When RTTO takes over from WFH
Dominic Mills assesses what life may look like once a return to the office environment ensues
We’re not quite there yet, although some agencies are cautiously opening their doors. But at some point between now and the start of the new school year, RTTO — return to the office — will take over from WFH as the subject on everyone’s lips.
‘What’s it like?’
‘How long do you have to wait for the lift?’
‘What happens if you forget a mask?’
‘How often do you have to hand sanitise?’
‘Is the photocopier deep-cleaned?’
‘Can you invite clients in for a meeting?’
‘Do you have a team bubble?’
Many staff will be nervous. For some, it’s about transport, safety, health protocols, lift etiquette and ensuring adequate supplies of hand sanitiser. Others will miss the convenience and ease, for all the hell of perma-Zoom and occasional family interruptions, of working from home.
And a third group will be wondering if they’ll still have a job. Their fears - and they will be shared as much by clients, media owners and production companies as by agencies - won’t be helped by a recent survey by Moore Kingston Smith, the specialist industry accountants.
Nearly six out of ten of the agencies it surveyed anticipate making up to 20% of posts redundant, and 22% predict redundancies of 20%+. You can find this and other good stuff at its COVID-19 hub. If there’s a caveat, it’s that the survey is of smaller agencies, but I don’t see that larger agencies will be any more immune.
Expect therefore a lot of spare office space — the next highest cost after staff — and, when possible, moves to smaller and/or cheaper locations.
But aside from also having to draw up codes of conduct for use of meeting rooms and communal kitchens, there’s another issue agency bosses are going to have to grapple with - the impact of months of WFH on work practices and, more importantly, the way it feeds into agency culture.
Just about every organisation in every sector proclaims the importance of its unique culture. Often it's lip-service.
Not so in agencies, in my experience. I’m generally struck by how hard they work at their culture and how seriously top management take it. Of course, they’re never as ‘unique’ as they think they are, but nevertheless they recognise its importance.
Here is Sue Unerman of Mediacom and, among others, 7Stars’ Liam Mullins, talking about it.
And hey, they are going to think long and hard about culture because chances are, even if it’s not immediately obvious, it’s been disrupted.
The HR writer Katie Jacobs has a good piece in Fast Company about how the many contrasting individual experiences of working from home mean the workforce may be fractured when the big RTTO happens.
She gives some examples: the single parent with childcare and schooling responsibilities; the single professional in a flatshare with limited broadband and only a bedroom to work in and no outside space to escape to; the senior executive who never got the whole WFH thing but is now a convert — from their comfortable garden shed in the Home Counties.
To these you might add: the furloughed member of staff who lives alone; those who’ve had to care for parents or relatives; or someone with underlying health issues who has had to self-isolate; and those who’ve joined since March and have never met (in the physical sense) their colleagues.
How then, when RTTO happens, can the workplace ever be the same again?
All this sits on top of some big issues that have impacted the world of work in the last few years: digitisation; digital skills gaps; staff autonomy; flexible working; remote working; diversity; inter-generational fairness; employee well-being; automation; corporate purpose; meaningfulness at work; reskilling; leadership engagement and authenticity; and the nascent ‘Good Work’ agenda.
It would, I think, be fair to say that COVID-19 and WFH has not just made these forces more significant, but accelerated them. But it is equally clear that WFH has highlighted some glaring issues: WFH flexibility is clearly not evenly distributed, and it will have highlighted inequalities — social, generational and perhaps digital.
As corporate saints and sinners have become more visible, will staff demand higher standards of behaviour and integrity from their employer?"
There will be other changes among the workforce, some visible and others less so.
Some will question the value of their work and its contribution to broader societal good. We’ve already seen this with the adoption of XR and anti-consumption thinking among some agency cohorts.
Once you’ve seen senior management’s house/study/garden/family via Zoom/Teams, can you ever take them seriously again? Equally, once leaders’ home lives have been exposed, can they ever not bring their human side to work?
If jobs are cut and recruitment trimmed, will the industry ease up on diversity drives and default to hiring in its own image (i.e white, university-educated, middle-class)?
Will staff, if they have learnt to live on less or seen the beneficial impact of their presence on children, trade working hours for salary cuts (i.e more four-day weeks)?
As corporate saints and sinners have become more visible, will staff demand higher standards of behaviour and integrity from their employer?
How much have ‘weak ties’ (i.e links between staff who are casual acquaintances) deteriorated over WFH and does this loss promote siloed thinking?
Carlo Ratti, an MIT academic, notes that during WFH he had more intense interchanges with a smaller group of people with whom he worked closely (i.e ‘strong ties’) and less with weak-tie groups.
Strong ties are the equivalent of the echo chamber, while weak ties open us up to new ideas, perspectives and thinking.
And finally, is the ‘we-tried-that-before-and-it-didn’t-work’ excuse a busted flush?
I’ll leave the almost final word with Times journalist Tom Whipple, who captured the change in the office dynamic perfectly.
He said: “We were consciously present at work — less so at home. The division that we used to strive for — presenteeism in the office and quality time at home — is, I’ve come to believe, precisely the wrong way round.”