Reinventing the office

A year of lockdown has reshaped the industry — in some cases, for the better.

Last March, non-essential workers across the globe were sent home to work for an undetermined amount of time as COVID-19 rapidly spread.

One year later, we’re still here. And a lot has changed.  

In advertising and marketing, agencies and brands have adapted to pitching, presenting, collaborating and selling over Zoom, Teams and Hangouts. Some of that hasn’t been as productive as in person, but other elements have.  

There are thousands of reasons to get back to the office: a change of scenery, an excuse to get dressed and human interaction top the list, especially after a year of isolation. 

In a creative industry such as ours, the ability to bounce ideas and take in-person cues into consideration can be paramount to a great idea. As BBDO NY chief strategy officer Andrea Ring recently told me, when it’s safe to do so, “we have to be realistic about what leads to the most creative output.”  

But agency leaders also recognize there are just as many reasons why we should not return to the office the way we did before.  

Work in the past was rigidly defined. Long hours in the office were not only common, but expected. Flying across the world to court new business wasn’t given a second thought. Talent was required to live in expensive coastal cities such as New York and Los Angeles to break into this industry.  

Advertising is a relationship business and being together is important. But strict definitions of what constitutes work isn’t always the best environment to let creativity flow.  

That’s why over the past year, as creatives have gotten laid off from their jobs at big agencies, many are deciding not to go back. That’s led to a rise in startups that staff client projects with distributed, often remote networks of creative talent with diverse skill sets. 

“When you incorporate all these skills into one agency, it becomes this enormous structure that’s difficult to manage and focus,” said Per Pedersen, founder of creative collective By The Network, in a previous Campaign US interview. “Diversity in culture and skills are part of creativity.”

We’ve even unlocked efficiencies in the isolation. For example, quiet days spent at home are more effective for sifting through emails or hunkering down to meet a deadline. Not to mention the time saved commuting.

But it’s not just about the output. Flexible work is more inclusive. After a year of societal reckoning, if we give people who are struggling, such as working mothers, more flexibility, we can naturally open up a more diverse and equitable workforce. As we establish new ways of working remotely, we can take people’s realities into account and place more importance on mental health. 

As the industry embraces aspects of working from home, the office is becoming more of an attraction — a place for inspiration, collaboration and that sense of community we’ve been missing all year.  

I’ve talked to countless agencies over the past few months who are hiring architects to completely reimagine their office spaces to facilitate this future. One example is Publicis Groupe’s new creative collective Le Truc, which will operate as a hub for creative talent at the agency’s New York headquarters.

“We have to give people a reason to come back to the office,” Neil Heymann, founding partner of Le Truc, told me when the concept launched. “For all the complications of this new way of working, we’ve formed a lot of new habits. How do we create a place that’s enticing, where people enjoy spending time together?” 

I don’t think anyone in this industry wants to go back to the slog of commuting to the office five days per week. But watching the past year blur together behind the glow of a laptop screen has introduced a new kind of burnout to our lives. We’re all longing for a place to come together, to share ideas, and frankly, to socialize. 

But the genie is out of the bottle now, and we can’t go back to the way it was before — nor should we. Let’s use the learnings we’ve had over the past year to embrace a more balanced, flexible and healthy way of working.

After all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. 

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