Don't write off the office, reimagine it

At their best, offices are creative spaces where the sum is greater than the parts.

The prolonged period of Covid limbo that we face, until a vaccine is found and rolled out safely, is frustrating for anyone who believes in the importance of the office as a hub for talent, for ideas and for collaboration, for learning, training and mentoring, for recruitment and retention, for a sense of belonging and for corporate identity.

One agency leader worries that “people don’t want to come back to the office”. The head of a large advertiser admits it may have to “force” some staff to come in.

It is easy to mock offices but, at their best, they are creative spaces where the sum is greater than the parts. As a journalist, I always ask to visit a company’s office because I learn so much – from its location and staff friendliness to the ambience and investment in décor and tech.

Coronavirus has changed that for now. Working from home, where I am writing this column, has produced many benefits, including saving time and money on commuting and proving that attendance in the office and business travel are less important than some thought. Video calls and shared documents have maintained and, in some cases, improved collaboration and cohesion.

However, enforced home working has also come at a price, not least in terms of mental health and wellbeing. Younger talent, in particular, often don’t have a spacious home and are missing out on the chance to network and learn from more experienced colleagues.

Advertising and media leaders would be rash to think their companies can function chiefly on Zoom in the future – with minimal or no interaction in real life. The creative industries thrive on the magic of ideas and serendipity and clusters of talent.

“Offices build momentum, set the pace and standard, bring people together, build culture, attract talent, promote the collaboration that sparks creativity, problem-solving and celebration,” Cilla Snowball, former group chairman and chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, who now sits on the board of landlord Derwent London, says. “Doing all that on Zoom calls is possible, but it’s slow and unrewarding.”

Or as Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon, says, fresh from his first week back in the office: “Screens are fiction. People together is energy.”

A Campaign survey of 21 leading UK agencies and media owners found that only three of the companies plan to move to a smaller office. One respondent said: “We love our office.” A second person dismissed the idea of quitting in favour of a WeWork-style shared space. “I don’t believe clients would see it as a positive.”

But several companies have halted office expansions. Two agency giants, Omnicom and Interpublic, have slashed a combined 1.5 million square feet of space around the world to save money. Some pre-Covid trends such as off-shoring of lower-value services will accelerate.

Most advertising and media leaders expect staff to do a mix of office and remote working, especially given the need for social distancing and limited capacity inside offices. Getting the right blend could be challenging. Even before the virus struck, some leaders worried that if flexible working went too far, it could lead to atomisation of behaviour and undermine team dynamics.

Reimagining the office is now essential to persuade employees to return, when it is safe, and to believe that their workplace can be a creative, collaborative and productive space. One survey respondent said: “They should come in for a reason, to collaborate and see each other.” A second respondent was more optimistic, suggesting “the office has become more important for employee branding, rather than less” in the new world.

Snowball says this is an opportunity to “build back better”. The stakes are high. Creativity and diversity of thought will suffer if people don’t meet, collaborate, network and fight for excellence.

Gideon Spanier is editor-in-chief of Campaign

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