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SA agencies look at long-term hybrid office models

by Herman Manson. Most South African creative agencies plan to put in place more flexible work-from-home (WFH) policies as the covid-related lockdown continues to ease and employees have the option of returning to their physical work spaces. WFH and Remote working will no longer be the preserve of Agency founders or senior executives. In fact, most agencies plan extensive changes to the work environment that will definitively impact how many of South Africa’s agency staff work.

“We are excited about how effective it’s been in general and we will definitely be putting in place a long-term, work-from-home structure from here on,” says Jarred Cinman, VMLY&R South Africa CEO. “The good news for those of us who fall on the side of a more flexible and remote workspace is that covid-19 has forced the issue and, overall, I think the model has proved that (with some tweaks) it’s workable — certainly for the ad industry.”

“What the pandemic has taught us is that people no longer need to be bound to an Office to be productive.” agrees Lynn Madeley, Havas Southern Africa CEO, noting that her agency will no longer demand that people work from the office. Taking into account psychological factors (hello, people-loving extroverts) and practical factors such as limited connectivity or workspace in family homes, she foresees the adoption of a hybrid of WFH and working from the office, with the latter being 50% of what it looked like pre-lockdown for Havas itself.

“Would we have realised any of this without a global pandemic that made our office space pretty much obsolete?” asks Andy Sutcliffe, 34° CEO. “Absolutely not. Moving forward, we’ll ensure it’s a lesson we never forget.” The retail and shopper marketing agency is experimenting with new ways of working which don’t need a vast office. As such, it’s repurposed some of its space into a classic-car showroom. “We want to open up other areas of the office to like-minded businesses who are looking for commercially effective collaboration spaces,” he says.

The showroom came about because of a classic-car restoration garage situated next door to the 34° office. “[G]etting them to show off their craftmanship was a simple tradeoff and required few adjustments to the building to make it happen — and it sure makes our reception an interesting place. It also reminds us of the kind of work we should be creating: visible and memorable work that takes time to get right and stands the test of time,” Sutcliffe says.

Performance & productivity

With a couple of exceptions (think of an ECD ranting at the creative department at one large network agency), most agency execs report maintained or even enhanced performance and productivity from the current WFH-enforced experiment.

Buffer and AngelList State of Remote Report: What's is the biggest benefit you see to working remotely?

Buffer and AngelList State of Remote Report: What’s is the biggest benefit you see to working remotely?

“I would say that people seem to be working as hard — or harder — than ever, and that the line between ‘work’ and ‘private’ time has become very blurred,” says Cinman. “Those who are self-motivated and can work alone are living their best lives. For those who feed off the energy of groups or need to work very collaboratively, it’s slowed them down and been rather frustrating.” Still, in an internal poll conducted at VMLY&R asking employees if the agency should continue with remote working and flexi-time, 96.9% of staff voted in favour of retaining it.

Khuthala Gala Holten, Joe Public MD, points to the ‘gift of time’ in removing extensive travel time to and from the office or meetings, resulting in an overall increase in people’s wellbeing and ability to apply themselves better to work. “Our people have embraced WFH with immense discipline and, in most areas, increased enjoyment and productivity,” she says.

Buffer and AngelList State of Remote Report: What's is your biggest struggle with working remotely?

Buffer and AngelList State of Remote Report: What’s is your biggest struggle with working remotely?

The involuntary, largescale nature of the lockdown forced most industries to allow employees to work from home. They had a limited time to prepare processes or people, meaning the hurdles, when they appeared, were stark.

One, notes Thabang Skwambane, FCB and Hellocomputer Johannesburg group MD, is disparities of privilege, especially visible in one of the most unequal societies in the world. “[This] has meant that a number of staff have struggled with connectivity and data costs, which we have had to find solutions [for] to enable them to be as productive as everyone else. Our greatest challenge has actually been the mental and emotional strain that the isolation and anxiety of the situation has caused,” he continues.

As the forced nature of the current WFH situation lessens, agencies have had time to digest lessons on the practical issues their people face, and to address these.

Remote Working in South Africa 2020, a study survey conducted by World Wide Worx on behalf of Cisco Systems, reports that while, working from home, “connectivity is as an important factor for enforcing synergy with colleagues, which also alleviates stress and anxiety for employees when they do feel part of an active team.”

The report notes that, for companies which were fully digitally transformed ahead of lockdown and remote working, productivity leaped to 70%, compared to the 29% increased productivity of companies which weren’t far along their digital transformation journey: “This starts to paint a picture of higher productivity when working remotely — when a digital transformation strategy has been fully rolled out. The productivity benefits of remote working are directly tied to digital transformation strategy, and not simply moving from a physical to digital working environment.”

At least one agency has already completely jettisoned its offices. The 15-year old, 60-people ad agency, Flow Communications, no longer expects its employees to be physically present at an office. “Teams who choose when and where they work create more innovative work and offer even better and more responsive client service,” says Tiffany Turkington-Palmer Flow Communications MD.

Culture and the office

Culture and creativity, and their apparent reliance on physical interaction, have always been held up as the primary reason agencies couldn’t adapt flexible work hours, never mind WFH opportunities.

For some agencies, culture is an office. For others, it’s the shared values and vision of their people. Of course, sometimes office environments (rather than offices) help shape and also frame those values and visions, and — as noted early on in this story — that kinda thing really can go either way.

“We have more accountability and productivity, less micromanagement and more opportunities for people to shine,” says Tara Turkington, Flow Communications CEO. “There is less hierarchy and democratisation of the workspace and people [are] more accessible. Remuneration [is] based on productivity, rather than presenteeism. We have had the opportunity to learn new skills and embrace learning opportunities.

“Yes, it’s our experience that this new way of working is not at all remote but rather closer, more accessible, more flexible and more agile — retaining our unique Flow culture while offering more. All in all, we wonder why we didn’t do this sooner.”

But human interaction remains important, as Faheem Chaudhry, M&C Saatchi Abel JHB partner: MD, points out, “The office isn’t a space for work; it’s a space to create community; and, when only engaging through screens, there is a sense of soul and heart missing that can only be present when in each other’s presence. We went in with a strong culture of people, strong bonds, that have meant people have looked after each other, but we all miss being together.”

“Now, admittedly, WFH has seriously impacted watercooler gossip sessions but, if you plan properly, you can still have a virtual coffee break with colleagues and catch up on gossip,” says Jacques Erasmus, Idea Foundry Marketing MD, an office-free agency operating across several continents. On a practical level, he says, WFH is about 1) managing time, 2) planning effectively not just what you need to get done but what other people in your team need to get done on a daily basis to ensure things don’t fall apart, and then 3) communicating/over-communicating.

“Our biggest realisation as an agency over lockdown? It’s people who make us who we are,” says Sutcliffe. “That’s why we made a decision to surround ourselves with people, and not just agency people — how boring. We have used our office as a meeting place for anyone who can contribute not just to our advertising product but, more importantly, to our mental health. We’ve made our office a space that welcomes anyone who can add to our culture. We’ve realised that our culture is about people and our job as an ad agency should be to create a space that attracts the most varied range of opinions and backgrounds in an effort to create truly representative, fresh work.”

Creativity

How will WFH impact an agency’s ability to deliver creative work? Chaudhry believes the importance of engaging one-on-one with friends, family, clients and work colleagues is crucial to a creative company’s culture.

“The pandemic has changed thinking by showing what can be done remotely and what can’t be, ultimately forcing us to learn the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says. “So, while we do believe it’s possible to do hot work and be productive remotely, we also believe an office space creates a culture and a way of working that can’t be achieved sitting in separate locations.”

“Selling our creative product online has more challenges vs being in a room where the energy is felt as we all become excited about the work,” says Gala Holten.” All these things have strengthened our relationships with our clients and partners as we interact daily. As creative people, naturally, physical interaction is always better than a remote one.”

“[H]ow we ideate and inspire each other will need new tools and thinking,” says Cinman. We have had some success with online collaboration tools but, again, some people’s style suits the real world. If circumstances force us to spend less time together over a long period, though, everyone will have to overcome their discomfort.”

Pitching

Pitching remotely was always a concern for agencies but also for some clients. Yet the process has generally been smooth-going and very efficient time-wise, says Johanna McDowell, Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS) MD. Credentials are viewed electronically, chemistry sessions have been conducted virtually and pitches have happened over screens.

“Timekeeping has been much better and we can see that agencies have rehearsed more because of the nervousness of tech failures,” she says. “Clients have also adapted easily; many of them are so used to working this way if they are in their own global structures themselves and often have conducted meetings and presentations this way pre-covid.”

Some local clients have postponed decisions until they’ve been able to meet physically to test chemistry. This hasn’t been an issue for multinationals, though.

Asked about whether not pitching in person has affected the theatre sometimes associated with some of the process, McDowell says, “I don’t think virtual pitching has limited theatre at all; in some ways it has enhanced it. However, one of the biggest challenges has been in getting clients, in particular, to keep their cameras on during an agency presentation… Agencies and clients have to be able to ‘read the room’ or, in the case of virtual pitches, ‘read the screen’, and reactions are very important to keep the energy of a pitch at an optimum momentum. It is very difficult to present a concept while wearing a mask, which is why virtual pitching will stay with us for a while still, especially because social distancing is so important.”

Gillian Rightford, AdTherapy MD, says during a virtual pitch on which she was consulted, the client felt that it was still able to get a very good sense of the agency culture and each presentation was completely different — which showcased abilities and approaches excellently. “The format does limit theatre of the final presentation to a certain extent, and is a bit more straightforward, but that wasn’t actually a problem,” she notes.

“There’s no doubt that the facade of the agency, it’s office environment, gives a sense of who they are and their creative culture. But in the end, pitches are about partnering with the right people, and they can be anywhere,” says Erasmus. “[W]e are busy pitching for a digital insurance brand in Singapore and the client knows we are not in SG, but what fascinated them is that our core team work simultaneously with brands in Africa, Middle East and South East Asia…”

The future appears hybrid

While most SA agencies seem to be open to implementing broader WFH policies over the long term, Cinman expects some to return to the status quo as soon as they can. “It will just be too hard to convince leaders who are cut up with worry about people freeloading or losing cultural integrity to keep this going… Remote working used to be a big ‘perk’ offered by certain companies to attract a particular kind of person. It may stay largely in that bucket but with a few more notable companies in there.”

That said, “the truth is if I could give up 50-60% of our office space right now, I would,” he adds.

“TBWA\ leadership believes that working from home shouldn’t translate into ‘living at work’. It’s for this reason that TBWA\ is intending to gradually phase in the return of staff back to the office when it’s safe to do so,” affirms Neo Selwe, TBWA\ South Africa group HR director. “We will continue to allow flexibility where possible, guided by operational requirements.”

Dentsu Aegis Network South Africa plans to introduce agile working on a formal basis once staff return to work, says Koo Govender, DAN SA CEO. “A combination of working in the office and working from home, staggered office hours, core office hours and informal remote working for a set period of time are currently being explored among our teams and will be implemented once we have reached a decision on our way forward.

Joe Public United will be experimenting with a hybrid model that will embrace the advantages of both WFH or remote working for staff. “We will also be [using] the building space more efficiently [and] that will support our growth aspirations efficiently without abandoning our amazing space,” says Gala Holten. “We plan to change sections of the building into hot desks and mobile pods to accommodate a fluid percentage of the workforce at a time and opening space for business growth.”

Over at M&C Saatchi Abel, teams will now report to the office on Mondays and Fridays “as these are markers for the week and we feel we should start and end the week together; people are welcome to manage their [other work days] more flexibly,” says Chaudhry. “Ultimately, performance is based on output and not just hours, so being in the office doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘working time’. We’re also aware that, for some roles, working from home isn’t a possibility as they need to be in office, and that’s something we’ve also accounted for.”

Publicis Groupe Africa is also considering a more flexible WFH and office approach. The network’s currently investigating how the former will impact on the amount of office space it requires; how the role of physical office space will change in both function and form; how its policies and basis for contracting with staff needs to change, given that staff will be expected to create workable, productive environments within their homes; and what opportunities, previously dependent on been geography, are opening up, according to John Dixon, Publicis Groupe Africa CEO.

Images source:

  • State of Remote Work report courtesy of Buffer and AngelList
  • Featured image by Luis Ricardo Rivera courtesy of Pixabay

Herman MansonHerman Manson (@MarkLives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.

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