Paul Frampton
Paul Frampton 8 October 2020

Let’s Never Return to The ‘Old Normal’

We’re all homeworkers now - and how quickly we have adapted and adopted the concept of ‘remote’, albeit with understandable teething problems along the way. And, even as lockdown eases and offices reopen, it is clear that the appetite for a new way of working remains. Hardly surprising as the agency world has at times been guilty of both presenteeism and unreasonable expectations around time spent “showing your face.”

It has taken a pandemic for many to realise that the ways we had been working are not fit for today’s workforce. There is a better, more productive approach - that in an age of super-connectivity and services, the ‘factory floor’ is really only fit for those producing manufactured goods. Whilst there are many bemoaning their “office fix”, I have heard as many other agency bosses tell stories of more engaged workforces since Covid-19 – people may yearn for more social contact but simultaneously they are expressing gratitude for life’s simple things, for more time with family and to work out or self-learn.

The agency I run connects media, technology and consultancy and has employed a remote workforce from day one. When we launched in 2018, we set out to design an agile service and talent model that would offer better value and expertise to our clients. We spend on acquiring and investing in the best minds in the industry who align with our behaviours rather than an expensive office. We also connect far more with clients virtually than we would if we relied on physical meetings alone. This structure means we are agile enough to not only react to but anticipate marketers’ rapidly changing needs. For instance, on one marketing transformation project, we recently embedded talent within a company in the Nordics in under a fortnight.

That’s not to say that IRL isn’t important - physical meetings will always have a place, particularly when it comes to building trust and relationships. It’s why we invest in co-working spaces for those times that face-to-face is essential. For us, buildings full of people every single day are not a necessity to either productivity or creativity. Bringing people together physically at key intervals is however essential – think off-sites, social events – the question is how frequently does this need to happen? 

New Ways of Working Require New Ways of Thinking

Marketing services have for too long ploughed too narrow a funnel: we had been too willing to embrace the status quo, for fear of otherwise making mistakes.

The pandemic has changed all that. There will be those who will seek to return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible, but I hope for the collective good of the industry that most will see this as a catalyst for change. Some will argue that they cannot be creative unless the whole team are physically together, others (where I lean) will tell stories about the incredible upsides that no commute and a more engaged workforce with better work/life integration brings.

We have a head start: as an independently owned, private agency we automatically have permission to imagine the future from scratch. Most of my career has been spent in big network roles, but the shackles and lack of autonomy always held back genuine innovation. Here’s what attracted me to this brave new world, what I’ve learnt over the past year, and how incumbents can pivot to a more productive future.

Take a Challenger Approach to Next Gen Talent

The office is often a barrier to diversity. Marketing, the media and advertising should seek to reflect the audiences they serve. The times are changing and if we don’t change too, our work will become less effective and we’ll find it more difficult to adapt down the line. Yet, with much of Adland tucked away in expensive cities such as London and New York, it’s impossible for all but the most privileged to get a toehold in the industry.

A fifth of advertising employees went to private school, rising to more than a third (35%) at senior management level, with a staggering proportion having secured their roles through personal or employee networks. And that’s not even including the grammar school alumni.

The way we recruit has to change. Why do we require ‘experience’ only in order to then set our grads on menial tasks? Flip it around: look for attitude and aptitude - train them, mentor and coach them, listen to their generation’s perspective on the world.

It’s not just the youth, though. This pandemic has shone a light on work/life balance and the importance of keeping each in check. At our parent company, Goodway Group, we have been able to attract the brightest and best senior talent because of our remote working stance. This also means we have talent in 40 of the 50 states in the US so we always have people with a true local purview – that probably explains why multi-location businesses like McDonald's, GM and Anytime Fitness trust us with their complex marketing challenges.

Another key aspect is learning – Goodway Group has a next gen learning programme, encouraging a learning mindset and “off the grid” time for everyone to personally develop. Through technology, we are able to check in and track the progress of every one of our people and they are able to access a plethora of e-learning and curated training based on their exact needs, not what the HR department can afford with an ever-decreasing budget.

It’s a win-win: by offering a primarily remote working structure combined with the right tools and technology to craft culture and communication (and that is key – it doesn’t get built in months), agencies can quickly scale to best serve client needs, with an impetus on delivering speed, value and quality.

Offer a Better Work/Life Balance

Here, too, is where we need to focus on the health and wellbeing of our employees. One of the disadvantages of being remote is being unable to see how workers are faring if the proper checks, balances and support are not put in place.

With work, family and life all melding together at present, creating decompression, space and downtime is more challenging. A quick, practical idea is to schedule emails to send only during colleagues' working hours - it’s a small thing, but hopefully signals a respect for downtime. Rest and relaxation are key if you want to see sustainable productivity from your people over the coming weeks and loyalty over the long-term.

It is important to intentionally signal to your people that you are considering their well-being and remind them to take a walk or a break. We have created team groups and video sessions that people can drop into to talk about any aspects of life for which they’d like support. The biggest challenge with mental health seems to be that most people don’t speak up. Check in with people just to see how they are, and you will find new depths to a relationship.

This is particularly pertinent in cultures where employees have been thrust into remote working, rather than actively choosing it. Some will find these times exceptionally hard as they crave social contact, rather than explore new methods to getting human interaction.

Communication and Culture

For years we have had access to ground-breaking communications tools at our fingertips, but rarely made the most of them; Covid-19 and remote working, changed that. Look at the exponential growth of Teams and Zoom.

Communication is vital for camaraderie - those ‘water cooler’ moments or beer trolley Fridays are so important in building culture and community. Whilst we lose some in virtually interacting socially with teammates and colleagues, we also gain: many companies are reporting that employees are more readily and easily interacting with those from different departments, divisions and regions and some employees have found their voices.

One change that we have made during the pandemic is creating conversation groups on Teams to encourage our people to share ideas on how to cope. There are groups discussing how to juggle work and kids, tips for keeping kids entertained and home-schooling, how to get the groceries you need, how to stay sane when stuck inside - pretty much anything goes, because if you want people to feel like they belong, you have to satisfy their physiological needs as much as their professional needs.

It’s important that businesses adapt to the juggling that is part and parcel of normal life now. Managers and leaders must work around this by being intentional about communication and counter this with regular all-team check-ins. Another important ‘intention’ is calendar management. Being in control of your time and calendar and being intentional about this is key or else you will find your teams unable to know when to switch off.

There is no new normal ahead: things will never be the same again. There is no set path, instead uncertainty and experimentation. If there is one overarching lesson from this crisis it is that businesses must be, above all else, human - both empathetic and sympathetic to the situation that their people are in.

Be flexible, be compassionate, make a difference for the better of your company, your workforce and your customers. We’re all in this together.

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