Office culture is so much more than foosball, Hawaiian shirt Fridays and kombucha on tap – it sits at the heart of any successful company, binding people together under one distinctive ethos. As part of The Drum's Agencies4Growth festival, we caught up with three agency leaders to hear how their cultures have been affected by the pandemic and how they're striving to retain what makes their companies unique under trying conditions.
Seeing your second family. Water cooler conversations. Proper bants. The boss’s jokes. Office gossip. Face-to-face meetings.
Yes, this is the much-maligned copy from Dettol’s tube ads. But while by general consensus the ad was deemed "cringey" you can’t ignore it did capture some of the things that people truly miss while working from home.
So, if agencies are all about their people, how do you keep that alive beyond the office when everything now plays out on your computer screen... for better or for worse?
"This isn't going away, even the next best part of this is going to be a really crazy hybridized stage," says Charlie McKittrick, chief strategic officer and partner, Mother. "Before the pandemic, we knew how to play soccer. We knew what a field was and how to train on it. And then all of a sudden, we were in outer space, using the same ball. It's been a miracle, how well it's gone."
McKittrick admits that while there is a real collective spirit at Mother, Zoom and distributed working has worked against it. “There’s this weird artefact that I’ve noticed. When you’re working on a project at home rather than a big table with all your colleagues, all of a sudden your sense of individual ownership increases, and you feel like you’re a position of the project as opposed to contributing to the project with everyone.”
Agreeing with McKittrick, Thas Naseemuddeen, chief exec of Omelet, says: "The way creativity happens is in fun and unexpected collisions and crashes. But now we just do this on Zoom. The biggest challenge was faced was figuring out how to capture and hold on to bits of our culture whilst you are behind a screen."
As her title suggests, as chief heart officer at VaynerMedia, Claude Silver's job is to help Vayner’s young employees have a deeper sense of self, mediate conflict, and provide feedback – a mix between HR, therapist, and life coach. But how difficult has it been to spread love remotely?
“We have such an incredible culture of camaraderie, of belonging, and we’re having to use different skills to pour this on screen," she says. "Now, I have to use my ears and my eyes in a different way to connect. Our new joiners are so courageous. Just to meet us online and start collaborating on a scene when I don’t know the texture of your vibe."
One very positive light she identifies is the rise in people finding their voice. "That's really come to the fore," says Silver. "We're now having very courageous and challenging conversation in the D&I space, sped up by this year as it's pushed a magnifying glass on what humans are facing."
Looking forward, Naseemuddeen says this moment has given Omelet an important opportunity to try things it wouldn't have done in traditional circumstances. "We've been experimenting with an outpost in Portugal, which was something we started thinking about at that end of last year and it felt like a big list," she recalls.
"Companies like ours have the opportunity to take back this moment and think how can you do your business a little differently?" she explains. "Are there ways you can optimise it? Are there ways that you can explain and expand on your talent pools? Because the world has allowed us to do that. This is a moment of opportunity which is great for us and this is the moment to do it."
Agreeing, McKittrick says that Mother has been experimenting on how office culture might look on the return to the office. "We've been scouting clubhouses, where you find a space which might end up being a bar or a bowling alley where we can start getting people together again," he shares. "No one knows the physics of what it's going to be like. But we've been trying to figure out what's going to be magnetic for people – what will show up again. We don't need a place where everyone needs to go and work."
Watch the panel here. For more insights, inspiration and celebration of the advertising industry, tune into this week’s Agencies4Growth festival.