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Time to leave home? Agency leaders on the return to IRL working

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Will the office ever be the same again? We ask Drum Network members about their plans for the future of the workplace.

Many of us left the office in March of 2020 expecting to return in a couple of weeks. By now, some have finally returned; others are waiting for a call to come back; still others have learned that they never will. We took the temperature of members of the Drum Network on their approaches to coming back to the office, whether office rent is worth it in the age of networked working, and what role face-to-face meetings will play in a post-pandemic world.

Harpreet Bushell, group managing director, LAB Group

Across the group, we’ve been encouraging people to go into the office and book more face-to-face meetings, but we have not enforced anything.

We’ve seen that some agencies are trying to do one or two regular days in the office a week, so that people get the chance to work together and have more informal chats. Tuesdays and Thursdays seem to be the busiest days in the office, especially as most people work Monday to Thursday and can grab a drink together at the end of their week.

We have been going into the office ad hoc since the restrictions were lifted and have seen massive benefits of face-to-face meetings. It’s much easier to collaborate, get decisions made and have a little more fun in between it all.

We’ve had a lot of people join since the pandemic started and you just can’t replicate the ability to establish rapport and relationships online. Little things like popping out for lunch or sharing non-work stories when you’re working in the same room really make a difference in understanding the people you’re working with and what makes them who they are.

The value of seeing people in real life just can’t be underestimated. Zoom calls are efficient, eradicate travel time and allow us to work together across the world – but you miss a huge amount of the overall communication. When you’re with people it’s so much easier to pick up non-verbal cues, micro-expressions and let the conversation flow so much more naturally. As a services business, those non-verbal cues can make a massive difference when you’re establishing working teams internally and developing clients and partnerships externally. It’s a lot easier to read the room, be responsive and build trust and understanding.

Chris Roberts, managing director, Clickthrough Marketing

For us, hybrid working is here to stay. We want to support our employees with their work-life balance and mental health – as part of that, we are committed to fully flexible working, with people working from wherever they feel most comfortable and most productive.

We’ve also reduced our office space, going from three offices to one. People want flexibility, and very few want to be in an office five days a week.

The switch to remote working over the last 15 or so months has led to some challenges, though. These include difficulties in collaboration between teams, with levels of creativity within teams and with calendars getting full as over-the-desk catch-ups become Zoom meetings.

To combat these issues, we’ve started running masterminding sessions, created breakout rooms in company meetings and we’re encouraging teams to get away from their desks during the day.

Balance is key. We encourage our teams to use their time in the office to work collaboratively, learn from each other, socialize, and build connections with colleagues. We’re renovating our office space to encourage this further.

It has become clear over time that nothing beats face-to-face time with clients and colleagues alike. But the old model of being sat in the office 5 days a week is too inflexible in a world where people are valuing work-life balance more than ever before.

Jon Greenhalgh, managing director, Adapt Worldwide

At the start of the pandemic, we quickly decided that we needed to focus on two key things: the safety of our colleagues and the financial health of our business.

Our decision to prioritize safety meant making some tough calls over the last 18 months; one of them being to limit access to our offices in Bath, Bristol and London to allow our team to focus on their wellbeing.

Now we are out of lockdown, our offices have been open to all our teams for the past four months. But we’ve started to think about working spaces in a new way, allowing our team to choose if and when they want to use them.

We want our team to feel comfortable and productive. It didn’t feel right to create arbitrary rules to encourage attendance – this rule could be damaging to our team’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Since opening our offices again, we can see the benefit for those who thrive by being around their colleagues during the workday. And now that our team can choose where they work, we’ve noticed team morale and productivity have increased!

It’s only been a few months, so we'll continue to monitor the situation in Q4 and into winter, before making any significant changes to our physical workspaces.

Whether our team is collaborating through Microsoft Teams or in person, having the option to choose how and where they work has only had a positive impact on productivity.

Dean Rowland, board director, Receptional

We returned to the office earlier than most – on 19th July 2021, when restrictions lifted. We've moved to a permanent hybrid model, with three days in the office and two at home.

On Mondays, the whole team are in and we kick-off the week with an all-hands meeting – a chance to share plans, celebrate wins, and recognize individual performance. Each team then has a day when they're in together. The third day is down to individual choice, giving everyone flexibility over their schedules each week.

We put a massive effort into making sure our space is Covid-secure and everyone is comfortable up-front. The results have been well worth it. We recently surveyed the team and found the hybrid approach had a positive impact on work-life balance; health and wellbeing; team relationships; and motivation and productivity.

Feedback included:

  • “There’s a real buzz in the office on a Monday. It’s great to have a day when you know everyone will be in.”

  • “I feel closer to the team and have a better work-life balance, being able to more easily switch off when I get home.”

  • “I look forward to days in the office, just seeing the team in real life helps with motivation and general wellbeing.”

The only area that saw a negative impact was financial expenditure. But that’s to be expected, given travel and lunch costs.

The impact hasn’t just been felt by individuals; as a whole, the business is flourishing. Since moving to hybrid working, we’ve seen the most profitable period in our 22-year history, and we’ve grown to our highest headcount.

For those who are still at home – and perhaps contemplating staying there forever – my advice is simple: move to a hybrid model now.

Having a regular day together can have such an impact on morale and provides an opportunity to learn from each other, particularly for younger team members. As a colleague shared recently: “I don’t have any cons; I really like this way of working.”

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