How independent agencies are reimagining the office

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

Every agency has its own approach.

Vaccinations against COVID-19 are ramping up across the country. But while the world is anxious to get back to normal, the new normal looks different. 

2020 showed agencies that it’s not only possible to work efficiently from home, but doing so is also a major cost saver. Still, agencies, especially creative ones, are anxious to get back to the office to reignite that spark and collaboration that can only happen in person.

Not everyone, however, is ready for the return. Many find that flexible schedules offer a better work life balance, and are glad to save time on their commutes and spend more time with family. 

Reopening offices has many nuances and implications. Do employees want to return to a five-day in-person work week? What about those who don’t yet feel safe commuting to work or being in shared spaces? 

Will the hybrid model that agencies talk about be efficient for everyone? How can teams facilitate effective collaboration in a hybrid world, ensuring teams are able to spend time in the office together and those that stay home get proper visibility? 

As agencies navigate the challenges of reopening, many are pressing the reset button on how things used to be. 

Campaign US highlights a few approaches. 

Tattoo Projects 

Some agencies, like, Charlotte-based Tattoo Projects, have been back in the office for some time. The marketing agency reopened in April 2020 — at the peak of the pandemic for many. 

“When the pandemic hit, we closed for several weeks, like everyone else did,” Buffy McCoy Kelly, founder and CEO of Tattoo Projects, said. “[But] we thrive on quick communication and sitting together in teams to develop work quickly.”

Tattoo Projects opened its doors shortly after the local government deemed it an essential business, with social distancing and mask guidelines in place. The agency set up stations for temperature checks and hand sanitizer and added signage to encourage hand washing and social distancing. 

The reopening started off in phases, until eventually all 18 employees returned. 

The early push to get back to normal wasn’t totally welcomed by everyone, Kelly admitted. 

“Some [people] were worried about COVID. They felt more comfortable spending less time in the office and that was totally fine,” she said. “As long as we all have the same end goal in mind, to be successful for our clients, we're cool with that.” 

Since the reopening of its 5,000-sq ft campus, Tattoo Projects remodeled another a 9,000-sq ft campus, which sits across the street from a vaccination site, and is scheduled to open on May 17.

While vaccines are not mandated to enter the office, Kelly noted she has noticed some employees walk over to the vaccination site nearby. 

GROW 

Norfolk-based digital experience agency Grow is also betting on a new space for the new normal. 

During the pandemic, CEO Drew Ungvarsky invested in a 100,000-sq ft shared campus called Assembly, where the agency will be a tenant along with other technology, engineering and creative companies.The complex has collaborative spaces including a rooftop deck and penthouse, a podcast recording booth, a library and a game room.

Grow planned the move beforeCOVID, but the pandemic delayed the opening. 

“We value what an office environment can do for a company, especially being a center point of company culture to create unique collaboration opportunities and relationships,” Ungvarsky said. 

In the new building, each company has a custom built space and shares common spaces, which will enforce capacity limits and social distancing. Individual companies will determine safety policies for their own space. 

While Ungvarsky said he is optimistic about employee response to the space, he is also flexible and open to a hybrid model. 

“Deeper collaboration is harder to do in a fully digital environment. Having a place that you can get away from just sitting in your standalone space and come to and feel inspired to do something unique [is important],” he said. “We believe that we can have the best of both worlds.” 

Approximately 15% of Grow’s workforce will be completely remote after reopening, as many were hired from outside of Virginia during the pandemic. Ugvarsky noted they are welcome to use the space as well.

Happy Cog 

Employees at Happy Cog have not been back to the office in over a year, and co-founder Matt Weinberg is in no rush to reopen. 

For Happy Cog, the shift to remote was fairly simple, as about half of its employees were already distributed across the U.S. Those who were not remote congregated at the agency’s New York and Philadelphia offices. 

So when the pandemic hit, Happy Cog had infrastructure in place to support remote working. 

“Every morning we had a 10 A.M. stand up meeting which we were already doing half virtually because so many people were remote,” Weinberg said. “We had a lot of processes in place to make sure that remote people weren't getting left out of decisions or conversations.” 

Given that set-up, Happy Cog is approaching the return to the office with flexibility and open-mindedness. 

“Almost nobody in our last survey said they want to be back five days a week,” Weinberg said. “People see the benefits of in-person collaboration, but they also see the benefits of not getting on the subway for an hour and a half.” 

While the agency does not have any set plans for reopening, it will consider team members’ vaccination status, team dynamics, school reopenings and, ultimately, what people feel comfortable with. 

“I will never force anybody to be in the office, period,” Weinberg said. “We are working successfully enough as a remote and distributed agency that if you're nervous about getting sick, I'm not going to force [anyone] to come in. That would be terrible.” 

Paradowski Creative 

Before offices officially reopen, St. Louis-based Paradowski Creative is easing employees back in by allowing them to “play.” 

The agency leased two acres of land on the banks of Deer Creek in Webster Groves, Missouri for employees to connect, in a safe, outdoor environment. It has dubbed the area “Camp Paradowski.” 

The site, which opened to employees in February, has obstacle courses and spaces to lounge and develop “soft skills.” Employees are still welcomed and encouraged to work from home when it feels most productive. 

The abrupt switch to remote work last year was “incredibly hard on people,” said Gus Hattrich, founder and CEO of Paradowski Creative. 

“Being purely virtual hollows out the ability to celebrate the success or the good news of the agency when you can't really be in person and be together,” he said. 

Paradowski aims to rebuild social skills and connections among its teams, rather than making people feel like they are forced to return to the office.

“We have to find ways to rebuild some of the things that we used to have, but also look at how to change it for the better,” Hattrich said. “A lot of organizations want to have people in their offices for the sake monitoring what's happening, but if you have the right people and you trust them, you can have it both ways.”  

While Paradowski has not yet finalized its reopening plans, leadership expects a hybrid arrangement to begin in the fall. In the meantime, Camp Paradowski remains open to the agency’s 100-person staff. 

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