When I first sketched this piece out, the office was beginning to feel, dare I say it, reassuringly normal. We’d set out early to be the best-organised, fastest-moving London HQ – and by September we had more than 90% of our people back at least three days a week.
We were pitching (and winning) as normal, the café was humming and we’d rediscovered those chance moments of creative serendipity – our USP, quite frankly – that it’s near impossible to recreate remotely.
It felt, after the trauma of the preceding few months, bloody amazing.
Then the guidelines changed, and we were back to working primarily from home. Despite that, I’ll say now what I intended to say then, because it still stands, regardless of circumstance:
We are demonstrably better when we’re in the office.
Always have been, always will be.
Saying that now feels a little taboo. Against a backdrop of proposed two-day weeks, plans to work remotely into 2021 (guidelines notwithstanding) and some agencies giving up their office space entirely, WFW ("working from work") was becoming a dirty acronym, even before restrictions came back into place.
But there’s no getting away from it: we need to be together to make our best work. Creative brilliance is so often the product of happy accidents – the kind of collaborative collision that can only happen in-person – and we must maximise the opportunity for those magical leaps to take place. While technology has made it possible to do a version of our jobs remotely, it isn’t close to replicating what we can achieve face to face.
Our priority has always been to get our people back into the office when possible – without robbing them of the new-found freedoms discovered in lockdown. And while our approach, until late September, was "all of us in, some of the time", I passionately believe two days a week isn’t enough.
We’re not oblivious to the fact things are different, nor the opportunity for positive, long-lasting change. I doubt any of us will be in the office five days a week ever again – that’s something to be celebrated. But less than half of our working hours in the office is not enough for a sector which, while it coped admirably during lockdown, thrives on human chemistry and connection.
Of course, this approach works only if our people actively want to work from the office. But how’s that for an exciting brief?
We’re taking an iterative approach – test, learn, improve, repeat – and we don’t have all the answers. But we have found ourselves re-examining not only the physical (and technological) space itself, but more fundamentally the relationship with our people.
We’ve prioritised safety over all else, including a genuinely robust track and trace system, temperature scanners and new deep-cleaning technology. Our ambition is for the office to be the safest place our people can possibly be, second only to their homes.
We’ve doubled down on the amenities that make being in the office attractive. Our café and coffee shop were open before those in the real world, while our weekly free bar has temporarily become weekly free drinks trolleys. It’s our intent to overinvest in the "added bonuses" an office can bring – after all, we’re competing with five-second commutes, working in tracksuit bottoms and a desk within arm’s reach of the fridge.
We’re creating more public and more private spaces. For every breakout space, we need somewhere people can privately take a video call. Equally, we’re investing in technology that supports mixed meetings – some people in the room, some not. By doing so, properly – not huddling round a laptop – we enable people to choose when to be in the office in a way that fits around their lives, not at the mercy of diaries.
We no longer have a desk for each person. This, in part, is because we don’t expect to have all our people in all of the time ever again – but also because we want to discourage people from simply sitting at a desk. Instead, we want to focus on things we can’t replicate from home: those "walls and whiteboards" meetings where the magic happens. If nothing else, I hope that’s the enduring effect of this experience. My boss, Chris Hirst, recently wrote that "the HQ could become increasingly like the Apple store — a place for inspiration, experimentation, learning and socialising", and I couldn’t agree more.
Way before the pandemic hit, we had already moved to a more progressive flexible working model, and we’re taking further steps in that direction. Meetings are off-limits before 10am and after 4pm, but we want people to get here however and whenever they feel safe to do so, in a way that accommodates their life outside work. While leadership sets broad parameters, we have to empower and trust our people to follow those in whichever way they deem best. The most important thing is that our people care about doing a brilliant job. If you care, you’ll find a way – but, more often than not, that way is by being together.
Lastly, let's not forget our responsibility to the next generation – the lifeblood of our people-based industry. A lot of "training" happens by osmosis and observation, and people learn less when they're apart. That applies at every level but is particularly pertinent to our younger talent, as is the fact the office is a valuable place for social contact and somewhere lifelong friendships are made.
Nothing here, I hope, is particularly revolutionary but nor should it be. We’re after evolution, not revolution.
Long live the office.
Xavier Rees is chief executive of Havas London and Havas Helia