Should adland be at the back of the queue when it's time to return to the office?

Back of the queue: it's in that direction
Back of the queue: it's in that direction

Government will announce 'roadmap' to lead UK out of lockdown on Sunday.

It is week seven of lockdown, but for most us this period of mandatory home time has no doubt felt both longer and shorter than that, in ways we probably don’t have the language for.

But whether you’re ripping your hair out in frustration or you’re lucky enough to have the sort of disposition that means quarantine has done for you what India did for Alanis Morissette, all eyes are now firmly on when, and how, things are going to change.

On Sunday, Boris Johnson will put down his infant son long enough to update the nation on a "roadmap" to moving out of the current strict lockdown and kicking the economy (and, you know, life) back into gear. If documents seen by BuzzFeed are anything to go by, the next phase will see a slight loosening of the requirements for office-based businesses, with people in critical roles or who are struggling to work at home allowed to return to the office, while a whole list of measures will ensure that the risk of infection is kept to a minimum. 

Last Friday, Ireland’s taoiseach Leo Varadkar revealed a five-stage plan for returning the country to something close to normal – and it will mean most office workers not being able to return to work until 10 August. It remains to be seen whether the UK government will adopt this kind of staggered approach, but it seems clear that office life as we knew it will not be coming back imminently.

Last week, Charlie Rudd, chief executive of Leo Burnett London, told Campaign that adland should "be at the back of the queue" for returning to the office. Most in the industry would acknowledge that there are many sectors that are obviously a more urgent priority; on the other hand, there may not be many areas of work that benefit from in-person collaboration as much as creative marketing. So is Rudd right? 

Stephanie Drakes

Managing partner, Social & Local

Considering the heroic sacrifices our key workers are making, it feels like bunkering down in the home offices a bit longer is the least adland can do. For some disciplines (strategy, planning), home working can be extremely effective. Social & Local, a fully remote agency, is proof of that. But things get trickier with collaborative disciplines like creative. There is also well-being to consider. As the mother of two 30-something advertising boys, I have noted that for the "family" version, lockdown has delivered benefits, but for the DINKY [double income no kids yet] it’s been hard socially. Return needs to be the right people at the right time. Those who can work from home, continue; those who cannot (or where the product needs it), return.

Rebecca Bezzina

Senior vice-president, managing director, R/GA London

Yes. Right at the back. We’ve successfully proven as an industry that we can operate remotely and maintain creative output. This is a people and ideas business, so as long as we remain super-connected to our talent and clients, then innovative work is always possible. So we’re in no huge rush to return. Our business is running effectively and we’ve proven that our people can deliver at the very highest level, no matter where they happen to be. For us, from the beginning we’ve used a directive to our people of "you do you" and this will continue as long as it needs to. Everyone’s situations are wildly different, so we need to show empathy and cater to this. There are many lessons still to learn from this crisis and our industry needs to continue listening, adapting and iterating, so we’re better prepared for the future when it’s our turn to return.  

Alex Pym

Managing director, Huge

It’s understandable that many of us can’t wait to be back with our colleagues and friends once isolation measures ease. But, from a business angle, this is our hearts ruling our heads, as underlined by the volume and quality of new campaigns and products we have seen released in recent weeks by remote teams while in lockdown.  

Industries that simply can't function remotely should take immediate priority in a phased return to work model. Those that have already shown an ability to adapt should follow later in order to minimise the numbers using public transport and burden on the NHS.  

I can’t bloody wait for the day we can all safely return, but until then our focus as agency leaders should be on continuing to support and motivate our teams and using our craft to help our clients navigate this period. When we do return, it will be with renewed vigour and some invaluable learning gained from steering through such a challenging situation.

Kate Slesinger

Publishing director, Vanity Fair and Tatler, Condé Nast

WFH during the coronavirus outbreak has had the positive side-effect of enhancing our teams' sense of togetherness, resourcefulness, creativity and agility – attributes we had previously attached to WFW.  As a service industry, it's unlikely we will be prioritised for a return to WFW. While some departments, such as production, actually require the specialist equipment in the office in order to be fully operational over a sustained period of time, for the commercial teams the easing of lockdown could mark the transition towards a hybrid WFH/WFW arrangement. Our relationships with clients and agencies – continued these past weeks on Zoom, Google Meets and 8x8 – remain central, but the "new normal" will herald a new way of working which sees us innovating at a more rapid rate and drawing on the thoughts of a wider group than before. 

Chaka Sobhani 

Chief creative officer, Leo Burnett London

Don’t get me wrong, I’m itching to vacate my bedroom office and rejoin life with people I’m unrelated to. I crave the banter and hustle, and know we all operate better in it, but all in good time. We have to look to the greater good. And there are people and businesses whose needs far outweigh ours and whose immediate future depends far more on operating together, sooner. As much as we love and need to be together, lockdown has proved that we can also function and work well apart. So, let’s get to the back of the queue.

Natalie Graeme

Co-founder, Uncommon Creative Studio

Yes.

Selfishly, I miss seeing our incredible gang at Uncommon. It’s been a long two months apart already. We’ve looked out for each other, kept the energy up and the culture growing despite the distance. But I do miss the coffees, the after-work beers together, the banter and, in particular, having my spidey-sense out for how people are doing, or questions that might be brewing without needing a Zoom invite.

But that’s not the world we’re going back to for some time to come. And that’s OK. We’ve found our new rhythm. It’s different. But it’s proof, if ever we needed it, that flexible working works. And, what is more, the quality of work we’ve been able to deliver even under these tighter lockdown conditions, pulling off some of our biggest campaigns with 200-plus ads for ITV, shows that we need to really carefully weigh up the benefits of rushing back to a desk five days a week before it is safe.

Of course, we’re going to be looking at staged returns, practical safety measures for social distancing as best we can, responsible production methods and shorter office hours to avoid rush hours – and all with our most vulnerable people in mind. As some of our clients are not going back to their own offices any time soon either, Uncommon’s building is most likely to be a meeting or shooting studio space before it becomes a functioning office as we previously knew it. But just as we found in the move to lockdown, you can’t half do it. Things became so much easier once WFH was the assumed default. And it will be a long time until working from the office is the norm again, if ever.

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