Agency Business Agency Culture

Is ‘team spirit’ possible for agencies without a physical office?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 7, 2022 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

One of the big complaints from those mourning the days of full offices is the lack of camaraderie that comes from remote working. It’s difficult to create a shared team spirit around a project when you’re all working from separate locations. What can agencies do to bring everyone closer, without actually mandating the entire team getting back into the office?

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How can agencies bridge the gaps of geography in an age of remote working?

How do you solve a problem like... spreading agency culture across borders?

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Josh Campo, president, Razorfish

At Razorfish, we are investing in programs that build relationships beyond immediate project teams – everything from social to developing future leaders. We’re particularly excited about R-Cade, our budding gaming community that brings together people across offices in friendly challenges to build camaraderie.

This is especially important as agencies grow because new hires don’t have pre-Covid work networks like tenured staff do. Within project teams, there will always be moments of relationship-building and collaboration that are most meaningful in-person. It’s not about going back to what was – talent expectations have shifted for good. It’s about balancing those new expectations with the needs of our people across levels and geographies.

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Jamie Barash, senior vice-president, media HR lead, Americas, Dentsu International

A strong company culture is ‘for the people, by the people’ and depends heavily on identity, belonging, connection and collaboration. In order to gauge morale, we launched a survey to all employees, asking a simple question: ‘how are you?’ To drive a culture of connection and belonging, we had to do a temperature check to understand where to focus. As a result, we strengthened our virtual culture with the addition of learning and development programs, wellbeing resources, reward and recognition programs and virtual communities. Central to all of this was understanding that culture is not about where employees work, but how they come together.

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José Antonio Martínez Aguilar, chief exec and chairman, Making Science

As a global agency, our approach to bridging the physical connectedness gap is ‘glocalization.’ This initiative focuses on meeting our employees where they are and invites them to explore other geographies, cultures and teams by working remotely from any of our global locations. Employees apply to become ambassadors and exchange locations with a counterpart for 6-12 months. In addition, onboarding is done at our headquarters so we can meet new employees from the beginning. We also host team weeks once a year that physically unite employees, and we have a robust digital infrastructure to support those who remain remote.

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Anders Wahlquist, chief executive officer, B-Reel

This year we introduced B-Reel Nomad. This opportunity allows anyone in the team to visit and work on local projects from any of our four global offices anytime, between two weeks to two months, emphasizing cross collaboration within our network. Now back in a hybrid environment, we focus on making our in-person interactions meaningful, with things such as new layouts, communal lunches, more elaborate on-boarding and extra thought on how to make different kinds of hybrid meetings effective.

The benefits of not being in the office are adding to work-life-balance, and the positive effects of having a real purposeful office environment to adhere to are more easily seen through the lens of WFH days.

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Susan Pratchett, managing director, Europe, Virtue

We’ve been ‘borderless’ for a few years now, bringing together different perspectives and cultural understanding across the globe. We’ve made this work by creating cultural connection points; to get to know and understand each other better.

We do Europe-wide fortnightly meetings to showcase our latest work and spotlight what’s going on across the team. A monthly cultural exchange focuses on trends and the most interesting stuff happening across the creative world. This is a chance for everyone to share more about who they are and what shapes them. It’s not a replacement for connecting in person, but it lets us think differently about how and when we get people together and how we use our office space.

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Amy Reach, chief executive officer, PureRED

Remote work isn’t new to us as we’ve always had teams spread across the country. But we’ve used the last few years to double down on our efforts to ensure everyone is seen and heard. Our DE&I team, OneRED, hosts Zoom calls to facilitate brave cultural conversations and make sure everyone has a safe space to share, even if through a computer screen. Feeling like you belong is essential, which is why I met with each individual team member over the last year one-to-one to listen, learn and coach. Having time with employees beyond agenda-driven conversations is crucial in this hybrid world.

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Simon Wardropper, chief executive offcer, Realtime

We conduct quarterly surveys to see how our team is feeling about the benefits of working with Realtime, or what they want to see more of. Last year we hired a ‘culture coordinator,’ whose primary job is to ensure the team is not only feeling supported by the company in terms of their work, but in terms of wellbeing and fun too.

Based on the feedback we’ve had, we’ve rolled out a wide variety of offerings for our employees. We do team nail and hair day – where employees can choose to get their nails or hair done at the company’s expense. We have weekly ‘coffee roulette’ where team members are randomly assigned to each other and have some time in the day to hang out and chat virtually or in person. We’ve also maintained monthly outings for our offices where Covid restrictions have allowed. And this may be the first year in a few where we can resume our yearly team trip too.

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Jenn Szekely, US managing partner, Coley Porter Bell

Companies looking to strengthen their culture and combat the great resignation will realize that a full-time return to the office is not a reality or necessary. There is definitely a comradery that comes from physically being together, but if this is focused and meaningful it doesn’t need to be full-time to serve its purpose.

We’ve seen a lot of blurring of borders and collaboration across global offices of our clients and within our UK and US offices. We’ve also seen a positive change with clients. The pre-pandemic phone calls have shifted to seeing each other in our home environments, breaking some of the client-agency walls that existed before in a much more human way.

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Rhys Cater, managing director, Precis Digital

Over 30% of our staff started during the pandemic and many of them are less aware of the history, traditions and little idiosyncrasies that make Precis, well, Precis. Next week, we celebrate 10 years since our founding, and with that we have planned a multi-day event where the one and only focus is on being together again.

Although we are flexible in our approach to working from home and working hours, we have taken a deliberate approach to ensure everyone spends one day a week as a team and attends monthly meetings together as an entire office. Of course, this is supplemented by frequent after-work activities and events to encourage different teams to get together.

On top of this, we have restructured our office space to be a mixture of focus zones v hangout zones where people can choose to come into the office and connect with others, or find an oasis away from the distractions of home life if they need.

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Bronte McMahon, associate director of operations, Canvas8

We ask that people come in for two days a week, and each team has a day a week when it’s preferable that each member comes in. But the most important thing is giving options and being flexible.

We’re running a project at the moment reviving socials and building a weekly schedule of things that offer value for making the trip in (not just drinks, but wellbeing initiatives that promote employee engagement). Having the opportunity to learn from one another – especially for juniors – is key. We have always had a buddy policy for new starters, which continued throughout the lockdowns. Because things were mostly virtual for a long period of time, it allowed us to include our international teams as buddies for the first time, which actually helped spread agency culture across borders.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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