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How do you solve a problem like... the pull of old working habits after the pandemic?

In this series, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. Today, we ask how marketers planning for the post-pandemic economy will avoid the pull of the old normal.

A year into the pandemic, much of the marketing sector is still working-from-home amid varying stages of lockdown around the world. But with vaccines gradually rolling out, the return to office working will happen eventually. Agencies and brands are likely already planning what that return will look like, and which working practices adopted during the pandemic will be maintained.

But old habits – such as relying on major city hubs for talent recruitment or requiring employees to be in the office throughout the working day – die hard. And for many businesses, the temptation to return to them will be strong. So, how can you avoid the draw of the old normal?

How do you solve a problem like... the pull of old working habits after the pandemic?

Raagulan Pathy, APAC head of enterprise, Zoom

I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic taught us a lot about the inefficiencies that existed in our ‘old’ ways of working. We were no longer inhibited by geography for recruiting great talent, we were able to better work around each other’s schedules, we could connect to more in-market opportunities. And there were cost savings that came with digital infrastructures.

Of course, sometimes an in-person meeting is the best thing to spark creative juices. And with the vaccine slowly but surely getting rolled out worldwide, we are seeing the possibility of a gradual return to the office.

However, now that not only businesses but schools, healthcare, financial institutions and more have had a whole year to beta-test remote work and reap all its benefits, I find it hard to believe that a complete backtrack could be on the cards. Instead, I think the future will look to a hybrid model where we combine the best of both worlds.

Max Morielli, president of Europe, Accenture Interactive

The remote work experiment has made us question the long-standing terms of what we give and what we get from our working lives. For now, the future of work is still unclear. Instead, we are entering an era of prototyping what that could look like and businesses have the ultimate permission and space to think and do differently – something we’ve uncovered in our latest Fjord Trends report.

Personally, I have cherished the time spent with my family and less time traveling for work – as I know many others have. That’s something I want to see continue in a post-pandemic world. But at the same time, you can’t abandon the peripheral value of being physically present in a workplace. Social capital, knowledge transfer, soft skills and hands-on experience have been significantly diminished, with long-term consequences as a result of the pandemic.

Therefore, employers will need to redefine what ‘the office’ means – to decouple it from a physical space and turn their focus on designing ways to make best use of dispersed teams, with the right digital technology, to meet both their own business goals and their individual employees’ expectations and needs.

Pip Hulbert, UK chief executive officer, Wunderman Thompson

I think the ‘old normal’ is a distant memory that will never return. Being a leader during transformation, at a time when we are working through our biggest test and learn experiment, I’m determined not to define a ‘new normal’. It’s about taking the best of both and creating an inspiring environment for our people and clients. We’re investing in technology and cementing our flexible working policy while redesigning our office space with a focus on collaboration. The future is about building a culture of experimentation that supports balance and flexibility and listens to what works for our people and clients.

Becky Skiles, partner and chief marketing officer, Deloitte Digital

If there’s one thing we’ve all seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that, as marketers, we must continue to focus on the humanity within a problem. Deloitte Digital research carried out in the first lockdown found that one-in-five consumers started using a brand as a result of their positive response to the pandemic. For years to come, consumers will continue to favor those brands.

Similarly, as workers, we are creatures of habit. While I look forward to the spontaneous connections that come from running into people in the queue for a coffee, I hope we return to a hybrid approach to working.

For those of us working from home during this time, many of us have learned the benefits of an extra three hours a day to connect with family, get out for a run or cook a decent meal. I hope that in continuing to focus on these benefits that we’ve all come to see as part of our day-to-day while working from home, we will find that comfortable middle to work collaboratively and creatively with our teams – both within the office and virtually within our homes.

Claire Kimber, group innovation director, Posterscope

As businesses and individuals, we’ve been forced to change and adapt, and to accelerate technologies and practices that better fit us and our new world.

So I hope the wonderfully creative and entrepreneurial spirit of innovation and adaption doesn’t slip away. After all, no product is ever finished, no approach ever fully finessed, no problem ever completely fixed; everything is in flux, and our capabilities and desire to find new ways of doing things should remain just as apt to change and shift.

Stephanie Marks, managing director, Havas Media Group

Between 2019 and 2020 we swung from one extreme to another, from the daily commute and legging it home to make the nursery pick-up, to being thrust into full-on lockdown. But we can find a balance between these extremes.

We now know the benefit of an office, of seeing colleagues and working collaboratively. But I also love eating lunch with my kids, rolling out of bed to my computer and taking time out to stop and think. There are new habits that we like and old ones that we miss. Life after lockdown will be more meaningful at Havas, with balance at the heart of what we do.

Susan Pratchett, Western Europe managing director, Virtue

The past year has brought increased flexibility not only in where we work but also the hours we work, alongside a renewed sense of kindness and gentleness towards each other. These are all things that we have to continue to champion at all costs.

That’s not to say that the office doesn’t still play an important role. But it’s no longer the default. Breaking out of the reliance on the office has also accelerated our ambition to be working with the very best people from every corner of the world, and not being limited to the big city hubs.

We’re also continuing to prioritize internal initiatives, such as open briefs that tackle societal challenges. It keeps the team energy and culture thriving, and all of us thinking beyond our day-to-day.

Camilla Kemp, chief executive officer, M&C Saatchi

The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to completely rethink the way we work. We’ve now committed to a 3:2 model for hybrid working when we finally return to the office. With the launch of our Open House program last year, we’ve also discovered how remote working can open up our agency to a whole new, more diverse group of people, so we plan to continue to run talent initiatives that enable potential employees to engage with us virtually.

Doug Main, creative director, The Bigger Boat

Talking openly as a team means we all take ownership of not slipping back into the ‘old ways’. We’ve been given an opportunity to make the most of remote working and further enhance our workplace wellbeing. I’ve personally enjoyed the lack of commute, more time to exercise and fewer distractions. As a business, we get the best results when we involve all the crew so we’re talking constantly about what we like and dislike when operating remotely.

Simon Browning, chief operating officer, Recipe Design

We were already weighing up some big changes in 2019, but the circumstances of March 2020 finally forced us to close our studio. Despite initial reservations, we were quickly convinced by the benefits. Presenteeism vanished, our values around communication, trust and accountability were amplified, and engagement and performance increased due to greater flexibility and work-life balance.

Since then, we’ve permanently downsized our space by 70% and invested in the tools and technologies to make remote working more flexible, efficient and empowering. In the future, we will likely dispose of any permanent studio in favor of using temporary workspaces.

The one thing we absolutely will return to is interviewing in person; it’s more critical than ever to make the right recruitment decisions and avoid undermining such a strong team spirit.

Birgitte Woehlk, director of culture and talent, Design Bridge

Keeping our five global studios closely connected has always taken dedicated effort and regular travel, but over the past year we’ve had to work as one virtual studio, building stronger communication and conducting training, management meetings and company broadcasts in ways we hadn’t embraced before.

The ease with which we now connect virtually, combined with the environmental benefits, will make traveling less a no-brainer. We’ll also consider our shared physical working spaces in new, more imaginative ways, and interaction with clients, collaborative working and mentoring will be prioritized. Why should we go back to making tedious daily commutes five days a week when much can be done effectively from home?

Feel like joining in the debate? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions.

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