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As people return to the office, have we missed a chance to become more diverse?

The pandemic has meant that people can now truly work from anywhere

As agency staff return to offices in London, debates over whether employers can pay remote workers less are still ongoing. Jon Williams, founder of The Liberty Guild, argues agencies shouldn’t take geography into account if they’re serious about making the advertising workforce more diverse.

That Google directive to pay you less if you work from home is horrifying, isn’t it? Freedom of choice is a basic human right in a civilized society. The argument went something along the lines of; if you move away from a big city your living expenses are less. It’s like saying if you buy a smaller car and your petrol bill is less, we’re going to pay you less. It’s bullshit.

This type of thinking is also exceptionally regressive when you consider the industry’s rush to try and become more diverse. One of the huge benefits of everyone being forced to work from home was the de-shackling of talent from cities.

For too long we’ve been dependent on the constraints of the geographic commute and have missed out on the vast wealth of talent that lies beyond a one-hour train ride.

This begs the question – why would we seek to impose the same salary imbalances that we are fighting so hard to remove from gender? We have seen that our teams can create great work on their terms and in their own time, whether they’re living in a major city or not.

In our business, we pay our talent the same, wherever they are on the planet. The same fee if you’re in New York (which is competitive) as you would get in Delhi (which is a chunk). But then we charge our clients the same price for our services wherever they are in the world. If we didn’t it would just be geographically exploitative. And how would we remunerate a Turk in North America or a Brit in India – by geography or nationality? In all we do, we’re just trying to do the right thing by our people.

The inability to agree on a blended rate across borders is what constrains most networks when they try to work ‘globally’. Local P&Ls and rate cards for cross-charging will bring you down every time. Why don’t we just pay for ideas?

If you strip it all back, the thing we all sell is the output of the creatives: ideas. And ideas don’t care where they come from. Soho or Skegness or Singapore. Or what school they went to, or what color they are. Or what class.

Where anyone lives is their choice. It doesn’t affect their talent or their ability. So it shouldn’t affect who they are as people, what their background is, where they come from or what they charge. In fact, our empirical research has shown that better work happens when talent is in control of their own environment. Happier, less stressed, more able to perform optimally.

You could also argue that a more honest way of dealing with the increasing numbers of people who choose to work from home is to pay them more. Not only does their productivity spike (I’m not arguing for back-to-back Zoom meetings here) but some business somewhere does not have to provide a desk in some of the most expensive real-estate in the world.

Covid has also shown the industry that it can expand its creative footprint. Exactly because of the technology above enabling anyone to work from anywhere, we can all now finally welcome divergent thinking into our businesses. Thinking from the minds of people who wouldn’t be able to afford to live within commuting distance of London. Or New York. Or Singapore. We can now truly overcome geographic limitations and embrace the connected world.

And more than that, because we’ve now proved that nine-to-five at a desk in downtown wherever is not the only way to work, the huge and talented freelance community stroll on into town – virtually. Talent that values freedom. Returning mums. Odd-shaped thinkers. Real people. You need to be ready to deal with them – here’s how.

  • Don’t care where people work. Or when they come into the office. Being physically present is so pre-Covid.

  • Put people first. Those beautiful, crazy, amazing people and the ideas they have are the reason we all got into this business in the first place. Rebuild your processes around the portfolio careers of the world’s top independent talent.

  • Pay them well, pay them fast, pay them fair. Pay for ideas. Don’t be cheap.

  • And yes, culture is important. But theirs, not yours. Great talent wants self-determination now. They’ve stopped believing the hype. Agencies don’t hold the glamour they used to have, and pretty much anything from a tech giant to a startup to a walk on the beach is more attractive.

What a beautiful moment for equality. Let’s not let this slip through our fingers.

Jon Williams is founder and chief executive officer of The Liberty Guild.

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