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As we map out a return to the office, let’s take some time to reshape our culture

'Missing office interaction doesn’t mean that everybody wants to be in the office all week long'

As we welcome a year that could usher in some form of workplace normality and perhaps even a return to office space, Uzma Afridi, head of careers at Nabs, says 2021 is the perfect time for adland to reshape its culture.

The start of the year is the perfect time to reshape our industry culture, and that’s true this year more than ever. We’re all hoping to return to some sense of normality this year, minus the isolation of the past few months. Nabs’s recent wellbeing poll revealed that 83% of respondents were missing spontaneous work-related conversations, while 78% were missing the social aspect of work.

Our collective craving for office-based interaction and real-life team working is understandable. We’re social creatures. But do we want to return exactly to how things were before, to our old culture, without considering whether this suited our people or our industry?

Let’s not regress or make assumptions. Missing office interaction doesn’t mean that everybody wants to be in the office all week long. We can’t return to the one-size-fits-all approach of before, especially as we’ve learned so much during lockdown about how we can work differently and still get great results.

It’s time for a reset, using positive values – flexibility, empathy and honesty – to renew our culture.

So, how can we practically do this?

Leadership is key. Leaders can influence staff to work from home or return to the office, both positively and negatively. Whether you lead a team, a department or a whole organisation, it’s your actions, not just your policies, that will set the tone. You’ll need to lead by example to actively encourage or discourage certain behaviours.

Abolish presenteeism. It’s been a problem in our industry for so long that as people consider how they’ll work post-pandemic, presenteeism may dictate their choices. Frankly, you don’t want fear to dictate how people work. It’s bad for morale, productivity and creativity. Take a clear stance and declare that presenteeism belongs in the past. Assure people that their working patterns should be based on team and individual needs. That’s better for their wellbeing and, therefore, for your business.

Consider how you’ll use the office to create your new working culture. Is staring at a screen five days a week the best way to foster creativity? Some may thrive, but others will not.

Reflect and communicate with your teams. What’s worked for them while remote working? Where are their boundaries? Would being in the office really help them to produce great work? How can you use your physical office space to its best advantage? Lead your team in learning from the last nine months and dig deep as you do. What kind of projects required you to be in? Do this reflection piece individually and as a team with your managers to create a supportive and constructive culture and structure.

People have been denied their usual choices and freedoms by the pandemic. When you consult with them, they’ll appreciate being offered some sense of control. They’ll also feel invested in your business’s success because they’ve created the culture with you. They’re likely to offer some useful and pertinent solutions: 70% of respondents to Nabs’s recent wellbeing poll have spent more time reflecting on their priorities during lockdown.

Accept that motivation levels vary at different times for different people, especially during these difficult times when so many of us are fatigued. The answer lies in leading with purpose. Don’t expect traditional ‘carrot and stick’ methods of motivation to work any more and steer clear of having general expectations of your teams.

Instead, be prepared to listen and collaborate with your team members to uncover what motivates them. It might be a need for autonomy or connection, or a desire to keep trying new things. Find ways to connect people’s motivations to your business goals. Doing this will give team members a personal connection to what your organisation needs to achieve. That’s what creates long-lasting and meaningful motivation.

Make your new culture a safe one for everyone. The ’timeTo’ campaign against sexual harassment, of which Nabs is a founding partner, has updated its guidance to incorporate remote and hybrid working. According to its latest survey, many industry employees are worried about pent-up feelings leading to harassment once people return to the office. It’s your duty to set out clear guidelines for behaviour; timeTo’s toolkits and training can help.

Connected to this, act to make your culture more inclusive. 2020 put the spotlight on diversity, equity and inclusion in adland. Now it’s time to turn conversation into action. At Nabs, our diversity and inclusion working group has been busy creating a strategy to ensure we build on our unique position in looking after the wellbeing of everyone in the industry, with a renewed emphasis on supporting and championing underrepresented people in our industry, We’ve also upped our game as an ally by working closely with groups such as Media For All and Outvertising.

Communicate openly and honestly to take people with you on your journey. Things may keep changing over the next few months. Our slow return to near-normality will not be seamless. Be prepared to roll with the punches and to change tack when necessary, explaining what’s happening as you go along. That way, your teams are more likely to accept your decisions. Keeping them out of the loop on the other hand leads to misunderstanding, fear and mistrust – none of which are foundations for a new culture.

Make wellbeing a priority. After what we’ve been through, it’s non-negotiable. Even if you think you’re doing well, the fact is that you’re having to cope with extra strains and worries that would not exist were it not for the pandemic. From a neuroscientific perspective, this is troubling for us.

We usually have up to 60,000 thoughts a day. With additional concerns and worries to cope with at the moment, these thoughts are more likely to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Too much of that and burnout can ensue. We all need more wellbeing support at the moment to help us process and unload before we get to that point. Check-in with your staff wellbeing regularly to understand how they’re feeling and what they need, and encourage them to come to Nabs for help.

People have had time to reflect on what environments and working patterns suit them, and that’s incredibly useful. Your job now is to use these insights to create what work looks like now and into the future. Embrace this opportunity. It’s interesting and exciting, and done well it can lead to a diversity of thought and experiences where people feel valued, supported and able to take on the challenges of work.

Surely that’s a culture worth creating.

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