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Today’s Office: Dark Horses’ Melissa Robertson on missing the intimacy of office work

"Sometimes you just have to be able to look people in the eye," Robertson says of the intimacy of a real-world working dynamic

Melissa Robertson hadn’t planned to start a shiny new job as chief exec of Dark Horses in the middle of a global pandemic, but here we are. She tells The Drum about her working life as the UK goes through its third nationwide lockdown, and why she really misses the shared enthusiasm that seeps through the pores of a healthy office environment.

Other than a few days popping into the office in December, I've been working from home since the beginning of November. During the day, I move around from a table to the island to sofas in different rooms, seeking out either warmth, quiet or a change of scenery. Depending on where I am, I can see a fireplace, a wall of photos of my kids or a lovely fossil with loads of fish.

There are three key issues with working from home. One, the dog barks enthusiastically and persistently whenever there is someone outside the front door (which feels extremely frequent in this online delivery-led world). Secondly, I have three children doing homeschooling, who need stuff printed out, with different start times, breaks, lunchtime slots, and who are not getting proper exercise or socialising. I worry about their mental health as much as I do my team at Dark Horses.

Lastly, I generally feel bad about not doing enough in all parts of my life, although it certainly feels as if I’m pretty flat out all round, there is still this creeping sense of guilt that I should do more.

I miss my old working life so much. Just being able to pop out for a quick coffee and chat, means I really understanding the body language of a conversation, or even going for a walking meeting to stimulate debate. It’s this shared enthusiasm, information and knowledge that seeps through the pores of a healthy office environment.

I also miss never physically meeting people and recognising achievements with a lunch or a drink. It’s harder to build relationships with clients that you have never met, particularly when most calls have multiple people on them, which prevents the intimacy that is created in a real-world dynamic.

Sometimes you just have to be able to look people in the eye.

That said, I don’t want it to revert to what was previously considered ’normal’ as there were most definitely flaws in that model, revolving around inflexible working, bums on seat expectations, mistrust of technology, and a general lack of mutual trust.

Hopefully a new and better normal will evolve that is far healthier.

Prior to the pandemic, I always had a lot of meetings, so there hasn’t been much change there. I’m used to cycling into work, so making sure I get some decent exercise or outside time is crucial. I try to do it at the same time of day if I can.

It’s definitely different being at home so much. The dog now has serious anxiety if I disappear for as little as an hour. I probably eat better food at lunchtime, and I’m ’home’ earlier for the kids. But, when they are at school, I find it quite hard to not be able to even say ’hello’ when they return, because I’m in back-to-back meetings.

I now split my day roughly into thirds – client business, new business and agency business; but within each of those, there are multiple different workstreams. I used to religiously write ’to do’ lists, but I found that it made me almost more stressed, and perhaps as I’ve got more experienced.

I’ve got better at regularly sweeping things under the rug that might have slipped the net (metaphorically, of course).

The big difference in a Covid-19 world is keeping on top of all the ever-changing Government announcements, understanding the legal obligations and balancing them with the moral obligations to your staff (many of whom I have never met in person). To a huge degree, you have to rely on your instincts but to also be on the right side of the (slightly elusive and slippery) legal ramifications. My dad was a lawyer, so I was always encouraged to read the small print.

I certainly hadn’t planned to start a shiny new job as chief executive of Dark Horses in the middle of a global pandemic, but it has definitely provided an entirely different perspective on management and teamwork. What became clear quite quickly was that lockdown has had a hugely negative impact on the mental health of a group of hugely talented but also inherently sociable young people. Many people were missing the dynamism, interaction and humanity of the office environment, and struggling to cope with constant video conferencing, and the blurring of work and personal time. It certainly made me think a lot more about my duty of care to their physical and mental wellness and well as their career development.

Yet, it has proved an opportunity to really ’meet’ people properly. Rather than just saying that the metaphorical door was always open, which most people are too polite to take up, I had sessions with every single person in the agency – some for a real coffee, but many via video chats. And what was interesting was how people opened up, perhaps because they felt more comfortable on their literal home turf. People were honest but collaborative and supportive about collectively resolving issues. And someone I was able to get a better bird’s eye view of the business dynamics and how I could go about meaningfully making positive changes.

I must say I have found it remarkably easy to stay inspired. We have Slack, and people regularly post interesting things and have debates about them. I read all the industry bulletins. I relax and watch telly in the evening. I’m married to an ex-advertiser-turned artist, and he’s always telling me stuff I didn’t know. And I get together often with different groups of friends, more so than ’in real life’, so we are sharing different experiences and insights from around the world. That’s all been great.