Agency staff who don't want to return to the office need our empathy – not vilification

Lorraine Jennings, director of culture change and wellbeing services at Nabs, responds to a column by advertising writer Paul Burke, which arued that the 16% of agency staff who don't want to return to the office should be careful what they wish for. She asks: where's the empathy?

Paul Burke wrote last week of his surprise that 16% of agency staff never want to return to the office again.

We at Nabs, the organisation behind the survey that revealed this figure, are also surprised – namely, at the reaction to this statistic. Surprised and disappointed.

To say that this is a case of "agency staff seem[ing] idly reluctant to get back to work" is a misrepresentation at best. This has been a highly anxious time and worries about returning to the office are bound up with how people are feeling.

Nabs is the support organisation for advertising and media. Wellbeing is our primary concern. And we see that at the moment our industry is facing a wellbeing crisis.

Only 6% of those we spoke to in our survey said that they had not experienced any wellbeing issues since lockdown. Lack of motivation and drive, together with anxiety, were the main two issues, with redundancy and furlough named as just two of the reasons behind these worrying states of mind.

These reactions are not borne out of laziness. In fact, they’re so natural that they’re grounded in neuroscience, which is somewhat ironic as the author of the article asks if those who are worried about returning to the office are “out of their minds”.

They’re very much in their minds, as our head of careers Uzma Afridi says: “Changes in lifestyle and circumstances have people worried and anxious. This mixture of anxiety and fear makes it hard to focus on work: the brain senses danger, which causes us to produce hormones that take energy away from the logical, thinking part of our brain. This flood of worry and lack of energy can also cause motivation levels to drop.”

This is cause for concern and care, not vilification.

We know that people are already worrying about job loss and that this is going to be a tough year for businesses in our industry. Calls to our Advice Line from those concerned about redundancy have more than doubled since lockdown, compared to the same period last year. Our recently launched redundancy tool is one of the most-visited pages on the Nabs website. According to the latest Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report, we are due to see a 20.7% drop in adspend in Q3 this year – following a staggering 39% drop in Q2 – and this coupled with the withdrawal of the government’s furlough scheme in October will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on businesses in our industry.

We also know that piling on the pressure by telling people that they will lose their jobs if they don’t go back into the office won’t help them to thrive, to produce good work or to contribute to their teams. Fear is not a motivator. Criticism is not what’s needed now. Instead, this is about recognising people’s wellbeing challenges and supporting them.

What’s more, calling for all agency employees to return to the office to avoid losing their jobs is neither diverse nor inclusive. Those who can eagerly and easily return to the office potentially do so from a privileged position. What about people with families and caring responsibilities; those who cannot afford to travel on public transport or who do not feel safe or healthy enough to do so and even those who would love to work in our industry, but can’t afford the city rents? Working from home allows diverse voices to contribute to our industry. Threatening people with job loss if they can’t make it into the office does them a disservice, as indeed it does to our whole industry.

An immediate challenge facing business leaders is how to get staff back into the office safely and responsibly. From 1 August employers are able to ask employees to return to their offices, provided that they are Covid-secure and social distancing is in place. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is recommending employers take a consultative approach with staff and are able to meet three key tests before asking staff to return to the office: is it essential?; is it sufficiently safe?; and is it mutually agreed?

Despite being apprehensive about the safe return to the office, 76% of people who completed our survey said they missed the camaraderie of the office environment. However, presently, the offices we will be returning to will be very different places to the ones we left in March with such necessary safety measures in place. Businesses such as Creature London are showing how we might be able to bring teams together again for important creative collaboration, while offering the flexibility required to cater for individual needs – putting staff wellbeing first, which only 12% of our survey respondents felt their employers were doing.

What the pandemic has shown us is that it is possible to work from home. The future is flexible and indeed the majority of people in our industry want it that way. A huge 88% of respondents to our wellbeing survey want to work from home in future. And those who are happy to return to the office at some point want to do this in a flexible way, with start and finish times that suit better than a rigid 9 to 5 for all.

We’re calling for all leaders across our industry to place wellbeing at the centre of everything we do as we enter the new normal. Authentic and empathetic leadership is key. And that means that leaders need to be vulnerable, to open up about their challenges, and to share their worries too.

So: talk to your staff and find out how they’re feeling about coming back to the office. Ask them what they need in order to perform their roles to the best of their ability. If they’re anxious, give them the resources they need to work out their feelings. That might be ensuring a safe space for them to talk with a Mental Health Ally, or encouraging them to sign up to a Nabs Masterclass or coaching session. Support structures are everything right now.

Let’s abandon antiquated attitudes and create courageous cultures instead.

Nabs is the support organisation for advertising and media. To find out more visit nabs.org.uk

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