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‘We’ve been here before’: how agencies are preparing for Omicron staff shortages

Agency leaders say they are seeing staff shortages already, but are prepared for what's to come

The sharp rise in the number of Covid-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant has caused government ministers to warn of significant staff absences and shortages over the coming weeks.

According to cabinet sources, businesses have been warned of a “tidal wave” of new cases that will contribute to labour shortages primarily affecting the retail, manufacturing, and hospitality industries.

Government advice is now to work from home wherever possible – a move that was actioned by a number of agencies within the advertising and marketing industries. However, with social mixing inevitable over the Christmas period, some are now concerned by the short staffing they are likely to see in the new year.

Here, agencies weigh in on the impact of staff shortages on business, and how they’re planning to move into 2022.

Staff shortages are happening

Chief executive of Creature Dan Cullen-Shute can’t believe we’re here again. “I'll be honest, it's hard not to open this with a volley of frustrated profanity” he says.

However, he stresses that as frustrating as the situation might be, it would be worse had vaccine and booster uptake at the agency not been high. “It means the chances of anyone getting seriously ill are vastly reduced, which is obviously the most important thing, and means that the main challenges we have to deal with are logistical.”

Over at Iris London, chief executive Claire Humphris similarly says that although cases are high, teams are thankfully recovering quickly.

“Staff shortages are real and happening now. We’ve had more Covid cases in the last two weeks than we’ve ever had.

“Interestingly symptoms reported are mild, at worst flu-like for several days or a heavy cold, so we don’t know if this is down to our younger demographic or the new variant. While this is already affecting teams, we’re finding that people are recovering over days rather than weeks.”

Both Creature and Iris have seen their teams revert to working from home, as was advised by the UK government on 13 December.

Agencies have become efficient at remote-working

“We’re finding that the impact of Omicron is being masked by remote working – mild symptoms coupled with 10 days isolation is not having the noticeable impact it would have done if this happened in November,” says Humphris.

“Thanks to the last two years we already have the experience, techniques, and processes for remote working in place. We have combined physical and remote production techniques, and our people understand the remote ways of working together.“

However, like the rest of the general public, employers will be feeling anxious about making decisions in such a rapidly changing landscape. Linda Nguyen, human resources manager at Waste explains: “Due to the speed at which the Government guidance can change during this period, it is difficult to say what the position will be as we enter the new year.

“We will be working with managers to make plans as things develop, and will communicate to the team on any changes, in relation to testing and self-isolation requirements, changes to health and safety rules, or the need to find freelancers at short notice to provide cover for sickness absences.“

Pip Hulbert, chief executive at Wunderman Thompson, tells The Drum that the best way to manage this situation is “with flexibility around resourcing and by being empathetic to our people’s needs.”

She says over the last two years Wunderman has become more efficient than ever in its flexible working, and “we’ve done a great job experimenting with ways of working to evolve our business and move to a new rhythm that provides both flexibility and efficiency.”

“Since the beginning of this period we’ve learned a great deal about what we need to do in order to support our people and our clients whilst working from home. It’s been a journey of experimentation. We now have the right technology, processes, and training in place to make it a positive and fun experience for everyone.”

However, Cullen-Shute emphasises that the most important thing “is looking after our people – making sure we're not asking them to do anything that might put them at risk, and making sure they feel supported in what they're doing at a time when pressure is traditionally on.”

Mental health and wellbeing

There is a consensus among the agency leaders that the stresses of the last year, on top of increased anxiety around the new variant could be damaging to staff’s overall wellbeing.

Humphris says Iris will be reinforcing some of its previous pandemic measures that fell by the wayside when office working resumed. “Looking forward to January we will remain working remotely until advised otherwise by the government. We will refresh our team leaders around healthy remote working practices; core hours (10-4pm); regular screen breaks and getting out for fresh air.”

“We’re also aware that January can be a bleak month for some, so we will also increase support from our mental health first aiders to ensure people feel supported and connected to one another.”

With the coming months looking uncertain, Cullen-Shute emphasises that it’s just more of what we have already learned to live with.

“This year has never been a straight line, so it’s unsurprising that it’s ending as something of a scribble. But we have the processes in place to manage, and a team who are well used to managing.”

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