Since the conclusion of the Chinese New Year holiday, China has been on lockdown due to the coronavirus, and people have learned to cope with their daily lives from home. Children have been forced to learn online, and work continues remotely as millions of migrants within the big cities, such as Shanghai, wait out their 14-day quarantine upon their return to the city. Office buildings are without ventilation and heat to reduce the spread of germs, restaurants are closed, and even Starbucks is only doing take-out these days.
For my agency, it’s been 'work from home' since early February. As an agency leader, I consider myself fortunate to have an excellent team that reacted quickly and pulled all of our necessary files and computers out of the office a week before the beginning of the lockdown. With agencies, it’s just people and a room full of 12-pound iMacs.
'Work from home' has had a major impact on our business and I suspect will have a profound transformation on how we do work in the China ad business moving forward.
That’s because, despite the critics (which include me), 'work from home' is working. Not only does work continue to get out the door, we have also won a couple client pitches--all working remotely! Surely my team is restless like the rest of us stuck at home, but that hasn’t affected their work performance. We were previously concerned that the staff would be too distracted and wouldn’t be productive at home, but that seems not to be the case.
There are some good reasons for this. For starters, there’s better time management because there are fewer disruptions while at home. Home-style interruptions have increased now that the kids remain at home, but it seems there are far less than those at the office. With fewer interruptions there’s better focus, and my creative team says they are much more productive.
It also helps that everyone is on lockdown, including our clients. The wasteful hour-long commute to the client’s office has been replaced by the five-minute “can you hear me?” Skype connection moment. When the meeting is over, there’s no return trip. You say your goodbyes and get on to something else.
Technology has helped a lot, and this being China, the speed of innovation has been staggering. Teamwork was never a problem in a country where 95% of the urban population has Wechat. With newly launched Wechat Work we have become more efficient in our agency internal communications. Besides Microsoft Teams and Skype, Tencent has launched a Zoom-like platform called Tencent Meeting, and there’s also local player, Umeet.
Nothing of course can replace the face to face conversation, and advertising business is a team sport, but it has got me to thinking, why we can’t work more like this on a regular basis? What if we adopted a flexible work environment enabling our staff to choose their most productive place of work? I know in many places this is nothing new, but in China, it’s relatively unheard of.
For starters, a flexible work program could potentially save us a lot of money. Our industry tends to choose premier, downtown locations and then pack as many people into that space as possible to keep costs down. What if offices were smaller, with fewer desks and more common workspaces for people to collaborate together? People just need to come into an office when there are meetings.
More importantly, having a flexible work environment could help to reduce our industry’s increasing battle against stress. With many clients moving off retainers and relying on project pitches, agencies are expected to work longer hours to win business and hit revenue targets.
Despite all these advantages, I seriously look forward to getting back to the office, because nothing beats personal interaction in our industry. But I’m hoping this experience will have a positive impact on our industry. It could make us more efficient and productive, and potentially make us happier. If we didn’t have to go to an office every day, we could consider alternative environments that would help reduce costs. It’s time to bring on the agency flexible work movement.
Bryce Whitwam is CEO of MRM China, based in Shanghai. The opinions expressed here are his own.