Returning to the workplace: The lessons learned and what to keep in mind

Returning to work: The lessons learned and what to keep in mind

With England beginning to ease lockdown restrictions ahead of the rest of the UK, some are returning to their offices in an attempt to pick up the pieces, despite a continuing uncertainty as to what is ahead. Lawrence Weber, a partner at Curve, discusses and relays insights he has heard from colleagues and partners across the industry around what they have experienced and the working lessons to take forward.

As we all slowly wipe the sleep out of our eyes and the biscuit crumbs from our jumpers, perhaps even contemplating whether ‘Stay Alert‘ means starting to wear trousers on Zoom calls, the thoughts of many in the marketing community will turn to the when, if and how of returning to the office.

It seems natural for a people-dependent industry such as advertising to want to do that, not just because of the allure of free coffee and the posh sandwiches left over from client meetings, but because of our need to be together to collaborate and create.

Since we at Curve are a business that teaches leadership teams and practitioners in agencies, start-ups and brands to better collaborate and create all sorts of things together – mostly in person – we’ve been asking our clients and friends how they feel about the return and how they’ve been trying to be creative, remotely in the meantime.

Unsurprisingly, there are a few who, off the record, fear that their offices will never re-open. Concerns about high rents, ongoing workplace safety and what they see as cynicism from those located in the finance department – who have, let's face it, always winced at quite how much space it takes people in our industry to knock out some ads – prompted some to tell us that the future for them might mean small numbers of desks in co-working spaces and large numbers of staff working from home.

Most though want to see a return but acknowledge that unlocking the doors will be much harder and slower than locking them was. Rachel Armstrong, UK studio partner for global technology consultancy Globant explained: “We worked as a coordinated management team to close our offices worldwide, driven by clear government lockdown guidelines. The back to work advice is quite vague here in the UK and differs across regions, so we have established a global Covid-19 committee who will look at how we can bring people back safely and establish a “new normal” way of working”.

Others like Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google, acknowledge that when the time comes to dust off the coffee machines and pool tables, the huddles of creativity and noise that make us yearn for our previous hangouts will be replaced with quiet, segregated but possibly safer environments, that our parents would have called “proper offices”.

Whoever you talk to though, it’s very clear that people sitting in rooms having face-to-face meetings is not something anyone is willing to contemplate anytime soon. Much has been written about the vague communications soup that is ‘Stay Alert’ - no IPA effectiveness award for you Mr Cummings, but no-one can claim that its over elasticity stretches to allow in person brainstorms, co-creation and workshops.

The reality is though, the thing that makes us and our industry tick, is working together to solve problems that we just can’t crack on our own. The best of our output is messy, time consuming and the product of people from different backgrounds with divergent opinions grappling with ideas and, often enough, each other.

It is also frankly the product of being in close enough proximity to each other and have the freedom to let our minds and feet wander. Laila Milbrow a senior creative director, said: “A lot of creatives go outside to talk about their work, coffee shops, pubs, I've even worked in the entrance to an Everyman. The aimless wandering around the streets of Soho isn't really aimless in hindsight, a lot of ideas have been born there from just being on the move and chatting total rubbish.”

Whilst we can’t be in the same room, pub or even cinema to spark off each other, we do need to and can properly embrace the remote spaces and skills that can help us keep collaboration and creatively alive and well.

We’ve been struck by just how many great things are happening remotely. Author and Bafta-nominated documentary maker Chris Atkins told us that he is “trying to edit, sound mix and grade a KLF feature film remotely, which is a bloody fiddle and a half. But we obviously don't have much choice as we want to get the film out asap, as it will hopefully cheer everyone up.” We also absolutely love the ‘#TwoMetresProject‘, a collaboration between creative director Cathy Hutton and award-winning portrait photographer Tom Oldham, which captures photographic stories of lockdown from a safe distance.

Catherine Peacock, managing partner at Uncommon sums it up well when she says: “I believe our industry has proven that remote working can still foster close collaboration and creative excellence. I’ve been lucky enough to produce a film ‘Clap From Our Carers’ (in just six days) with our incredible new creative team Jonas and Rasmus, who I’m yet to meet in person, but this is a great example of creativity during the restrictions of the pandemic.”

However, we have also been struck by how nervous some people are about running a workshop or co-creation session remotely. Concerns that technology might get in the way, that people can’t or won’t embrace unfamiliar tools or concepts, or that it seems just unnatural to collaborate through a screen, are all fears that we try and allay.

So, in case you are also concerned that collaboration and creativity, like your next trip to Shoreditch House, are just too painful to contemplate, here are three tips for you.

Design and facilitate for human connection. It seems that people are doing a decent job of ensuring productivity, but it’s become very functional and task-orientated. We are busy scheduling, delegating and keeping everyone on track through all kinds of feature-rich digital tools. However, what’s missing is the deliberate moments that bring people together, deepen their relationships, offer opportunities for serendipity and allow tangential conversations.

Pick up the phone. You’ll probably be noticing that your days are filled with Zoom meetings, and most people we speak to say they feel busier than ever - and also more tired, indeed there’s lots of research that explains the phenomenon of ‘zoom fatigue.‘ There’s lots you can do to make it better though - ensure breaks between calls, take regular breaks and get up and walk. One of the most powerful is to simply speak on the phone rather than video call. It may feel old-fashioned but it can lift your energy.

Laugh! It’s a brilliant fact that people having more fun are more creative. Find ways to inject humour into your work: tell each other jokes on Slack, find funny Zzoom backgrounds or simply turn off twitter, close the laptop and go watch an episode or two of Bojack Horseman – or maybe Friends if that is your thing.

We know that being in the same space and close enough to create is the ideal- and why offices as creative spaces still seem so important in the long term. Until we can get back to those though, let’s embrace some remote collaboration and above all else ‘Stay Alert‘ to the power of creativity. It’s what Dominic would want.

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