Jennifer Small
Oct 5, 2020

Will WFH destroy your career?

For younger workers especially, working from home represents missed opportunities for learning and development, while the 'democratisation' of work means there’s little need for hierarchies and elevation through the traditional agency ranks.

Will WFH destroy your career?

The destructive force of the pandemic, which has ravaged the world, laying waste to human life and economies, has not been kind to the marketing and advertising industries, with almost 40,000 job losses expected among marketers, according to research from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and most agencies acknowledge that job losses are inevitable. 

And even for those who have avoided redundancy, the spectre of the pay cut remains, with almost a third of UK adland employees still receiving a reduced salary more than six months after lockdown began, according to an online survey of Campaign readers. Although Publicis Groupe and WPP have now ended pay cuts across their agencies, it is unclear whether promotions or pay increases have been allowed. 

And while employees are out of sight, the fear is that they could also be out of mind, with the prime minister's latest WFH edicts scuppering workers' chances of being seen in all their glory, and developed and promoted accordingly.

For adland in particular, moves to reopen workplaces and get back to the office had seemed welcome. As Campaign’s back-to-work survey showed, the majority of respondents (90%) were seeing up to 50% of staff coming into the office over a weekly period, with most coming in one or two days a week. Almost all expected numbers to rise before Christmas. 

But Boris Johnson’s U-turn sounded a death knell for the eagerly anticipated (Covid-adapted) return, sentencing many workers to more time inside cramped living spaces or the risk of mental-health issues caused by isolation. Add to that the prospect of, well, no prospects, and adland could be staring into a very bleak midwinter.

Agency leaders have been quick to try to allay fears of career stagnation, with efforts to step up training and mentoring provision gathering almost as much pace now as the ubiquitous Zoom quizzes and talent shows at the height of lockdown. 

Neale Horrigan, executive creative director at Elvis, says the agency has spent a lot of time looking at what its people want from agency life nowadays and trying to help them keep their careers on track, with content such as educational webinars.

“A lot of people felt their careers were on hold until this blew over, as if they were treading water until we could go back to what we knew, but now we've kick-started people back into stepping their careers up. That has become more the focus now, rather than ‘When will we get together again?’. Just because people aren’t leaving the house every day doesn't mean they're not progressing,” Horrigan says. 

Lost learning by osmosis

However, for younger workers especially, WFH represents missed opportunities for learning and development – and not just formal training. Stephanie Marks, managing director at Havas Media Group, says: “So much of what we do is learned through osmosis: watching what everyone else does, picking up on that comment you overheard. Especially for those just starting out, whose ability to fast-track their careers will be hampered by this moment in time.”

Marks believes collaboration is difficult via a screen and that being in a room with colleagues simply can't be replicated online. “It's exhausting, not invigorating,” she suggests. As the second wave of WFH has been introduced, Marks explains that career development and support have been high on the agenda at Havas.

“We now know that there is no end in sight,” Marks says. “We have to plan for this to be the way we work for the foreseeable future and we need to help our teams feel supported, giving them the ability to grow and learn.”

The agency, she adds, is looking at new ways of working, including changing training programmes to accommodate WFH, filling the gap that the office provides and asking how its media owner partners can “help us bring inspiring sessions to our teams”. 

For Mat Goff, chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, a big watch point is that younger members of staff won’t be learning from the people around them, listening to the conversations of senior colleagues, or those in different departments, in the same way. However, because they’re involved in a lot more calls and conversations with more senior people than they would usually have had exposure to, Goff believes it’s a fair exchange.

“Whether you're an account exec or a junior creative team, the CEO or CSO, you're all on the same team discussing the work – and that might not happen if we were normally in the office," he says. "What you take away with one hand, you might get back with the other, even just in terms of hearing all the conversations that might normally take place between an ECD and a managing partner – but suddenly everybody's in it."

What promotion?

But, for many, this isn’t necessarily a positive. Not only do employees now face the risk of being rendered invisible by not being in the office, WFH has also proved such a great leveller that there’s little need for hierarchies and elevation through the traditional agency ranks, instilling fear in the hearts of those hoping for promotion to the most senior levels.

“There's something bittersweet about it,” Adrian Walcott, managing director at Brands with Values, says. “And compromise is needed, because I think the work/life balance of WFH is proving good for people who have got longer, more established careers. But there’s a natural tension that a lot of people who have different needs are wrestling with, because the younger guys need to learn by interaction and being around senior leaders.” 

Walcott thinks agencies should try to recognise the different cohorts within their ranks and help them understand each other.

At Dark Horses, the use of team-communication software Slack helps with the remote exchange of ideas across the agency. It also allows people to see each other's work in a way that may not have happened in the traditional meeting hierarchy – another democratisation borne from WFH that allows people to learn from one another more widely than they would have in the office. 

This works in both directions, of course, as senior agency leaders are able to pick the brains of their energetic, switched-on juniors. Although highly experienced as an agency leader, Dark Horses chief executive Melissa Robertson describes herself as “by no means an expert in the world of sports marketing” and says that Slack has helped her learn through interaction with those who are “really passionate and experienced in things that I know not loads about. They are experts in different fields and they are at completely different levels within the agency.”

Carry on building skills

And it’s exactly this kind of two-way learning culture that needs to be nurtured in challenging times, so that it can be harnessed in better times, Uzma Afridi, head of careers at advertising and media industry charity Nabs explains. 

“Salary increases and promotions might be on hold at the moment, but don’t let that stop people’s development,” she says. “The culture of an agency thrives when employees are learning and developing, which will support the business to rise to its current and future challenges.”

Development is crucial, Afridi explains, pointing out that agency leaders should make it clear that they still want their people to build their skillsets by giving clear targets and objectives to work towards. 

At M&C Saatchi, which saw 1,300 people sign up for its free public “open house” virtual training programme, a new separate online tool, Open Blend, has now been introduced for staff. Designed to monitor employees’ wellbeing and “drive continued positive performance”, it creates a tailored profile for each individual to gauge their overall happiness and work satisfaction. All managers are trained to give effective coaching support, with the aim of empowering employees to blend their work and home lives.

“This will continue to support career progression,” Zoe Miller, talent manager at the agency, says, “helping us to prioritise important development conversations, particularly at a time when there are lots of distractions in the world.”

It’s the managers who are key, according to Sharon Whale, chief executive of global markets and operations at Oliver – where all training and development, from how to use Adobe to how to be a better manager, has long been available via an online platform. Recently, the agency added Rosetta Stone language courses, enabling its 2,500 employees to learn almost any language they like.

Everybody within Oliver has their own individual training plan, with objectives set within a month of arriving. One-to-ones, an appraisal system and three-monthly check-ins are all systemised to ensure that plans are kept to.

But Whale believes that, as a result of WFH, “managers have had to become better managers. Whereas before they might have been busy and not got everyone together and not found the time to have the one-to-ones, now they absolutely find the time because it's essential to the running of the business.”

It’s also the case at smaller agencies that teams are getting more face time with senior leadership, Pablo founding partner Gareth Mercer says. When employees began asking how their careers could move forward and develop under Covid restrictions, Mercer resisted simply announcing more investment in training.

He says Pablo is planning more initiatives along the lines of a project organised last year where the entire account management department was given a creative brief, then halfway through the idea-development stage, the brief was changed. At the end, clients were brought in to give feedback on the work produced.

“People have been saying for years that the best way to learn is to get out of the office. Now we're being forced to, so we need to find the creative environments that we're still allowed to go that will allow us to draw inspiration. As long as we’re putting in the yards as a management team to spend time with people, we're not neglecting their development,” Mercer says.

WFH burnout

However, even the most innovative and well-designed training programmes still demand employee time – a resource in short supply. According to research by the Mental Health Foundation, 66% of people reported stress related to their jobs during lockdown and 23% reported working an extra 28 to 35 hours a month (with no extra pay).

With the working day no longer framed by a commute, the danger is that it bleeds into employees’ own time, as they try to finish tasks or complete training that would normally be resumed the next day. And this WFH burnout particularly affects women. 

On many levels, WFH is seen as a boon for female workers, because they can arrange their schedule more flexibly around childcare if necessary (since women are still predominately responsible for it). But according to the World Economic Forum, mothers are doing an average of 12 hours a week more housework than fathers, despite both sexes working from home, with little time left over for the training and development described here that would unlock the doors to career progression. 

The crisis of the pandemic has been presented by many agencies as an opportunity to reorganise career and leadership development strategies. And although employees are being encouraged to maintain their professional goals, the likelihood is that many adland careers will be invisibly stalled – if not irretrievably destroyed – by prolonged WFH. 

How to keep your career alive while WFH

Tips from Uzma Afrida, head of careers at Nabs

  1. If your agency wants sustained success, you must grow your people at all levels of the business – and that includes wellbeing support. Wellbeing is the cornerstone of success and people need support with this now more than ever – we’re getting more calls than ever at Nabs from people across the industry needing help with their emotional health and the worries brought on by the current climate.

  2. Create a mentoring or buddy system. Different teams or individuals can buddy up for monthly mentoring sessions or even informal check-ins to share what they’re working on and to share ideas and support. This can build up exposure and relationships across departments. 

  3. Employees should use one-to-one meetings with their managers to re-establish clear objectives and to consider how you and your team will have access to others across the agency, to forge positive connections and to be seen, heard and appreciated as part of the business. 

  4. Individuals can also work on their growth mindset. This can help to improve focus and motivation. We know that people have been struggling with motivation over the past few months. Some confidence-boosting coaching, such as the free career coaching that we offer at Nabs, can help to cultivate a growth mindset and get you back on track. Actively seek out training and development opportunities and share your learnings and progress with your manager. 

  5. Managers can play their part by telling their leaders and other managers when their team have performed well. There are little day-to-day tactics that can be very effective, especially thinking about your internal comms. Make sure everyone has their picture uploaded and encourage people to use video on calls so that everyone can put a face to the name.


Campaign UK

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