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The kids are back at school, but are we going back to the office?

September 2022
Jodie Soulsby

As summer comes to an end, we’ve seen our social feeds and TV screens fill with back-to-school ads, and images of young smiling faces stood on doorsteps in new school uniform. This sentiment of ‘the big return’ has got us pondering whether we should also be embracing a full-scale return to the office, or if working culture has simply changed forever. We’re sure we can’t be the only ones asking the question...will we ever go back to the office full-time?

Like the rest of the country, when the pandemic hit, we had a rather rushed conversation about the practicalities of working from home from a place of complete ignorance as to the full scale of the impact COVID would have. Being previously 100% office-based, there was some scepticism about how we could make it work moving to a complete work from home model.

In an agency where we have twice daily progress meetings and cross-team project kick offs and scrums, that lack of face-to-face contact was daunting.

Fast forward past some small teething issues (slow cloud based server solutions, “You’re on mute”, “How do I turn off the potato filter?”) and a few more lockdown limbos and we soon realised that we could indeed make working from home work and the strong relationships we had cultivated with our colleagues and clients could continue successfully.

Since the advice to work from home wherever possible was lifted, we have made a gradual return to the office (initially coming in one day a week and working up to our current 3 days a week state); we have found it has been helpful for collaborative projects, has sped up some processes and has helped maintain good working relationships internally and with third parties…

So should we be office based full time again?

Well, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. Yes, we have seen positive impact by returning to the office; however, we’ve also seen a boost in productivity in other tasks that are completed from home. Sometimes, being away from the distractions of a working office are just what you need to get a time consuming or tedious job over the line, not to mention that perception of the work/life balance swinging in a more positive direction. High morale is great for staff retention which we have always prided ourselves on, but we must move with the times to ensure that remains the case.

We’ve also made great ground turning our remote working from an obstacle into a viable and successful way forward. Michael Barber, our Creative Director, has been pleasantly surprised by the way the studio has adapted and evolved.

“In agencies, the office has traditionally been the hub of creativity. Creative minds can be quite chaotic and tangential at times, it’s what allows us to come up with those out-of-the-box, original concepts that clients come to us for; but we also need an anchor – something that offers structure to the process. I was worried going into lockdown that it was that office environment that allowed for that dichotomy of messy, collaborative creativity within a framework that also has set deliverables and timescales.

“We certainly had a steep learning curve at the very beginning of lockdown; however, being able to maintain our collaborative meetings using Teams, and manage projects through Trello, we very quickly learned that we could still deliver our best work for our clients.

“Now that we’ve moved to a hybrid way of working, I’d say we’ve struck the perfect balance. We can have our breakout sessions in the office to kick off or review a campaign or piece of creative. We can get all stakeholders together, face-to-face to scrutinise a brief and the solution to it. We can have wash up/knowledge share meetings that ensure the full team feels involved and invested. But we also have the time on our own to develop our thoughts and ideas without distraction.

“Having recently recruited for a new Motion Designer, we are also aware that we are creating a very desirable work culture, where the focus is taken away from “presenteeism” and is pushed where it should be – quality output that gets results.”

A good litmus test is to see what others are doing.

According to the Office for National Statistics, “In February 2022, 84% of workers who had to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic said they planned to carry out a mix of working at home and in their place of work in the future.” And interestingly, since returning to work, people’s sentiment towards working more from home has become more resolute:

The major reason for this seems to be the benefits that people have found working from home:

Looking at these national statistics, it’s not hard to see that the trend towards a hybrid model of working isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Keen to understand what this meant for our industry specifically, we also spoke with colleagues from other backgrounds/agencies.

"Currently, the marketing team are working from home two days a week, but it can differ by team and some colleagues are choosing to come into the office five days a week. We still work 9am – 5:30pm so we’re not completely flexible in that sense, but hybrid working is working well for us as a team.

“We’re all in the office on the same days so that we can focus on brainstorming sessions and collaborative working on those days and use work from home days to get on with admin or individual tasks. We also use tools such as Trello to ensure there’s full visibility of the team’s tasks and capacity to help line managers assign work and set priorities.

“It’s still a work in progress, we try to have regular communication on our work from home days to understand workload for the day, but we could probably improve a little on that.”

Amy Turk, Senior Social & Content Executive, Dusk.

When we asked Amy what she thought the working week would look like for marketing and agencies in the future, she added “I think everyone should be offered flexible working hours as some people prefer to start earlier to finish earlier and vice versa and they work better to their own preferred patterns. But I do think it’s important for a team to have fact-to-face contact through the week which is why I think hybrid working is ideal as you get a good balance of time with colleagues, but also quieter days when you can crack on with the more tedious jobs with no distractions.”

We also spoke with Amit, an ex-employee that now works almost entirely remotely from his house in Leeds for an agency in Liverpool: “My company has two ways of working; those living near the office are working hybrid but remote workers, like myself, are only needed in the office for the last Friday of the month for team updates and after work drinks. It seems to work well for all involved so I think the likelihood would be that they keep the remote/hybrid model as it’s been proven now that work still gets done and generally better/quicker with happier staff encountering fewer distractions.”

The hybrid model has also been successfully adopted by our clients.

“If you’d asked me pre-pandemic whether I would, or could work from home I’d have said absolutely not. But being forced to WFH in 2020 proved that my team could deliver marketing functions effectively on a remote basis. What was most difficult during that time was supporting a team through a really difficult period using only Teams calls and emails – this was especially the case for a new team member who joined just 2 weeks before the first lockdown.

“Post-pandemic we have now moved to a hybrid model where we are in the office 40-60% of our time which allows me the best of both worlds. I continue to appreciate the positives of home working – such as flexibility with caring commitments, less time spent commuting and the ability to focus on complex tasks without the potential distractions and interruptions of office-based working. While time in the office is important for personal and social connections, collaboration and ensuring we are working well as a team.”

Heather Lewis - Marketing Manager, LEBC Group

A new disruption from rising energy bills

Just when a consensus around hybrid working seems to be forming, a new disruption is in the pipeline (pardon the pun). The sharp rise in energy prices may force the issue for many who will struggle with the extra costs of working from home.

For each of us, this means weighing up the cost of commuting against the cost of the energy needed to work from home. It’s estimated that working from home could add an extra £131 to monthly energy bills.

How will this latest development effect our work habits? We’ll have to see if higher costs push more people back into the office this winter. Hybrid working may become a seasonal arrangement if the energy crisis runs on.

So, again, should we be working from the office full time?

Why wouldn’t you offer hybrid!? It’s good for businesses, it’s good for employees and offering the choice is good for everyone’s wellbeing. In this day and age, people want more from their working environments so we need to make sure we’re offering that to attract and keep the right talent in our businesses.

Have you had a different experience to this, or do you have a different perspective? We’d love to know your thoughts!