. Many of our beliefs about the way work is accomplished have changed forever. Some people will have continued anxieties for varying reasons. It’s important to remember this as we design future work models, policies and the language we use to communicate them.“ Claude Silver, chief heart officer, VaynerMedia

Focus on maintaining trust

“The number one thing we are focusing on with the return to office is trust. Everyone has different life situations they are managing and different comfort levels within person interactions. The decisions we are making are grounded in the fact that we trust that our employees are responsible adults who will do the best thing for the work, the business, and themselves. And they know what the best thing is on any given day. Our responsibility is to provide a framework for a safe return to the office that our people can make decisions within.

“As we move back into a hybrid work situation, we’ve created a task force with representatives from all different work situations so that we keep evolving how we work to account for people who are in the office and people who are remote. For example, prior to the pandemic, our employee appreciation day efforts were primarily focused in the office, but this year we moved our appreciation onto our Teams channel so all were included, no matter where they were.” Hannah Lentz, executive director of talent relations, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York

Continue to leverage and support workers with disabilities

“Working from home forced us all to think about what we need to do our best work. It also prompted more employees to disclose an invisible disability to their manager. For some, remote working highlighted issues with attention or learning that led to a new diagnosis of a learning or thinking difference. For others, going remote encouraged them to finally tell their managers about a learning and thinking difference they had, but never disclosed. As employees go back to the office, these disclosures must be addressed yet again.

“Recording video calls, using closed captioning, offering text-to-speech software – these are all little things that have helped employees working from home. And as employees go back to their physical office spaces, they can continue to help employees do their best work. We’ve been forced to think harder about how people work best, how they take in information best, and how we can create a workplace that’s inclusive and flexible. Those are lessons that will make every workplace better.” Yvonne Cowser Yancy, chief administrative officer, Understood

Plan for change, change and more change

“There is definitely some adjusting employees will have to do in the immediate short term as well as the long term. Returning to office isn’t synonymous with returning to old habits that may not have been optimal in one way or another. Hopefully, new and improved working dynamics will start to show. To prepare for that shift, I recommend walking in to work expecting change rather than sameness.“ Simon Fenwick, executive vice-president, 4As Talent, Equity and Learning

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