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Remote Working Agencies Hybrid Working

What do agency leaders make of increasing ‘return-to-office’ demands?

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

March 18, 2024 | 11 min read

There’s been an uptick in the number of companies mandating a full return-to-office, after years of hybrid working. But do agency owners and HR leaders think it’s a smart move?

A desk chair on a street, in front of an orange wall

4 years on from the great re-negotiation of working conditions brought on by the pandemic, what are agency leaders thinking? / Florian Schmetz via Unsplash

Last week, British drugstore Boots joined a growing list of companies revoking their hybrid working policies, as it announced a recall notice for its head office staff, 5 days a week. This comes amid. UPS and the beleaguered Boeing are among the other big names to make similar shifts in recent months – with mixed results.

In adland, hybrid approaches still seem to dominate, with most of the major holding companies only mandating one or two days in the office.

The creative industries have a richer history of hybrid working than most corners of the business world, and many agency leaders have defended the benefits of sticking to flexible approaches, no matter how far we get from the pandemic. So, what do those agency leaders make of the climate around working set-ups, and the debate about returning to the office? How have their views shifted in the couple of years since hybrid working was all we talked about? We asked nine agency and HR bosses from The Drum Network.

Julio Taylor, chief executive officer, Hallam: “When the pandemic forced us all to work from home, most companies adapted to the much-heralded ‘new normal’. Others did the bare minimum and waited for things to blow over or get back to the ‘old’ normal. Except they didn’t go back to normal. They never will. Companies now forcing employees back is evidence of how deep the problem runs. There’s a massive disconnect between what employees want, and what companies expect of them. A balance can be struck, but culture has to be created on purpose. Failing to adapt to the future of work and then pushing that responsibility to employees with strict rules is the biggest challenge to the modern workplace. This new era of hyper-mobile employees needs new thinking and new ideas, and that has to start with CEOs. As CEO, it’s your responsibility to embody the culture and identity of the company, not the other way around.”

Renae Shaw, head of people, Search Laboratory: “‘Productivity’ is not something we specifically measure, but we do measure utilization (the amount of time colleagues spend working on clients). Levels of utilization have remained consistent, regardless of variations in our work-from-home policy. To limit flexibility over concerns of reduced productivity would suggest the two are mutually exclusive, which they are not. By extending trust, the result is empowerment. and engagement. Without the foundations a positive working culture provides, I can see why there would be concerns. Withholding flexibility may work as a short-term strategy but only at the detriment of being able to attract, retain, and motivate in the long term. This is not to say we haven’t had challenges. Our concerns have been more about our ability to learn and collaborate well together as a hybrid workforce. Quality of work and relationships has been our focus, not productivity.”

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Sammy Mansourpour, managing director at AgencyUK: “The pandemic led to an evaluation of office/home working and for some time there was an over-correction, with lots of remote requests. But the data now strongly supports our initial gut instinct: all-out home working reduces productivity, output, and happiness. Most agency folk like meeting up. And for the younger ones, being at home at all negatively impact their speed of learning; you can't rule out education through osmosis inside the office walls. A balance of in and out of the office has been struck for the majority and it works for most but not all. There’s no one-size-fits-all and each employee should be evaluated against their needs, but today this simply isn’t the case. My view stands that all juniors should be in-house full time, creatives work best in teams face-to-face and more senior folk can enjoy the flexibility of home working life because they have the experience and knowledge to make that work for them. But would this multi-tier system fly in the face of equality in the workplace?”

Caroline McAniff, head of people & culture, Atomic: “Most of our people neither want nor need to be in the office all day, every day. We’ve got space for everyone, and we’ve worked on making the office a nice place to be. But we know we can’t compete with the flexibility and overall attractiveness of working from home. Our goal is to balance the togetherness that helps keep our culture alive and thriving, with the autonomy and flexibility our people crave. We think we've arrived at a good balance, but we won't stop listening and experimenting so our people feel heard. Our ‘anchor days’ (one or two days in the office for everyone, depending on their proximity) make sure we have time together as a business, generating chance interactions and encouraging face-to-face collaborations. We want to drive a culture of ownership and accountability, through coaching. That’s been a shift in management style, but it’s really helped our people establish their own autonomy within this hybrid working reality.”

James Sandford, managing director, Propellernet: “Our working philosophy hasn’t changed dramatically over the last few years, but we have made a few small tweaks. The things we’ve changed have been put in place to protect our workplace culture, NOT because we don’t trust our team or think they’re unproductive. For me, the main challenge with increased remote working is a diluted culture. We’re very aware of that and are doing a few things to encourage everyone to get together regularly: all-agency socials every 2 months, anchor days once a month where each team will work together and have lunch together, and subsidized activities: any group of 4 or more employees that do an activity together will get 50% of the costs subsidized by the business. We believe we’ve found the right balance between flexibility, freedom, and productivity. We ask for accountability and diligence in return for trust and autonomy.”

Cansu Babacan, managing director, Ambassadors Lab: “Remote work, once seen as a cool thing in tech companies, became a survival strategy during the pandemic. We had to act quickly, adopting tools like Slack and fostering work-life balance with online workouts between meetings. Some struggled with the lack of connection during coffee chats and bonding over a few drinks on a Friday. Many who commute daily, began a career during the pandemic, or work in decentralized teams resist returning to the office full-time, favoring a hybrid approach that combines the benefits of both setups. Writing from my sofa, because I can focus better if I am not around people, I can’t help but see the advantages of the hybrid model. It’s beyond convenience: it supports productivity, broadens reach to a diverse talent pool and is more environmentally friendly. Like it or not, I believe within the next 10 years hybrid work will be the standard for most organizations.”

Elizabeth Alton, wellness & development coach, Redpill: “Having the option to work flexibly benefits everyone. Happiness greatly benefits productivity and engagement. If rigid office hours and locations are enforced, life can feel quite challenging. Personal demands vary, so a perfect hybrid model is unlikely to exist. What can exist are open two-way conversations with staff to understand their needs for flexibility. For a fast-paced company undergoing growth and change, a lack of structure can send confusing and conflicting messages. Implementing hybrid working with 2 set office days ensures that time spent in the office is purposeful, and meetings are meaningful and well-attended. This clear structure provides a combination of maximized human connection on in-person days and flexible hours for all. The result for us has been an environment where a culture of connection has flourished, and people can choose to do their job in a way that’s healthy for them and beneficial for the business.”

Emma Loizidis, head of people, Fox Agency: “The move towards mandated office days seems more fuelled by micromanagement than collaboration. We’ve seen through the pandemic that people can continue to deliver great work remotely, and we need to recognize that the world has changed. Withdrawing flexibility has been shown to have a detrimental effect on employee wellbeing and could also narrow the talent pool, excluding groups like working parents, people with neurodiversity, and junior employees from lower socioeconomic groups who can’t afford the cost of commuting or city center rent.”

Giselle Fernandes, head of people, Assembly Europe: “We have a hybrid approach to accommodate new ways of working. Rather than solely focusing on policies, our priority is to cultivate a collaborative culture that encourages connection and idea exploration, and creates opportunities when we come together on our anchor days. We greatly value our team’s feedback and understand the importance of flexibility. That’s why we offer employees to work from home two days a week and provide a 4x one-week remote working allowance per calendar year, allowing us to meet individual needs whilst navigating the changing work landscape.”

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