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The post-pandemic workplace: lessons from India’s gradual return to the office

With agencies around the world at different stages on the long return to the office, The Drum looks at what lessons have been learned by agencies in India – where lockdowns have ended across most of the country and a grand 'Unlock' project may be soon progressing.

With vaccination efforts gathering pace and spring around the corner, conversations are turning again to the return to the office. In India, with cases falling and lockdowns in many states easing, the end of Covid-19 in the country may be in sight. But how will agencies go about resuming office life, for good?

We posed that question to chief executives of three of India’s leading network agencies – Ogilvy, BBDO and Havas – and had them share their perspective on life beyond the pandemic. The solutions they’ve hit upon today may well be the best practice of tomorrow

Ogilvy India

Kunal Jeswani is chief executive at Ogilvy India. According to Jeswani: “The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the way we work. Everyone has had more time with family, with friends, with ourselves, leading to a significantly better work-life balance.

Some of it has been great and some of it has been really shitty. The great stuff is obvious. Clearly, there has been less travel, less time stuck in traffic and a break from seemingly endless days at airports and on flights.“

The downsides of working from home, Jeswani notes, weren’t all obvious initially. “The shitty stuff is more insidious. We work hunched over screens all day. In smaller ghettos of teams, minus the buzz of the office. Missing the people we run into every day who don’t work on our brand teams. Missing coffee together. Missing lunch together.

“Missing discussing each other’s problems and finding solace in the fact that everyone has problems. Our relationships with each other have become more direct, more transactional and that hurts culture. Our relationships with our clients have become more direct, more transactional and that hurts relationships and business in the long run.

“We have been able to work efficiently through the pandemic. There hasn’t been a day when we haven't been able to deliver. But that efficiency has come at a cost. A weakening of culture and relationships.“

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About Ogilvy's return-to-office plans, he says. “We will bring people back to the office physically, in a phased manner, when we feel it is safer to do so. That may be two months down the line or when vaccines are available to the general public. It is a measured call that we will have to take carefully. But we will get back soon. And I will be the first through the door.

“We worked on many fronts: constant health tracking and support; employee engagement programmes – just getting everyone together online once a week for entertainment and conversations; ramping up training programmes; culture refreshers; employee recognition awards. But all of this is transient. Just lifting spirits and making people feel connected as often as we could. The only real, significant coping mechanism was people supporting and being empathetic towards each other.“

BBDO India

”March 2020 began as a dream,” recalls Josy Paul, chairman of BBDO India. ”The entire agency went to Goa for an offsite. More than 90 of us from across Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi! It was fun! We came together as one. And then the pandemic hit! And the lockdown! But our office gathering in Goa had created collective energy and an inner spirit that made a huge difference when we had to suddenly WFH. It unleashed a wave of ‘hand-raisers’ and as an agency, we probably beat any logistics company in achieving a smooth transition of our office into our homes.”

According to Paul, the agency adapted handily. ”We broke new ground. In April-May, we surprised ourselves by sitting at homes and directing films and productions across India. I was given the opportunity of leading WhatsApp’s first global campaign; the films for WhatsApp released on the 4 July in India received nationwide acclaim.

”We were seeing more of each other because of cut-to-cut zoom calls. Meetings started on time. It was like a news agency. Each office had daily morning meetings to plan the day and work things out. Weekly leadership calls kept the pace of what’s happening. Calendar invites ruled our life and that of our family. Grandparents and families were involved in the work and our Birthday Zoom calls.”

While the agency’s path back to the studio is still being finalised, Paul notes that its staffers have already begun to coalesce back into a natural community, working outside or from each others’ homes. ”As far as returning to the office goes, we are guided by our Network’s global norms. We follow the official guidelines. Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing a ‘multi-brid’ model (not a hybrid model) happening organically,” says Paul. ”Some of us are meeting and working from each other’s homes, some meet and work from outdoor coffee shops, some work from open-air restaurants and people’s terraces.”

Havas Group India

At Havas Group India, group chief executive office Rana Barua says the team was en route back to the office, when a fresh outbreak stalled plans. “The pandemic had shown signs of lessening when 2021 started and with the relaxation of the restrictions life was slowly trudging back – there was a greater influx of people towards the office, meetings had started to happen physically, client interactions had stepped up considerably. However, over the last few days, there has been a complete pause again as the cases have come back and WFH and zoom calls are making their way back (again) full time.“

“We were one of the early agencies in India to open up our offices as an option for employees to come back,“ Barua explains. “Safety has been one of our major priorities and it continues to be so and we have not made it mandatory for our employees to attend office physically.“

He says the agency allowed staff struggling with the constraints of working from home – lack of space, company or a surfeit of boredom – and that the agency will not mandate staff come in at all until the vaccine drive in India has made more progress.

“Whoever wishes to and needs to work from the office comes in as our offices remain open five days a week and we are equipped to handle 50% staffing after factoring in social distancing, all norms of health, sanitisation and protocol,“ he says.

As the strain of long-term home-working became more apparent, Barua says Havas ramped up its staff outreach efforts. “Confinement could affect people’s mental health – but the extent was unknown as WFH was losing its novelty. To address that, we stepped up our efforts and designed an engaging, ongoing robust framework that included activities under four broad buckets: health and wellness; learning and development; engagement; and entertainment.“

“We curated engaging activities and sessions for employees such as Yoga sessions, Havas Talks – a knowledge-sharing platform, #SilverLining – where employees gave tips and recommended books, TV shows, podcasts etc. There were also online sessions on mental health with doctors and many more initiatives,“ he says.

“It helped in making employees feel connected, motivated, busy and kept the lines of communication open.“

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.