Three days a week? Every day? Never? Agencies tread lightly on bringing staff back to office

Most employees want flexibility as agency offices reopen, according to surveys. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Most employees want flexibility as agency offices reopen, according to surveys. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Most employees want RTO flexibility and some don’t want to come back at all. How agencies are preparing for the backlash.

More than a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced office doors shut, ushering in a new way of working. Pitches turned into Zoom meetings and coffee meet-ups into countless emails. 

Work-from-home fatigue and burnout are leaving many ready to return to the world, evident by the quick uptick in travel and entertainment bookings. But the desire to go back to normal is not necessarily translating to the workspace. 

Industry leaders are cautiously approaching the return to a typical work schedule as employees say they want flexibility. A big question on executives’ minds is whether a return to pre-pandemic in-office work schedules will result in a loss of talent. 

Research backs up the prevailing theory that some employees will hand in their two weeks’ notice if they’re not allowed flexible work options. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents to Zeno Group’s global survey A New Mindset at Work: The Evolving Workplace in 2021 said they do not want their work-life balance to return to pre-COVID levels. In the U.S., 74% of respondents said they want to work from home several days a week. 

A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that 39% would consider quitting their jobs if employers are not open to remote work. That number ticks up to 49% for millennials and Gen Zers, according to Bloomberg News

As fall approaches, PR and creative agencies are embracing hybrid work models and steering away from five days in the office, some more boldly than others. 

Edelman, for instance, is expecting employees to return to the office 60% of the time, meaning staffers who work three days a week in the office can work from home for two. While the mandate is receiving mixed reactions, other agencies are following suit, citing flexibility as the driver. 

Allison+Partners will mandate U.S. employees to go into the office two days a week beginning on September 7, transitioning from its voluntary model, says Scott Allison, chairman and CEO. 

Employees will not be required to receive vaccinations, but will be asked to follow social distancing and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We've been clear that we don't plan to operate a virtual company,” he says. “We believe there are benefits to being in the office and that the hybrid model is a good one in the best of both worlds.” 

He adds that the firm is evaluating individual requests to work from home on a case-by-case basis.

Finn Partners, which began a voluntary reopening on July 12, will require U.S. employees to come into the office “several days a week” beginning in phase two, says Amy Coles, global head of human resources and chief talent officer. The number of days employees will need to go in will be determined by department managers, she adds, noting that some teams will need to be in-office more than others. 

The firm has not determined a date for phase two, but estimates it will be implemented after Labor Day.

Creative agency Walrus has reopened with a minimum two-day requirement in-office, with an expected transition to a mandated four days in September, says cofounder and CEO Frances Lumpkin Webster. 

After Labor Day, employees will be required to work Monday through Thursday and will have Fridays off, in accordance with the agency’s pre-pandemic schedule. 

“We work in a very collaborative industry where it's important that media and creative and strategy are all working together to prepare for client presentations and are in the office at the same time for that kind of work, but we also want to give people the flexibility of going where they can do their best work,” she says. 

Similarly, Stephanie Nerlich, CEO at Havas Creative North America, says the agency will move to a hybrid model beginning September 13 with the expectation that employees go to the office three days a week. 

“There will always be exceptions, and some roles may be offered in the future fully remote, but we believe in large measure we are better together,” she said in an email. “In fact, despite all the press to the contrary, we see getting the offices open as key to retention. Although we’ve proven we can deliver great creativity apart; magic happens when we are together. And we know any animosity created by the trappings of non-stop Zoom rooms will seamlessly fall away when we are back together.” 

Leadership agrees that employees should return to the office. According to a survey by staffing firm LaSalle Network of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% plan to have employees back in the office by the fall. Yet those plans may not land well with employees, as some cite the perks of working from home, including no commute (84%) and cost savings (75%), as key to retention. 

For its part, Havas Creative is exploring initiatives such as an enhanced employee assistance program, emergency childcare initiatives, after-hours communications etiquette, food services and technology enhancements. 

Mark Shadle, MD of global corporate affairs at Zeno Group, says the uncertainty of returning to the office is an opportunity for businesses to address gaps that allow employees to work efficiently. 

“Leadership will need to determine what works best for their business purpose and culture. With employees clearly expecting change in the workplace, now is the time for company leadership to demonstrate that they are aware and listening,” he said, in an email. “Employers should not wait for business pressures to ease. They should engage with employees now to evaluate and align on the expectations of their workforce for the future.”

In the meantime, some agencies are treading lightly on mandating a return to the office at all. 

WE, for instance, will allow working from the office to remain optional for all U.S. employees through July 2022, says Kris Habereder, VP of people for North America. Its U.S. offices opened this July for fully vaccinated employees, with a reopening for all employees expected in the fall. 

Porter Novelli will also continue to adopt an opt-in model and anticipates a hybrid model in the near future. Margaret-Ann Cole, chief people and transformation officer, notes the agency is working to determine a new policy but expects hybrid schedules will be managed by department managers. In the meantime, employees who visit the office will be given a pack of red, green and yellow wristbands to identify their level of comfort with physical contact such as handshakes and group environments.

Kaplow will allow employees to choose if they want to come into the office until the end of the year when it will re-evaluate its work model, and Carmichael Lynch has adopted a "work from where you need to" model in which employees can use the office as a "campus-like" space as needed. While departments may lead meetings and gatherings in-office, the agency has implemented remote participation tools for those who do not want to come into the office.

On the creative side of things, VaynerMedia will remain remote until October 4 and will not mandate a return. However, it is exploring splitting employees who do want to come into groups such as Team A and Team B to stagger the number of people entering the office, says Claude Silver, chief heart officer at Vayner. MullenLowe U.S. expects to take a similar approach in the fall. 

MSL confirmed it will require employees to return on a hybrid schedule after Labor Day but did not respond to requests for additional comment. When contacted for this story, a FleishmanHillard spokesperson said it is too early to discuss the global return-to-office plan but noted the Omnicom Group firm is “taking a market-by-market approach, first and foremost following guidance from the World Health Organization to ensure people are safe.”

“We’re also having one-on-one conversations with all of our people to see what they want and need from the future workplace,” the spokesperson added.

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.


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