In the past 18 months, Sneha George, who is based out of a media planning agency’s office in the western suburbs of Mumbai, India, hasn’t been close to her desk. When the pandemic first upended working in the office, she and her family fled to her parents’ home in the southern state of Kerala. Then, as things improved, she bounced around the country and has called at least eight places across India her "office". Now, having had a mild case of Covid and been triple vaccinated, she’s thrown down the gauntlet to her employer: She wants a stint either in ANZ or to become something of a full-time digital nomad across southeast Asia.
While her bosses are trying to figure out the machinations of providing for a seemingly boundaryless employee, agencies across adland are coming to grips with a growing demand for work-from-anywhere flexibility. With few signs of offices opening back up—and people reluctant to be herded together with Covid nowhere near extinguished—remote work without being tethered to an original office location is becoming increasingly common. As this has evolved, networks seem to be coming around to a new reality. Publicis was the first off the block, with a program called Work Your World. S4 Capital’s Martin Sorrell called flexible work “more permanent than people think”. And companies are beginning to devise plans to cater to an increasingly unmoored workforce.
"We believe in providing a supportive and empowering environment that allows our people to thrive for work excellence, career growth, as well as personal health and wellbeing,” says Hayley Lim, HR director at Dentsu Singapore. “To be able to do that, we recognise it needs to be a flexible environment that can meet the differing needs of our diverse talent community.”
While the network has embraced a flexible working model since mid-2020, it also pieced together what it terms the 'Be the Best You' principle. Co-created with its employees, this has been “stress tested through the height of the global pandemic, where our people have continued to deliver stronger than ever despite being apart", Lim says.
Similarly, with Mediabrands, the network “conducted extensive research”, according to Zarka Khan-Iltaf, APAC chief talent officer, to understand how people's lives were impacted and to devise a new way of working across agencies. The result of this research is a new hybrid working model, called 'Better Way', which envisages teams spending an average of half their time working remotely, and half their time working from their local office. According to Khan-Iltaf, the aim was to retain the flexibility to better manage their individual life-work balance, but equally, Mediabrands was keen to see its people benefit from the “in-person connectivity, culture and creative inspiration that comes from interacting in the workplace.”
As networks and agencies race to keep pace with rapidly changing employee demands, people such as the media planner George in India, along with advocates of a more liberal work-from-anywhere program, argue that the idea of being tied to an office itself may have gone stale. “For me the hour-long commute now seems so quickly outdated,” she says. “Conversations aren’t moving fast enough to focus on productivity, rather than place.”
Beyond working from a beach
Remote working experts such as New York-based Laurel Farrer, founder and CEO of Distribute, a think tank and consulting firm focused on virtual organisations, contend that conversations in adland need to move beyond these issues.
“When we are focused on topics like the ability to work from the beach or wear sweatpants, we’re really missing the point,” she contends. “The ability to work outside of an office isn’t a personal luxury, it’s a revolutionary business and economic strategy.”
In addition, experts also say that for adland, the concept that work-from-anywhere is just driven by millennials and Gen Zers keen to drop out of sight of their supervisors, is outdated. “In fact, research indicates that over 80% of professionals in advanced economies now expect flexibility permanently,” she adds. “So, instead of wasting time trying to predict who is and isn’t going to request to work from home, business leaders should instead be thinking proactively about how they can leverage this to their advantage with talent-acquisition and workforce-diversity goals.”
While the industry as a whole may be some way away from taking any extreme steps, some agencies are beginning to make moves to manage their talent’s needs differently.
For example, in Australia, Thrive PR was an early mover in changing its stance toward work-from-anywhere. “With our five office locations across AUNZ, we encourage our teams to experience working from any one of those locations," says Snezna Kerekovic, people and culture director for the agency. "And for our team members whose families are far away—be that rural, interstate, or overseas—we provide the opportunity for team members to work anywhere to allow them to spend precious time with family."
To do this, Thrive has not only opened small offices in places such as Perth where it was not previously present, but also innovated with clients such as Airbnb, Virgin Australia, GoPro and Optus for a Jobs of The Future initiative. With the blessing of those clients, Thrive offers its people the chance to relocate to another city for a working-holiday experience, with a guaranteed ticket home when they are ready. “'Flex not fixed' is how we are working through the current market dynamics and we will continue to evolve our approach to nurture our talent and deliver the best talent in the world, to our clients,” adds Kerekovic.
A case of oversimplication?
Despite these initiatives, remote-working maven Farrer says that networks and agencies may be oversimplifying this process if they are reducing it to allowing people to simply work from anywhere. “There are so many layers to whether or not a professional can work remotely,” she says. “Yes, the tasks of a role may be done anywhere the worker has access to a computer and the internet, but from the employer's side, it's much more complex.” This can range from obvious issues around computing and paying taxes to complying with local employment laws (which can differ even within a region) to return-on-investment for real estate investments and workforce diversity-and-inclusion objectives.
Mediabrands’ Khan-Iltaf adds that in the case of her network and the 'Better Way' hybrid working model, each market prepares a bespoke plan based on its people and its business, regardless of its size. “The purpose of the plan is to ensure that consideration is given to our 4C’s [community, clients, career and care],” she explains. “All of our employees will receive the utmost support from us…. We have provided our APAC markets the flexibility to adapt, add and innovate…. We do not insist on a one size fits all.”
The most bullish advocates of work-from-anywhere admit that there are more headaches ahead as employees demand this flexibility in their terms of employment. “Border openings clearly dictate employee movement, as does the current visa status in Australia relative to overseas talent," says Thrive PR’s Kerekovic. "PR is currently not on the eligible professions list for long-term visas or permanent residency, yet Thrive is spearheading an industry push to influence that for our talent and our industry. There are certainly compliance considerations, so as an agency we must be an exceptionally well run business to facilitate 'work from anywhere' talent.”
At the end of the day, adland’s drive to be a flexible employer may also boil down to how networks and agencies view their offices. While the industry has traditionally relied on being extremely social at work (and the unfortunate burnout that comes with being in office too long and late), the pandemic upended this premise and forced a rethink. Now, agency leaders have to do the tricky highwire act of maintaining the physical office as the identity of the company, while also managing the wanderlust of its employees.
“The flexible option to work from anywhere does offer the practical opportunity to review office space and design for a flexible workforce,” admits Lim of Dentsu Singapore. “[But] the physical workspace continues to be an anchor identity to which employees seek a sense of belonging and connection to the company.” While Dentsu and its peers manage expectations of working from anywhere, the reality also is that Lim needs to “provide segments of the talent community and teams who choose to return to the office with engaging in-office experiences that can support meaningful inter-personal/team interactions and collaborations in the new norm.”