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Top execs on combating presenteeism in adland

Agency execs share how they’re avoiding staff burnout while working remotely

Adland tends to attract hardworking, competitive people. So it’s natural that showing up at work, both figuratively and literally, was encouraged. In fact, for some being the first to arrive and last to leave was a badge of honor.

Yet the negative effects of this type of presenteeism have been well documented. As personal boundaries continue to blur through various hybrid return-to-work approaches, agencies are looking to firmly establish ways to help employees balance their life and work. Here’s what five top agency execs are doing to keep their staff healthy and, hopefully, happy.

Sean Corcoran, US chief executive officer, Mediahub, on pausing new business pitches

Mental health and wellbeing is front-and-center for employees today, and at Mediahub we’re doing a number of things to help our people manage their time and support healthy boundaries. These fall into a few buckets:

  1. Systemic support for time blocks and work/non-work boundaries

  2. Direct wellbeing support and access to related tools and programs

  3. Long-term commitments to supporting our teams through flexible and remote working

Daily time-blocking has helped everyone take a break from meetings and screens. Many of our teams have instituted ‘recess’ time throughout the day – scheduled breaks each day that everyone agrees are offline/no-meeting times, and a way to mentally recharge.

For our working parents and caregivers, we also partner with Virtual Babysitters Club to offer help to keep kids entertained with games, dance parties and puppet shows so adults can fully take a break too. Over 150 kids’ sessions have been booked so far.

We also have Summer Fridays that we extended last year into the fall and winter to give everyone a mandatory weekly break and extend the weekends, as well as Winter Wellness Days – mandatory days off that someone can take off in addition to scheduled office closures. Everyone, including our senior leaders, is required to take these days, and truly be offline.

More broadly, we also offer 1:1 private wellness and mental health sessions through our Employee Assistance Program for any employees who would like to participate, as well as discounted memberships to Calm and Headspace. And long term we’re committed to offering workplace flexibility, with no one required to be in the office through the end of the year, and a long-term plan for continued remote and flexible options. We’re also exploring a larger partnership with Bravely, offering manager support and coaching for all employees to foster a healthy environment and avoid burnout. And as a business, we’ve also paused on new business pitches through at least the end of October, to give everyone a chance to recharge, rather than add more to everyone’s plates.

Claude Silver, chief heart officer, VaynerMedia, on paying attention to internal clocks

Work-life balance implies there are two sides competing. Like a seesaw, if you lean in 100% on one side, you can’t focus on the other – one side will always win. It’s important to find a work-life synergy where your work and personal life can interact and be in concert and collaboration with each other.

At VaynerMedia, despite having an unlimited PTO policy (which Gary Vaynerchuk and the leadership team have been encouraging employees to use), we realized it was not enough to combat exhaustion and the heavy emotion many of us are carrying these days. We therefore announced that the entire company will shut down for an additional three days during the Labor Day week (including the Thursday and Friday leading up to and the Tuesday after Labor Day). Clients have been told and all managers and leaders know this is mandatory; we want people to shut their laptops and recharge.

To help employees set boundaries for themselves, we’ve been encouraging them to pay attention to their internal clocks. We all have our own prime hours of the day, when we are the most productive and creative. A key component of self-care is working to avoid burnout.

To help employees navigate this, we’ve encouraged them to take mini-breaks and set ‘no-meeting’ times in their calendars. In addition, we’ve implemented a couple of initiatives, including mindfulness meditation classes every Monday and Friday. We also have an exceptional internal live and daily program called Voices @ 137pm, where we bring the entire company together virtually for 15 minutes to enjoy entertaining, educational and inspirational interviews with celebrities, influencers, academics and our very own employees.

One thing we always teach and deploy at VaynerMedia is self-awareness. You are the expert on yourself. We can give everyone wonderful benefits, encouragement and help setting boundaries, however at the end of the day you need to be rooting for yourself and on your own winning team.

Sheri Thorburn, talent chief, TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, on indefinite flex Fridays

With the majority of us still working remotely, making sure that our employees are getting the support and time they need to recharge is extremely important to overall satisfaction, health and happiness at work.

Burnout is a major issue in our industry, and we’ve all experienced it. To help alleviate the pressure to be ‘on’ all the time, we’ve implemented policies to support our employees in creating a better balance. We’ve committed to making Fridays half days indefinitely – a continuation from Summer Fridays to become Flex Fridays so that our employees can get a head start to the weekend.

We also have ‘meeting-free zones’ every single day so that employees can get a break from back-to-back virtual meetings. In addition, as part of the onboarding process, we make it clear to employees and managers to respect our meeting-free zones and to be aware of our policies.

For talent who have expressed interest in leaving Los Angeles and going home to spend time with family, we’ve encouraged them to go and take additional days off so that they can spend some of that much-needed quality time. To further encourage this, when we do go back to the office on a hybrid basis we’re offering an expanded holiday policy where Memorial Day week, 4th of July week and Thanksgiving week will be fully remote. We will also continue to be fully closed between Christmas and New Year so that our employees can take a much-needed holiday break.

Lastly, it is extremely important that we also set expectations from the beginning. When we hire new talent, we encourage them to take time off before starting at the agency to give them time to recharge and come in feeling refreshed. This is huge. Talent often feels rushed to start immediately when taking a new job, but it’s not healthy. We’ve found that taking time off before starting a new position is crucial for employee health and wellbeing.

Chris Sojka, chief creative, Madwell, on making the office a clubhouse

It’s always easy to give enlightened soundbites about the future of work. Figuring out that future in the present is not. I was steadfast in the idea that getting back together in-person was going to be a crucial bookend to these long stretches of time in quarantine and apart. Since our office reopened as a 100%-vaccinated environment earlier this month, I’ve found that being present is completely invigorating. Personally, I’ve also found that after 17 months of working in little virtual boxes we all need flexibility and freedom – myself included.

Now I think of our physical office spaces as clubhouses, places to visit as much or as little as necessary to have a healthy work experience and keep your brain from exploding. Come in sometimes, come in all the time, don’t come in much of the time, or request to work fully remotely: I think they’re all valid approaches. As long as people are doing their job and tending to their own mental health, while fulfilling the duties of their jobs (some of which do inherently require being present), then we’re all evolving together.

There’s enough pressure on agency employees already: make great work, hit impossible deadlines, quietly process the chaos of virus variants and geopolitics and loneliness, smile on the next Zoom. Our top priority now is helping our staff balance all of this, and I know we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can offer. We even introduced our first ever sabbatical program for five- and 10-year veterans because the cumulative impact of all this psychic radiation is real and serious.

My goal is to be present for our team by removing the stigma around different ways of working, starting with my own evolution from ‘100% work from office’ to ‘100% do your job in the happiest, healthiest way’. People enter advertising, hopefully, because it is a dynamic and relatively unpredictable profession. If any single industry is going to pioneer a true workplace hybridization, I hope it is ours.

Darla Price, president, DDB NY, on no-meeting zones

At DDB NY, I want to embrace a culture of joy and empathy to fuel creativity. Each of our journeys over the past year has been uniquely different, and the impact of that weighs more heavily on our people when we’re all disparate and working remotely. To help reinforce more joy virtually we’re celebrating one of our most unexpected works, which is our talent and the passions and hobbies they have outside of work that bring them joy, to pass along to the agency.

Our first session featured Melissa Soloman, one of our project managers who also teaches meditation on the side. She did a fantastic session with the entire agency to restart a couple of our Mondays, and it helped feed the agency with renewed energy. We’re also planning a session with our chief strategy officer, who’s a sommelier, where he’ll talk to us about wine and the impact it has on enjoying a great meal.

We’ve also incorporated ways to give more time back to our people and show empathy for one another, and the personal things we may need to do in order to bring back balance or just get through the day. We’ve carved out an hour every day for breathing room that the entire agency holds sacred, as well as half-day Fridays and no-meeting times to allow people to take a breath and catch up. But these are all just some of the small things toward working together to build a better agency that’s future-forward. We all should continue to do more, and reinforce it from the top so that we create the type of environment that fosters what we do best – great creativity.

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