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Industry Contributor 5 Aug 2020 - 4 min read

WFH versus the office for building culture: Danny Bass is only half right

By Sarah Wyse - Head of AFL Media Network

In Mi3's audience Pulse survey included in a recent interview and podcast with former IPG Mediabrands CEO Danny Bass, who advocates getting back to the office to build culture, 65% of readers felt that a blend of office and WFH would be ideal.

A recent poll in the UK conducted by Perry Timms on LinkedIn and Twitter, stated that just 1% of workers want to return to the old world. 1%! This feedback cannot be ignored if we are in the business of creating great working cultures where people thrive.

The workplace is changing and culture is a big part of it.  It is fair to say the role of the office will be forever changed, catering to our social needs as humans and becoming much more about personal connection and dare I say it, a social space for people to bond, enjoy the face to face and catch up on all things, probably non work related.

David Kenny, the chief executive at Nielsen, said “the company plans to convert its New York offices to team meeting spaces where workers gather maybe once or twice a week”.  It is yet to be seen the impact this will have on company culture but if we are paying any attention to what employees are saying at the moment, this would be a welcome trial. As Antony  Slumbers so perfectly puts it, “no company wants an office, they want a productive workforce”-  leaving us all to ponder what the future of work will look like and how do we create meaningful connections with our people in the future.

Working from home during COVID and working from home outside of a global pandemic is not an apples-for-apples comparison.

The constant stress and worry about health and safety coupled with job insecurity and an uncertain future has brought about an enormous amount of anxiety and mental health issues across many industries – globally.

For media agencies and other businesses alike, there have been some ups and there have been some downs. 

The inflexibility that COVID has brought about in the workplace has made it particularly challenging for many who are fortunate enough to still be working: juggling kids at home whilst trying to take that all important video conference call; never having “home-time” so a laptop in bed becomes the daily norm and; generally not having a lot of choice about how we do what we do has made the second lockdown in Victoria even more of a downer.

However, as many businesses have experienced, there are have been some surprising benefits.

For many, including the AFL, we have seen record productivity in some departments and a real sense of creativity in the way we now work and deliver outcomes.

Whether it’s putting on a national football competition or creating the media coverage around the game – on a staff roster that has been reduced by 70% - it has been nothing short of incredible what the AFL industry has achieved. Whilst our current working operation is less than ideal and we miss our colleagues who have been stood down, the remote nature of how we are working has forced us to collaborate, bringing about more creativity and innovation for the industry and our partners. It's tough and everyone is running on empty but we have never felt closer as a team.  

Most of us are enjoying the freedom and flexibility of working from home (I will caveat that with the freedom and flexibilIty  of also working at the office which unfortunately at the moment in Melbourne's second lockdown isn’t quite in our own control).

But at the AFL, we aren’t the only ones enjoying our new surroundings. Mark Ritson said at the start of COVID: “Waking up and saving three hours of travel, a shit lunch and distractions from colleagues each day and just getting on with your work is by far the optimum mode of action for most of us."

But let's talk culture, and importantly when the world isn’t in a crisis.

It wasn’t that long ago, industry social enterprise, UnLTD,  conducted a survey around mental health. The results were hailed “alarming”. Almost 50% of our industry claimed to experience depression or feelings of anxiety. Interestingly “isolation” was in the top 10 reasons why people in our industry felt stress. This was before COVID -  when everyone went to work in the office. Isolation is much more than where you physically are.

Now, there is no evidence to suggest these stats were brought about because we were having to enter a building everyday we call work – but health and wellbeing has a huge affect on culture.

I don’t think we can say as a result of a few zoom calls, industry culture is in a worst place (low morale might have something to do with a highly contagious virus spreading across the planet and the unknown of whether you’ll be able to pay the rent next month).

There are huge benefits to a business, and its bottom line specifically, linked to working from home.

But to focus in on culture, here's a case study – from the sport industry, inside the AFL media department, would you believe:

  1. Inclusivity can be achieved as more people can participate in the workforce,creating more diversity of thought on key projects that would typically have had the “same old faces” working on them 
  2. Productivity - I only wish we hadn’t replaced our sometimes poor meeting culture with calls instead. However, productivity levels have soared with most people saving anywhere between 5 – 15 hours per week on commuting in;
  3. Creativity- new ways of working have brought about, well, new ways of working. There is a sense of freedom and entrepreneurship that bubbles up when you’re not physically constrained to the same building and protocols that have otherwise previously existed. We have seen innovation in product and technology accelerate over the COVID period – something you would have thought almost impossible without the daily face to face contact and creative workshops. I guess every business is different and are made up of different people who are motivated in different ways…

A great working culture and a healthy business have nothing to do with where you get your work done. I agree with Danny Bass when he says businesses who have strong leadership and vision will be the ones who succeed. This crisis will revive new leaders and pave a new way for how we work in the future.

But we cannot conflate the impact of COVID on work practice with remote working more generally as there are countless examples of “the magic” in and outside of our industry on the creative and innovation front.

The British TV show, The Office, famously stopped after two seasons despite its popularity and success. Ricky Gervais didn’t want it to overstay its welcome and was keen to take his comedy writing in a new and different direction. Is it time we did the same with our office? 


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Sarah Wyse

Head of AFL Media Network

Sarah is the Head of the AFL Media Network, the largest digital sports media business in the country. Previously Sarah spent 10 years in Sydney in various senior leadership roles across digital video and adtech, including Managing Director at Videology ANZ and Chief Revenue Officer at Allure Media.

Passionate about digital, technology and diversity & inclusion, Sarah is also the founder of Wyse Women, a network promoting gender quality by increasing the participation of senior women in the workforce through flexible working. 

Sarah holds a Batchelor of Science in Mass Communications and Cultural Studies degree from the Metropolitan university in London. In 2016 and 2017 Sarah was shortlisted in the B&T Women in Awards in the Mentor and Technology category. 

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