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Advertising agencies in the UK are preparing to open their doors as lockdown restrictions lift. However, a return to ‘normal’ working life is far from expected. 

As high streets re-open, haircuts are booked and pub gardens are filled, thoughts among British ad agencies have turned to when office life might also return to normal. The short answer for many is ‘never’.

Timelines for the re-opening of offices remain vague. The current guidance is to continue to work from home if possible, and the roadmap issued by the UK government suggests it will be no earlier than June 21 before restrictions on businesses are lifted. Nothing is guaranteed, and so many agencies have opted not to set a hard date for a full return to the office.

“We’ve got a ‘best-case scenario’ plan which we hope we’ll be able to enact,” says Ewen MacPherson, group chief people officer at Havas UK. “But we’re mindful of the fact this is liable to change, and the last thing we want to do is to give our people specific dates and then have to backtrack on that, adding to the general air of uncertainty.”

Most agencies have already opened their doors to employees who simply cannot work effectively from home. Those feeling vulnerable or struggling with their mental wellbeing at home, and staffers that have spent much of lockdown in cramped house shares with nowhere but a bed from which to work, have all been encouraged to spend time in the office if they need to.

“Some people are desperate to come in,” says Helen Matthews, chief people officer at Ogilvy. “We had people begging us at the beginning of the year, but we had to respect the rules. But now we can, we’re letting them.”

Pre-Covid, Havas would have in the region of 2000 people working from its headquarters but, like Ogilvy, opened its doors and is currently operating at 25% capacity to allow people to work from the sprawling King’s Cross campus.

Looking forward, MacPherson admits: “We certainly don’t expect to return to the ‘normal’ of everyone in the office, all the time.”

Agency life in post-pandemic will, then, feel remarkably different to that before. It goes without saying that a permanent reorganization of desks and open spaces is under way at most agencies to allow people to distance while optimizing the capacity of a building.

Many agencies, including Ogilvy, introduced a desk booking app for its staff. Matthews says the tech will soon be expanded to enable them to reserve larger banks and meeting rooms.  

Even seemingly minor culture benefits within agencies, such as being dog-friendly, have to be reconsidered. “It seems like there’s a lot more dogs in the world now so we will have to figure out a dog booking system too,” says Chris Gallery, partner at Mother London.

Communal spaces, such as the kitchen, will also be different. Mother, for example, has hired a barista to keep people caffeinated while reducing the number of hands on the machine. 

The past year has led many to drastically change their living arrangements. A survey from the London Assembly Housing Committee last year suggested as many as one in seven Londoners planned to move away from the city in the quest for more space and greenery. Agency bosses have accepted that the best talent will no longer feel compelled to live in major cities.

It’s the case for many staff at WPP agency VMLY&R, to the extent that the agency has partnered with estate agents to allow staff to consider a range of living and working options, such as mid-week rentals in the capital.

And though agency life has never adhered to a 9-5 work schedule, the pandemic has forced bosses to embrace flexible working as standard. Publicis Groupe has 5,000 staff in the UK and chief executive Annette King says it has permanently extended office opening hours across its 22 agencies so people can come in when it suits them and travel at the quietest times of the day. Ogilvy now has a 3:2 ratio for working from home, while Havas said it will no longer have a desk for each person.

“Partly because we don’t expect to have all of our people in all of the time ever again,” says MacPherson. “But also to discourage people from simply sitting at a desk, instead focusing on those things we can’t replicate from home.”

For Havas, that means ‘overinvesting’ in the amenities that make being in the office attractive – things like the cafe, the coffee shop, the weekly free bar and the events spaces.  

Ogilvy’s Matthews is currently conducting research with its staff on how to ensure they embrace flexible working for the long-term without feeling that they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

“We’re doing a big co-design piece at the moment,” she says. “We’re thinking about what the office is really for – using it for the celebratory stuff and pitches. But we don’t want people to come in and sit on their laptops. That’s pointless.”

At Publicis, its thinking has led it to adopt what King describes as 'three principles' for working that will mean the physical office is no longer the default location for staff. 

"These principles are focused around three modes of work," she explains. "‘Heads Up’ (such as team meetings where a hybrid of at home and in-person work together based on individual preferences), ‘Heads Together’ (high impact work, like pitching, where it’s ideal to be in the same room when it’s safe to do so) and ‘Heads Down’ (independent, focused activity which can be done from anywhere)."  

VMLY&R says its approach will boil down to creating a personalized package for employees. 

“All of these measures – and many more not mentioned here – are designed to provide a holistic package of support for all our staff as they make their return to the office,” says its head of people Liz Ingle. 

“The environment they’re coming back to will undoubtedly feel different – the way we work, rest and play has totally changed. We’re preparing for a world where people may well be back in the office, but they’ll still be using Zoom to connect with clients and colleagues while they’re there. But we know that human connections extend far beyond the day job.”