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The London Underground is once again bustling with activity, hinting at a return to normality in the capital city. But with the threat of Covid-19 remaining in crowded indoor spaces (even for the vaccinated), is the ad industry showing enough sensitivity to staff? The Drum explores how workers can minimize the risks of the commute, and asks whether they should even have to.

The rush is back in rush hour claimed The Guardian last week, citing London Underground traffic figures. It’s clear that the capital’s offices are once again filling to pre-pandemic levels. A big part of that will be creative industry figures returning to their snazzy hallways and watering holes – but are businesses sensibly balancing the risk with the reward?

The major advertising holding companies are encouraging, if not mandating, staff get vaccinated. Other agencies are trialing hybrid models such as four-day weeks, offering staff new ways of managing workloads. But while remote working carries many pros, some businesses have retained their premises and rents and will be looking to refill these venues. Furthermore, training junior staff has proven difficult under remote conditions.

Businesses have put forward their individual cases to attract staff back to offices. Many are going along with it, albeit dragging their feet, anxious about the Covid elephant still in the room. 

What staff say

One marketing worker speaking under anonymity references the sunken cost fallacy. Businesses have already lost “major finances” retaining their office spaces for the last 18 months, so they now need to see some ROI and get people back in. 

They say: “I caught Covid-19 because I went into the office for just two days. My employer didn’t do the right thing and I did not feel properly supported, and as such I’m now considering leaving.”

Employers must ask themselves if they are ready to match wage rises to travel costs too, otherwise staff will be even more out of pocket than before the pandemic. 

A second contributor loves their office and the culture. But there’s always a sobering reminder about the inherent risk in commuting into work. “While I’m sitting here isolating because my son has Covid-19 and my wife is unwell, it does feel mighty odd to be missing out on all the welcome-back pizza and cake.”

Meanwhile, Lee Menzies-Pearson, senior strategist at McCann Health, spoke on the record. He says he “couldn’t ask for a better employer but is still anxious about crowds, is comfortable working from home and is not being pressured into returning”.

If and when he does needs to be on his terms. If agencies force people back, they’ll just be trading a biological pandemic for a mental health pandemic, he concludes. 

What agency bosses say

Bosses, faced with steering their respective business through challenging times, have to find the right mix of office work and flexibility for staff. The top agencies of course cite their office culture as a key driver of their quality output. 

Dan Cullen-Shute, chief executive and founder at creative agency Creature, has been very open about how the agency is “reimagining the office”. Sometimes that means being a bit outspoken on Twitter.

Constant discussion is key. “We wanted to make sure it never felt like they were forced – and actually, at Creature, people were keen as mustard to get back in and hang out.”

Cullen-Shute has been nipped at on Twitter for suggesting the following: “If your people weren’t keen to (safely) come back into the office, then perhaps the problem was that they never wanted to be there in the first place.” Some agency bosses may look at reluctant staff and have the very same concern.

Creature staff work three days at home and two days in the office (Wednesday and Thursday).

“We haven’t asked – and won’t ever ask – people to come back in five days a week. 3:2 is working brilliantly. We’ve actually worked out how to sell it to clients as a proper benefit to them (beyond ‘it’ll make your agency people happier’), which means I am increasingly optimistic that it’ll stick.”

Two days of commuting a week reduces the chance of Covid-19 transmission. The 10-4 office hours help to sidestep the busiest tube times. Also, the agency’s taken full advantage of the cycle-to-work scheme – although with four commutes a week, the vehicle may not get full use.

Kevin Chesters, co-owner and strategy partner at Harbour Collective, urges staff to “run a mile” from employers who threaten, compel or force them to do anything they’re uncomfortable or scared of – regular busy commutes or office returns included.

But he adds that a lot of his staff “want” to return.

“Maybe not every day, but they crave the human contact, the social bits, the bantz and the interactions. Especially the younger ones not lucky enough to have gardens or home offices.” It is fair to point out that some workers never established a strong base of operations during the pandemic and need the office to deliver their best work.

But this “want” for human contact could be mis-sold as an employee desire to work 9-5 five days a week in the office. Chesters says: “I hate binary thinking that it’s got to be all the office or all at home. Pretty much everyone is trialing a hybrid model and have been for a while. Take things slowly and be flexible.”

A staggered start helps staff avoid those crammed trains, and Chesters, taking heed from industry luminary Rory Sutherland, suggests walking when possible to do a bit of thinking and get a bit of exercise.

He concludes: “The key thing for me as a leader is to create the conditions for people to feel confident to work how they want to work, when and where. It’s been a rough year – let’s cut everyone some slack.”

Nabs reflects

Not all leaders are as open-minded in their approach. Nabs recently reported that there was a 14% rise in queries from adland workers, many of whom were “despondent”. Many were particularly concerned with the end of the furlough payments and their immediate future.

Lorraine Jennings, director of wellbeing services and culture change at Nabs, reflects that they’ve “seen some concerns around the return to offices”; be it the uncertainty around ways of working or these many hybrid models we’ve seen.

“We’ve been able to support our clients to approach the conversation with their manager and employer to share how they are feeling, building confidence to have the conversation, to shape their own return to the office.”

Jennings points out that we’ve all had to find the best ways to work as individuals in the last year, and this doesn’t always mean the office environment.

“Change can be an opportunity to thrive for some, but quite the opposite for others. There will be people who can’t wait to get commuting and back into an office environment, but this won’t be the same for everyone as it can bring up new or existing anxieties.”

The commute is a double-sided coin. It’s a sacrifice of time that is spent away from friends and family. For others, it is an opportunity “for time on your own, to decompress, disconnect and reflect on the day”. That may entail reading, listening to music or podcasts, journaling or even meditating.

In safer times it was easier to enjoy or at least tolerate these commutes.

“Obviously, commuting and office environments means being in closer contact with people when we have been living and working under restrictions for the past 18 months or so, so businesses and line managers shouldn’t expect that the adjustment will automatically happen for everyone and should avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”

Employers have to take things slow and help staff build up confidence. Affording the opportunity to avoid peak times is one adjustment being promoted.

No matter what happens, the office will be different. The people inhabiting them are too. But it is important to listen to staff concerns. Not everyone liked the office culture – and not everyone felt safe. 

Nabs’s recent survey of 1,250 respondents found that 49% thought sexual harassment will be more of an issue as businesses return to offices. That’s 600 people who feel safer working from home, away from crowded trains and offices. Industry stakeholders will have a tough time convincing these staff to sacrifice their newfound safety and comfort.

In the coming year, businesses must find the sweet spot between staff liberty, cultural cohesion and, ultimately, productivity.

And, finally, here’s a link to a helpful blog from Nabs called How to feel hopeful through simple actions.