The good bits of lockdown we should definitely keep

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Zoom call Photo by @cwmonty

In his latest column for The Drum, Kevin Chesters, owner of independent communications collective Harbour, tells us about the lessons learned during lockdown, and those that he thinks the ad industry should keep for the longer term.

I’m writing this 112 days after Boris Johnson announced ’lockdown’ and the normal run of things in UK society came to a shuddering, acute, involuntary halt.

For context, that is a fortnight longer than it took Roald Amundsen to walk to and back from the South Pole. It is nearly three times as long as your school summer holidays when you were a kid, and they lasted for ages. In short, it has been a long time.

It has been a little on the weird side for everyone, to say the least, and I genuinely think it’s worth us all giving ourselves a pat on the back for not having gone completely tonto. Well done you.

As we all start to emerge from lockdown, the only thing longer than most people’s barnets is the list of predictions about all the things that are going to change forever about the way we will be working, socialising, interacting and living in a ’post-lockdown’ world.

I have no idea what will change forever and what will go back to the way it was, but my suspicion is that most confident, extreme predictions will be wrong (like they always are). I suspect that because humans are creatures of habit, most things post-lockdown will be like things pre-lockdown, with mostly subtle, interesting behavioural shifts.

But I have observed a few changes during lockdown in the way we interact with each other that I think worth keeping hold of.

In fact, I think there’s some basic, decent, really positive things that have emerged that are worth grabbing tightly and not letting go. I don’t want to go all John Major about it, but I’d call them ’back to basics’ (that’s an early 90s reference, for all the millennials – you’ll just have to look it up).

Good manners

I really like the fact that Zoom calls tend to start on time and people turn up when they say they will. No one thinks it’s OK to wander into a Zoom call 15 minutes late holding a Costa and act like it is acceptable behaviour, like they did with normal ’meetings’. Zoom seems to have driven this rise in punctuality. Long may it continue into post-lockdown, physical life.

I love the fact too that Zoom calls mean people have to wait to speak, and that the environment encourages people not to talk over one another. You are just more aware of other humans and tend to wait for the gaps. Polite!

I like the fact that people have a greater tendency to send pre-reads and to send materials ahead of time so we’re all on the same page (often literally). I also like the fact that because you can see everyone on the screen, you are more acutely aware of who has spoken and who is yet to contribute.

Basically, I think that Zoom/Skype/Hangouts/Whereby seem to encourage good basic common courtesy towards our friends and colleagues. Let’s keep that going, yeah?

Productivity

There have been some very simple, positive impacts on productivity that I would love to see encouraged and embedded going forward. Firstly, and obviously, we don’t waste two hours a day getting to and from our place of work. I just mosey on up to my office from the breakfast table every morning and it takes about 45 seconds.

I think we will head back to offices because we’re connecting creatures, but we should think long and hard about whether this is a five-day, nine-to-six thing. Because it shouldn’t be.

I like the fact that we do things in 30-minute windows now. Virtual working seems to encourage shorter, snappier, more dynamic meetings. No coffee, no crap croissants, no massive meandering (apart from the odd anecdote). Get it done. That’s good. Keep that.

I love the fact that I’ve noticed that people are much more likely since lockdown to send written instructions/briefs for things, and also to send written actions following meetings. This is something that seems to happen much more regularly in virtual meetings and I think it is a much more efficient and effective way to ensure stuff happens. We should definitely take this into the new (ab)normal post lockdown.

Now, on to some of the more human sides that I think have been paradoxical positives of a more ‘virtual’ world.

Community

The weird paradox is that being separated from people seems to have made us appear closer. I’ve been having weekly Zoom cocktails with mates I’d not seen for ages. We’ve been having (haven’t we all?) weekly group quizzes and actually enjoying them.

We’ve been acutely aware of making sure to have team meetings, regular check-ins, both collectively and individually. Tess Alps was dead right when she said ’social distancing’ was a total misnomer. It’s physical distancing, but we’re more social than ever.

Obviously, being part of a collective at Harbour means that collaboration, cooperation and mutual support is baked into our business model. But I’ve also noticed that we’ve been closer with our collective agency partners as well. We’ve been collaborating on more client projects, met more often as a total collective team and we’ve also seemed to have just been working closer together during lockdown. It’s been good to know you’re in it together and that there are others there to help. Misery loves company!

There even seems to have been more of a willingness for all agencies (outside our club) to collaborate. Even some of the agency folk who had frankly been a bit snippy previously about models like ours seem to become born-again converts to collective working! I hope all that continues too. Collectives are the future, believe me.

Perspective

As my old pal from W+K, Simon Summerscales, used to say “it’s only advertising, mate”. There is nothing like a viral pandemic, sobering daily death statistics and (frankly) the close threat of personal harm to remind yourself that that brief, that advert, those client amends or that meeting are just not that important.

I like the fact that a lot of friends or ex-colleagues have decided to take this opportunity to spend more time with their family, or take a career break (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes a bit less so). People – myself included – do seem to have taken this window to spend more quality time with those people who matter. I have personally made sure to take a full one-hour lunch break every day and sit down to eat a meal with my wife and kids. I really hope we all do more of this post-lockdown. Family first, always.

I was also glad to see Campaign suspend its snidey, unnecessary and downright unpleasant ’Turkey of the Week’ for the duration of Covid-19. Hopefully it’ll quietly shelve it for good.

Humanity

It’s annoying that it has taken a global viral pandemic for some basic humanity to come to the fore, but I think this has been my favourite impact of Covid-19 and lockdown.

We’ve just become a bit more forgiving, a bit more open and a bit more bloody nice to each other. I love the fact that we can see the inside of each other’s houses. I like that we can see a glimpse into each other’s lives.

I’ve had meetings that have been joined by clients’ cats, by babies of colleagues and even the odd mum or dad! I think it’s brilliant that we can start to just forgive each other’s foibles and stop being so damned perfect all the time. Man is mortal, flowers wilt, life is not sodding perfect.

That interview on BBC with the little girl (Scarlett?) and the photo frame the other day was glorious. I loved the interview with Deborah ’two biscuits’ Haynes on Sky too. We are all people first, colleagues second. Great. This is the one thing I would love to keep from lockdown. Let’s just remember to all be nicer to each other – physically and metaphorically. Empathy matters.

So I know that we all want things to get back to ’normal’ as soon as possible, but in our haste to rediscover the best bits of the old life (doesn’t February seem like a lifetime ago?) we shouldn’t let go of the good bits of lockdown.

I’m not going to get all rose-tinted about lockdown life, but there have been some good lessons and learnings for home and work that I think it’d be silly or sad to let go – some of the real basics that seem to have made life a bit more pleasant than it was when everyone was running at 100mph and never taking time to look around.

But let’s have a few less of those crappy manifesto ads in the new normal, eh?

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