Picture the scene. It was a sunny day during the first lockdown. Joe Braithwaite, Rapp’s managing director, was about to speak to an important new client for the first time. He was prepared, punctual and keen to make a good impression. Microsoft Teams fired up, the chief marketing officer popped up on his screen, and the meeting began. All was going well. And then it happened.
“My three-year-old daughter burst into the room,” Braithwaite recalls. “She proudly declared that she couldn’t make it to the toilet in time and had just had an accident in the middle of the hall, which needed my urgent attention. I had to excuse myself to go and perform a ‘clean-up on aisle seven’.”
“Peegate”, as the agency calls it, is just one of many stories that encapsulates the reality of working from home and juggling responsibilities in the middle of a global pandemic.
The overnight mass shift to remote working has fundamentally changed the work environment. Not least by exposing people’s homes to their colleagues, often with unintended consequences.
Vicki Maguire, Havas London’s chief creative officer, says she has learned to be more mindful of her surroundings: “Behind my desk is the radiator where I dry my pants, which means many a client has been greeted by my cheery personal bunting, made up of a five-pack of black M&S pants.”
She adds: “Sound is also a problem. My partner, like many men of his age, has become obsessed with cycling. As he can’t go out, he’s constructed a Peloton-a-like in our hallway out of an old laptop, a bike and a stand. I’ve been on plenty of Durex calls when the grunting coming through the wall is just like the sound effects from a porn film.”
The insight into people’s personal lives is having a positive impact on some relationships. Maguire says Covid and Zoom have helped strip away the artifice of the client/agency divide: “I’ve invited clients into parts of my home that even my friends don’t see. I’ve met their kids, their pets, their kitchens. I recognise the sound of their doorbell when deliveries arrive.”
Indeed, Braithwaite says that “peegate” strengthened his relationship with his new client: “The CMO said she has a two-year-old son and reassured me that she knew exactly what it was like to be toddler-wrangling while trying to stay on top of work.”
The same relationship boost might also apply to senior management who may appear less coldly professional to their employees when they see glimpses of their personal lives. In a survey of 1,000 US adults, Weber Shandwick and United Minds found 77% of people felt more connected to their bosses as a result of remote working.
But they also found that 59% of people felt more distanced from their peers. Banter between colleagues is hard to translate to group video calls. That is something Mindshare’s former global chief executive Nick Emery found out to his cost while on a video call with colleagues. As part of a dare, he made the foolish decision to take his device into the lavatory with him. At least one person on the call complained. WPP fired him within the week.
Being disconnected from colleagues can have a negative impact on people’s mental health and emotional state. We Are Social’s managing partner, Lucy Doubleday, says: “When receiving challenging feedback from a client, in the office you can collectively share your thoughts, discuss a solution and move on. Now you absorb that feedback on your own. You might take it personally, it changes your mood and day.”
In the same way, celebration isn’t the same. Saatchi & Saatchi tried to overcome this barrier by not cancelling but adapting its 50th anniversary party earlier this year. It organised 16 parties – each one for up to six people who lived in the same postcodes – and sent them party bags filled with cake, balloons, guess-who games, temporary tattoos and disposable cameras. The partygoers enjoyed themselves.
The inability to physically separate your work from your personal life makes it hard for some to switch off. A person’s level of introversion and the physical space they inhabit also affects their response. It’s much easier for those with dedicated office spaces, than those forced to work in their bedroom.
Maguire says: “Lockdown was, and still is, hard for me, because I get bored with my own company. I live in a small flat in east London with no garden, and my partner is shielding, so we only meet at the fridge. When Boris said we could go back to work, I was banging on Havas’ doors like it was the first day of the sales.”
Others, including some creative pairs, have tried to recreate the office environment by working alongside each other in extended video calls.
“The occasional murmur or helping of each other provides reassurance during uncertain and lonely times,” Doubleday says.
But some are thriving in the new environment. Rapp creative pair Sam Milburn and Kinga Wawrzyniak, who live and work together, got engaged this summer. Congratulations from Campaign – it really must be love.