In China, millions of people have been working from home since 3 February amid coronavirus quarantines. Now, Italy faces the same restrictions, with cases having been confirmed in all 20 of its regions. In the UK, a leading health official has said that all staff who can work from home should be advised to do so to reduce their risk of contracting the virus and spreading it to others.
But can working from home shed its image of pyjama-wearing shirkers to become an acceptable solution to the current crisis? And perhaps, if proven through emergency measures, home working can gain credence as a way forward beyond the coronavirus.
While some employees may feel pressured by intrusive bosses who do not believe the same level of productivity will be achieved away from the office and some could be distracted by family members or find it difficult to focus, others might embrace the experience, perhaps enjoying improved productivity.
With agencies such as Amplify shifting to flexible working hours to avoid rush-hour travel, others such as Group M are testing business-continuity practices by having all staff work from home this Friday.
Of course, the crux of the matter is having the tools, technology and systems in place to make it work. If all staff do not have laptops, access to work servers and Wi-Fi for remote meetings, real productivity could become impossible. However, if proven to run smoothly, predictions are that these emergency measures could herald increased vigour behind new working patterns for the future.
So could adland continue to function – and serve clients – if all staff have to work from home?
David Ogilvy never wrote anything in the office. "Too many distractions," he explained. And David actually had an office. With a door and that. If you want to understand this point, Google a paper by Paul Graham entitled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It explains something very simple but very important: people who actually create things don't only need time in which to do it. They need long, continuous swathes of uninterrupted, discretionary time.
Isaac Newton did all his best work when forced to leave Cambridge because of a plague. George Harrison wrote Here Comes the Sun when he got sick of attending Apple Corp planning meetings and bunked off to Eric Clapton's house in the country.
In our business, the value is created by makers. But the pace is set by managers. I strongly suspect that, with reasonable use of technology, this business will be far more productive under conditions of enforced isolation. In fact, it will be working the way it would work naturally, were it not dominated by some of neediest and most obsessive extroverts on the planet.
Managing director, Starcom
It depends on how long it goes on. If only a few weeks, adland would function just fine. We’d have extended time to devote to all the things we love about flexi-working: the headspace to think strategically or to work uninterrupted on complex projects. We might even find ourselves in a rhythm that untaps our most productive selves.
But if a "lockdown" does come, hopefully it won’t last too long because, despite remote working technology having its benefits, it can’t replace what’s best about our industry: the brilliant work that happens when great people come together.
Chief operating officer, Saatchi & Saatchi London
As the old adage says: in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity. While our industry often says it is looking at ways for people to work more flexibly and remotely, they rarely deliver on it. Not only that, but you can’t originate, develop and deliver great ideas without one-to-one interaction, right? Maybe. But what a great opportunity to test the theory and maybe change the way we work going forward. What it will shine a light on is who has the collaborative technologies in place, the talent who knows how to navigate it and the smart clients happy to find a different way. If not, if might be two weeks off, not two weeks WFH.
Chief executive, Mr President
For us, our relatively small size and agile structure is an advantage. We’re built to move fast, be flexible and change – it’s how we’ve always done things. Just recently, we rolled out flexible working for all staff. Our operations are cloud-based, so our team is already brilliant at being together in spirit, even when physically apart. We’ll come together online for key meetings and trust each other to get the work done, as we always do. This is a very unsettling time for everyone, but let’s support each other through it and hope the virus leaves us as quickly as it arrived.
Chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
All that matters right now is that we take care of our people. Ultimately, the Covid-19 response is an accelerant to some of the issues we have been grappling with as an industry and, indeed, a modern world. The technological revolution promised to fundamentally change how we work. It didn’t – because we constrained new methodologies with old habits. The modern mandate requires a new mindset. We must wholly equip people to work from anywhere and then we must measure contribution, not swipe data. Creativity doesn’t live in buildings; it lives in humans and my humans can be brilliant anywhere.
Chief executive, Grey London
Yes, adland will function, but expectations will need to shift should all industries be restricted on a global scale. We have always welcomed flexible working and have well-established protocols and tools in place to ensure efficiency. Working for global clients means that we’re already structured to work seamlessly from different corners of the world and deliver brilliant creative, but it’s the inevitable mandate to work in isolation that will pose obvious problems for shoots and subsequent delivery. However, we’re in the business of creative thinking and problem-solving, and I don’t doubt that we will adapt as an industry to get through this uniquely challenging chapter.
Group chief executive, Miroma Agencies; chairman, Fold7
Our primary concern is the safety of our people around the world. But as a client-oriented business, we also need to be thinking about our clients’ businesses (as well as our own). Which means needing to be at our most agile, inventive and entrepreneurial when it comes to the challenges presented by the coronavirus.
On the safety topic – we’re following World Health Organization and government guidance. And we’re also testing different practical options, like doing a dry run working from home en masse and introducing ultra-flexible hours to help avoid the rush hour.
With home-working comes the imperative of talking regularly (not leaving it all to email and Slack). Human contact, even if remote, is essential. As well as looking after less experienced staff, who may feel especially disconnected and disrupted, and making the best use of technology to deliver work.
But there’s something else worth paying attention to. Very soon, we could all be participating in a mass sociological experiment, which will help us understand which aspects of office life we really miss and which we can live without. We’ll be watching to see how this plays out in terms of the energy, well-being and productivity of our teams.
There’s the time spent commuting, waiting for the lift, booking a meeting room, waiting for a meeting to start, going to see a client, queuing for the coffee machine… all of which we can reclaim. But maybe, when it’s all done, we’ll find it’s the moments of serendipity when we’re commuting, waiting for the lift, queuing for the coffee machine, waiting for a colleague that’ll we’ll miss the most.
If we take care of our people, our clients and our communities, we might discover some positive consequences of working differently.