The return to the office is finally here. The masks are off, social distancing is a thing of the past and the strict self-isolation measures have eased.
As we go back to our pre-pandemic lives, there are more agency-wide gatherings, industry events, after-work drinks and let's not forget that the clients need entertaining too. There is a general sense of excitement.
But there's a sour side to this: sexual harassment. For some people, going back to the office means having to see their abuser on a regular basis again, and for others there is the fear of being abused.
Research commissioned by TimeTo, the initiative that aims to tackle sexual harassment in advertising and marketing, found that in a survey of 1,250 people, half (49%) expected sexual harassment to rise as the industry returns to office working. Nine out of 10 (89%) added that sexual harassment is an issue the industry still needs to tackle.
Lockdown merely pressed pause on the situation, the study found, and there are concerns that many will have forgotten what appropriate boundaries are. What's more, there is a worry that there will be "pent-up emotions" leading to bad behaviour.
"It's desperately worrying and sad that people are dreading going back to the office," Helen Calcraft, a founder member of TimeTo and founder of Lucky Generals, says. She adds that a return to social events creates a bigger risk for harassment to take place but also notes that hybrid working means offices are generally quieter now, leaving people feeling vulnerable.
"Flexible working has meant that only some people come into the office, leaving the buildings three-quarters empty so there are more places for harassers to look," she says. "So you find yourself on your own on a bank of desks, which means we have to be even more vigilant. There are additional dread factors."
So what can be done? For the writer of the letter above, communication is key. She says that had the agency leaders mentioned it as something they took seriously, then she may have felt comfortable talking about what was going on at the time.
"No-one spoke about it, I didn't know anyone who had experienced something like this, especially as I was so fresh and it was so out of the ordinary," she says.
Amy Kean, founder of Six Things Impossible, says that sexual harassment is often about power: "Based on the conversations I've
had, it seems like women are scared of an ongoing power exertion that's more pronounced in the office, when men are away from their wives and kids during the day and can act like bullies again."
She adds: "This involves sexual comments and advances, yes, but it also involves aggression, intimidation, and the massive tantrums that men in our industry are so very, very good at having. In the office, this behaviour is all too tolerated and normalised. If I still worked in an agency, that's what I'd be afraid of too."
Don't stand by in silence
Kean's proposed solution is for agencies to ask men to speak up and stop bad behaviour when they see it happen, be it in the office or the pub. "We could have a trillion initiatives and working groups but nothing will change until men start taking responsibility for their own behaviour, and the behaviours of their mates and colleagues," she says.
Calcraft agrees that the role of the bystander is very important. She uses smoking as an analogy: if you notice someone sitting next to you in a restaurant lighting up, you would say something about it.
She adds that employers need to set the tone. "Not enough is being done," she says. "Agencies need to be more overt about being signed up to the TimeTo code of conduct and strongly communicate that they take a zero tolerance approach. They need to walk the walk."
TimeTo's research found that about half of respondents did not know whether their company is signed up to the code. This suggests that either more businesses need to do so or else that those to have done so are not communicating this effectively.
In 2020, TimeTo launched a sexual harassment awareness workshop. So far 1,622 people have taken the training and a further 1,614 are scheduled to take it by the end of April.
Kerry Glazer, chair of AAR, Untold Studios and the TimeTo steering committee, describes the workshop as a "game changer". She says she has noticed that when a leadership team takes it, a zero tolerance culture is "more likely to cascade through the business and protect their teams from unwanted behaviour".
Dan Clays, chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK, is one leader who has taken the training and has now asked all his staff (across all agencies) to take the workshop as well.
He felt that the only way to educate his staff was to put everyone through the training so that they could understand the different ways that sexual harassment can realise itself, for example micro comments. "There's an underestimation as to what it can constitute as," he says.
Glazer adds: "We have to be determined and consistent. Real behaviour change comes when people fully understand what is – and what isn't – acceptable in the workplace."