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Disney dance parties, art classes and flexibility: how adland is supporting WFH parents

Juggling a job in advertising and raising a family has never been easy, but for working parents wrestling their way through lockdown 3.0 things have never been harder. In the first of a three-part series, The Drum explores how adland’s employers are stepping up to support their staff – be it through keeping the kids entertained with a Zoom cookie decorating class or baking more flexibility into the working day with material changes to policy.

‘Kids Yoga with Ivana’, ‘Bake with Hazel’ and ‘Story Time with Debbie’. You’d be forgiven for thinking this rundown was perhaps the lunchtime programming schedule for CBeebies or a bunch of Sesame Street specials, however – this just the latest output to come out of Publicis Groupe.

Last week, Publicis.Poke unveiled Publicis.Playtime a half-term initiative which seen the agency run a week-long series of virtual distractions for kids belonging to their staff. The purpose? To give working parents and carers a breather.

The creative shop’s chief executive Nick Farnhill spearheaded the initiative after noticing that working parents (like himself) were experiencing “exhaustion, guilt and frustration” alongside classic lockdown woes like poor Wi-Fi connectivity. With schools poised for a slow, tentative re-opening in the UK on 8 March and markets in the US still in lockdown, it doesn’t look like things are going to let up for families any time soon.

Havas is also among those to have implemented a co-ordinated schedule of events for the kids of staff across all age groups.

“It’s been really uplifting,” explains Jennifer Black, managing director at Havas London. “We have magic lessons where the children learn tricks to amaze their parents, story time with interactive literacy lessons, art club, wellness Wednesdays with a focus on mindfulness and a Disney dance party workout.”

Now more than ever, she says, is the time for agency bosses to be kind. “Sometimes hardship is not so visible on a screen and warning signs can fly under the radar. It’s tougher to read people with remote working, so we’ve launched this scheme to lighten the mood.”

In the UK, Ogilvy too has been orchestrating virtual events to keep little ones entertained.

“We recently held our second annual Dog Show to chase away the January Blues,” says chief people officer Helen Matthews, “it was online for 2021. We invited the whole agency and their children. It went down a treat.“

Moments of joy can be hard to come by in lockdown and for parents WFH from all backgrounds – be it new mums to single dads with teens, trying to balance a busy work life with homeschooling, pre-schooling or even breastfeeding at the kitchen table can feel relentless.

One minute you’re teaching a maths lesson or trying to get the baby to latch, the next you’re trying to perfect a pitch deck and being asked to show face with a client on Zoom.

For a forthcoming feature in The Drum, many of adland’s WFH parents and carers have revealed feelings of hopelessness, a struggle to feel “present” in their work life and “guilt” over having to split their time unevenly.

It’s not just anecdotal either. A recent study from Oxford University, based on over 6,000 UK parents, reveals how that parental stress, depression, and anxiety have again increased since new national restrictions have been introduced.

Notably, parents who have children aged 10 or younger are reporting particularly high stress during the first lockdown and around a third of them (36%) were substantially worried about their children's behaviour at that time.

Further data from organsation Working Families finds that 61% of parents and carers in work say family life has become more stressful or much more stressful during lockdown. 52% of women with male partners who responded have been working different hours from usual, compared to just over a third (34%) of their male partners. And 65% of parents and carers we surveyed said they would like their future work arrangements to be more flexible.

These experiences are igniting a sea change and beyond biscuit making on Zoom and Crufts-style competitions, ad agencies are listening to working parents call for help – baking more flexibility into the working day and updating outdated policies to help those in need of a little extra agility in the toughest of times.

Adapting to the needs of parents and carers

Farnhill believes making simple changes to have proven effective. As a dad himself, he’s recognised the need to ensure diaries are “open” across the business and encouraging parents to block out periods for home schooling that everyone can see and work around.

The agency is also encouraging everyone to work flexibly if needed and start later or finish earlier in the day. “We also share all work schedules with clients and balance their needs with ours,” he adds, saying these small organisational tweaks has made a big difference.

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, all Poke staff have been handed access to the Headspace app, while the agency has developed its own platform – ‘How are you?’ – which online collects resources and tools shaped around agency life experiences, which anyone can access.

For its part, Havas had already introduced flexible working back in April 2019 and not just for parents. In response to the pandemic, the company has built on this with additional elements, including encouraging meetings of 45 minutes as opposed to an hour, so that people are not on long, back-to-back calls without time for a break. And telling staff to leave their desks at lunchtime.

More recently, it implemented 2pm Friday finishes until the end of Q1, 10am starts on a Monday, and two additional ‘mental wealth’ days of annual leave for all staff.

“Prolonged periods of working from home are tough, for a whole range of reasons – which is why we’ve taken great care to ensure all our people, whatever their circumstances, are supported to the absolute best of our ability,” says Black.

“That said, it’s a special kind of pressure that’s been put on working parents, who have had no choice but to juggle home-schooling – teachers, we salute you – their jobs and quite literally everything else, all at the same time and all while keeping their kids’ and their own sanity intact. Frankly, they’ve been nothing short of heroic.”

She highlights how tough this all is on kids too, saying the agency has been pleased with the uptake of events aimed at tiny people.

“As well as support specific to working parents, we’ve also introduced more flexibility, resources, guardrails, days off and perks across the board.

”It’s important to recognise the role our non-parents have played in making parents’ lives as manageable as possible, too – often picking up slack, working around unusual schedules or simply being there as voices of support.”

Recognising mums, dads and guardians as individuals

Sharon Bange, managing director at Kindred, has a four-old son in reception class and a 15 month old in nursery. She returned from her second maternity leave in June 2020. When Covid-19 kicked off, she reframed her agency’s flexible working policy.

“A fifth of our people have caring responsibilities so it was important we did this for them, but we’re strong believers that flexibility shouldn’t just be for parents, so this rule applies to everyone,” she asserts. “We’ve kept it in place throughout Covid and our parents have applied it in different ways as the pandemic has gone on.”

In January, one of her management team requested part-time furlough to balance home-school and work, which she was happy to accommodate.

Bange’s advice to other agencies in supporting working mums, dads and guardians?

“Let parents take responsibility for when, where and how they want to work. Initiatives are all well and good, but everyone’s situation is different so people should be able to do whatever’s best for them.”

For Ogilvy’s Matthews, there has been a need to adapt to individual situations.

“We have parents with keyworker partners, single parents and parents and carers who are both juggling full time, busy roles and multiple children,” she explains, saying the agency has “learned as much as it can from previous lockdowns and “listened deeply” to its people.

In line with Bange’s view, the WPP-owned agency’s strategy has been to acknowledge the individual and create as flexible an environment as we can.

Matthews continues: “We have created an email footer to highlight our support of flexible working and we wrote to all our clients at the beginning of the year to explain our support of flexible working for our parents and carers, while acknowledging that many of them will be juggling too.”

It too has collated a range of useful resources, including parents and carers case studies to share stories and tips.

Herself and Farnhill see this moment as ushering in a sea change for how agencies treat working parents in the long term.

“The biggest change I hope to see is a renewed respect for what parents and especially mothers achieve with balancing life and work,” says the latter. “A deeper understanding of the challenges many parents face will result in a more considerate, collaborative and ultimately productive place to work, wherever that may be.”

Stay tuned later this week for parts two and three of this series – where The Drum will explore real life experiences and advice from adland’s working parents and scope out what the future holds for those with kids returning to work post-pandemic.

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