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    How does adland plan to contend with rolling blackouts this winter?

    Leadership must communicate clearly and empathetically to help staff navigate this period, industry leaders and support networks tell The Drum.

    This week, people in the UK were told to brace themselves for a winter of power cuts if energy supplies continue to run low. The warning follows reports that the government has ‘war gamed‘ an emergency plan for energy blackouts, which could last up to seven days in the event of a national power outage. 

    Concerns over the likelihood of winter blackouts are mounting as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to put a strain on the UK’s energy supplies. But what does this mean for business? At an already unpredictable time, how will employers manage workers’ schedules – as well as their mental health and wellbeing – in the event of regular power cuts?

    Unsurprisingly, many agencies tell The Drum that flexibility and communication will be the key components to weathering blackouts effectively. Stephanie Milledge, head of people at Brandwith, shares her plan with us, which is to ”keep teams talking, keep employees united and, above all, keep wellbeing as the leading priority.”

    She says: ”Businesses will need to assess project requirements, client expectations, employee needs and working hours. Each business will have its own risks, so I’d suggest analysis to make informed decisions while keeping employees involved and informed throughout.”

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    Over at advertising charity Nabs, head of support Annabel McCaffrey echoes these views, saying that if blackouts do become a regular occurrence, employers ”need to be flexible and, crucially, plan ahead and communicate with staff.” She says: ”Having a tailored and empathetic approach is critical here. Take time to understand your employees’ individual situations. How are they affected by the blackouts? When you have this information, you can work out how best to support your team.”

    This is not the first time this year adland has had to contend with severe weather and unprecedented circumstances. Not withstanding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, extremely high temperatures during the summer of 2022 forced many offices to reconsider how they operate.

    The question of whether remote versus office working routines could be impacted by blackouts remains uncertain, but McCaffrey highlights that the wellbeing aspect of mandating where employees work must be considered. “Expecting staff to stay late to work around power cut hours is not inclusive and is unlikely to be sustainable,” she says.

    “It can have a severe impact on one’s financial and emotional health, not to mention it is practically impossible for many (think working parents and those living with disabilities for starters). Better to be realistic and flexible, to adjust expectations for this period and to find other ways to distribute and tackle workload during this difficult time.”

    She says, as an example, companies that stipulate that people need to be in the office a certain amount of days a week could allow people to work from home to avoid getting stuck for transport back to where they live. 

    However, since the plan is for rolling blackouts in different regions, not everyone will be affected at the same time, so it may be preferable to offer some staff to come into the office on days their home power is being cut. 

    “Whatever decisions are made, senior leadership must communicate clearly and empathetically with their teams throughout this time in order to support staff.”

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    Many also emphasized to The Drum that supporting staff’s mental health and wellbeing through the uncertainty would be a priority. 

    McCaffrey explains: “The potential power cuts come at an already difficult time for many when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. Calls to Nabs regarding mental health have risen by 128% since last year. Regular power cuts may well cause more stress and anxiety. Leaders can support their people in a number of ways, for example by regularly checking in on staff to see how they are and what they need, and by signposting to support services such as the Nabs advice line.”

    Sam Brown, head of account management at Wonderhood, says: “Since we all proved we could work effectively from home during Covid lockdowns, we’ve continued to entrust our team to work flexibly, so they can decide whether working from the office, home or another location during a blackout is more comfortable for them. 

    “We’re moving to a bigger office in December, and our doors will be open to those who want a welcoming, warm space to work from with free breakfasts and snacks galore. In light of the cost of living crisis, we have taken steps to offer additional support to our more junior staff. 

    “To support with wellbeing, our Wonder Walk initiative groups employees depending on where they live and encourages them to take a couple of hours out of their working day to go for a local walk together.”

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    Jordanna Andrews, creative of sustainable futures at creative studio Gentle Forces, says this could present an opportunity for agencies to rethink their sustainable business models and refashion them to better incorporate workers’ wellbeing. “We use too much energy as it is and shouldn’t have access to burning endless power in general (I am not speaking to the politics here, but in terms of the planet),” she says.

    “A friend of mine who has always worked very physical jobs and is now in an intense position leading massive change in the innovation/generational development has to force regular breaks for walking, nature and wellbeing because of the immense mental exhaustion she suffers from intense thinking and meetings, as well as not being able to shut off when working from home. The breaks help her to work better.

    “Lawrence in Wisconsin has launched a course (which is for credit and has become immediately oversubscribed) where students take part in different ways of doing nothing, forcing an almost mental blackout. Is there a way businesses can use these forced 4pm-7pm blackouts to actually promote mental wellness and planet consciousness and, instead of seeing it as darkness, see it as light?“

    Whether or not these blackouts come to pass remains to be seen, but at an already uncertain time for many due to the cost of living crisis, leaders need to remain present to support staff, concludes Milledge.

    “This is the time for leaders to be approachable, present and human. Ensure strategies align with what’s possible, review and remind of the shared purpose, re-enforce values and put the wellbeing, health and safety of the team above all else. Analysis, planning and comms are key and will help give confidence and security. Create ways for people to be heard and actively ask managers what they need for their teams. Listen, action and communicate again.” 

    For more stories like this, sign up to The Drum’s weekly Work & Wellbeing briefing here.

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