Much of the conversation around where and when people work is centred on personal experience. I am more productive at home. I enjoy the work-life balance a hybrid schedule has given me. Or, I need to get out of my bedroom. I can’t work with our kids in the house. And that’s fair enough. These are all important things.
A lot of the commentary on business leaders who want their staff to come back into the office, however, suggests they are motivated by presenteeism, rent costs or misguided nostalgia. And I’m sure some (many?) chief executives are guilty of all three.
But there is another reason why some agency bosses keep talking to me about the need to get back to the office in conversations – including in Cannes, of all places, in June. Their motivation, so they say, is the work. Or, more specifically, the quality of advertising agencies’ output.
Various industry leaders independently moaned that the relative absence of spine-tingling, green-eye-igniting work at Cannes was down to the lack of face-to-face office time. Just as there is no easy answer to juggling a busy career with caring responsibilities – as Mother London partner Katie Mackay-Sinclair wrote so eloquently last month – there is not a simple solution to the complexities of hybrid working in creative businesses.
Adam & Eve/DDB took what some thought was a bold move by introducing what it describes as Four&Flex. Its full-time staff can work one of the five working days at home and choose which day that is. Rick Brim, chief creative officer at Adam & Eve/DDB, says the quality of the work is “100%” impacted by the amount of time creative departments spend together.
“Work-life balance is imperative but there is a lot of fun to be had from sitting alongside like-minded people,” Brim says. “We’re seeing people hanging around and talking to each other again which is brilliant and it's no surprise that that's leading to way more interesting work.”
At Mother London, staffers are generally coming into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – though Chris Gallery, partner at Mother, says more and more people have come in on Monday and Friday recently, not least because it is an “air-conditioned dream”.
“Working on Zoom was efficient,” Gallery continues. “But it would be a stretch to call it fun. Working in person again gets conversations flowing, which takes the work to more unexpected places. It’s more fun to solve problems together. And when it’s not fun, at least we can always just go for a drink if all else fails.”
Now, none of this is to dismiss the benefits of the expansion in flexible working over the last two years. And they are not limited to those of us with caring responsibilities. Many professionals of colour have appreciated working away from the micro-aggressions that can take place in offices. TimeTo, meanwhile, has highlighted people's fear about the risk of sexual harassment in the physical workplace.
"In terms of talent, in the UK alone, the number of female creative directors has jumped from 19% to 28% over the last two years," Ali Hanan, chief executive of Creative Equals, says. "While this statistic won't win a Titanium, flexible working is a key driver behind this seismic shift. Besides, our Equality Standard says only 11% of creatives have their best ideas in the office."
One agency leader told me their pitch to their teams is that they are not coming into the office for themselves, they are doing it for each other. A producer's life is easier if the creatives are there; the creatives benefit from proximity to designers. A media planner's research can be sped up if the econometrics team is in the same building. Ad sales people can fix problems more quickly if they are nearer to ad ops.
Companies must nurture supportive and safe environments for their staff. Places where they will grow and flourish. But, as employees, we have responsibilities to each other and to the work, whatever that is in your world. When ruminating on the latest missive on your office policy it might be useful to ask, "Am I the asshole?"
I'm yet to be convinced that complex creative businesses can let all their staff work wherever and whenever they like without it impacting their output. But I am happy to hear why and how I'm wrong.
Maisie McCabe is the UK editor of Campaign.