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News Analysis

'The great migration': Agencies prepare to re-enter office space, workplaces

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

10 June 2020 3min read

All aboard: Is the advertising community ready to roll back into the office? A recent Media i survey says many miss the agency halls, while others remain concerned about salaries and safety.

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

10 June 2020 3min read

After three months of home offices, makeshift workspaces and staring back at yourself on Zoom calls, the industry is preparing to return to a level of 'normality' as the major holding groups prepare to welcome staff back to the office. But not all at once. Between 10% and 20% of staff will be allowed back at one time, depending on the agency groups, as some raise concerns around pay, travel and agency structure.

What you need to know:

  • Agencies are preparing to roll back into office spaces in the coming weeks as community transmission remains under control.
  • Workforce return limited initially to 10-20%, depending on the agency.
  • According to the just completed half-yearly Media i industry survey for May 2020, 81% of industry respondents missed their workplace environment with near half finding it more difficult to connect with colleagues, clients, and media partners
  • However, others say there have also been benefits - more time with family, consistent access to senior leadership and great connectivity with interstate counterparts.
  • Agency leaders have been clear in expressing there is no immediate pressure to return should staff have any concerns over safety
  • Some have voiced concerns over the ability to travel between home and work, with passenger limits in place  - NSW for example is limiting train carriages to 32 people as opposed to the usual 123.
  • Despite this, the latest survey by Media i shows 76% of the industry expect to see a return to the workplace - 49% said June; 27% for July 
  • Holding groups such as WPP have indicated it will continue to pursue cost-saving benefits, while Martin Sorrell's S4 Capital this week stated it had jettisoned international leasing arrangements.

 

Back in business...sort of

With community transmissions of COVID-19 now bottoming out across the country and restrictions being eased for key sectors including hospitality and retail, the agency and media sector is beginning to map out its road back to normal office operations.

Agencies such as Dentsu and IPG Mediabrands have already told staff there are no immediate mandatory rules for returning to work, with the former encouraging working from home to continue until the end of the year.

"We have planned for a return to offices but we’re not in any rush as safety comes first," IPG Mediabrands ANZ CEO Mark Coad told Mi3.  "We’ll advise when the time is right – that means we’re not going to be first and we’ll ensure that a return is aligned with our global network and Australian Government regulations.

"Our people have been updated every two weeks on status and the message has been strongly focussed on their health and safety at the centre of all of our decision making.  Our mantra throughout COVID is 'do things properly, not quickly'."

Publicis Groupe ANZ staff have started returning to offices in a "progressive and staged manner", however much like IPG and Dentsu, at this stage the company has placed no expectations on its people to transition back to the office.

Publicis Chief Talent Officer Pauly Grant told Mi3 as part of its return-to-office plans, currently only 15% of the workforce is in offices at any given time. 

"We’re operating in phases, with the same people present in the office at each stage. They’re not required to be in the office full time, and are able to apply a blended workplace approach," Grant says."Currently, people’s return to the office is voluntary, and predominantly for people who want to return for personal or work functionality reasons."

"We’d imagine there will be an increase in this way of working as a result of COVID-19, and changed behaviours and expectations. We’re now looking at a blended workplace approach and what this means to our people and business."

Dentsu used an Employee Wellbeing Pulse survey to gauge how employees are thinking and feeling in the current environment. 93 per cent of employees said that they were comfortable to maintain the current work from home arrangement.

The holding group will have phased opening of offices across Australia from July, subject to any further changes in easing of government restrictions, however, CEO Angela Tangas reinforced that staff are allowed to work either at home or in the office for the remainder of 2020.

"Rather than things simply going back to normal, we saw an opportunity to embrace the positives that isolation has provided us," Tangas says.

"It was important to me that all our people had a voice in designing what our future work environment looks like based on what matters most to them and their individual situation."

For indie shops like Kaimera, the story is different. Founder and CEO Nick Behr says all of his staff are back in the office on Monday 15th June but have been doing an A/B team rotation for the last 2 weeks. The agency is also moving into a new office on the same date, which is comfortably big enough to accommodate social distancing.

"We will of course be more flexible as we know our people are set up and can deliver from home," Behr says. "That said, we are an agency of fewer than 20 people where being in each others company allows for collaboration, osmosis of knowledge, energy & motivation, supporting each other (quickly), and most importantly - creating our culture.

"In my experience a strong culture delivers amazing service/results for our clients, creates staff happiness and provides our media partners with the opportunity to sell their wares in an open and attentive environment. Can you do that from WFH?"

 

The survey says

According to stats from the annual Media i industry survey for May 2020, 76% of the industry expect to see a return to the workplace in June [49%] & July [27%].

This survey, despite the circumstances, was the most participated to date for Media i, with 80% of the industry from both media owner and agency submitting responses and attracting more than 4320 respondents.

Despite an increased workload for some of the industry, most employees say they are missing the workplace. 

45% of industry respondents believed their workload had increased throughout COVID-19 -  this was prevalent across the agency community and was more likely to impact those with longer-term experience.

When it came to returning to work, Media i found that 81% of industry respondents missed their workplace environment with near half finding it more difficult to connect with colleagues, clients, and media partners

Other key stats included:

  • 50%+ of the industry believe it will take six months or more for client marketing efforts/media spend to return to "business as usual"
  • 30% of respondents cited high levels of stress, anxiety and insecurity, which increased alongside experience. 
  • For media owners, respondents have voiced improved sentiment around clear and effective communication [80%] and "feeling an important member of my team" [88%].
  • Despite being hardest hit by the pandemic Outdoor, Cinema & Radio respondents were the most positive in sentiment across the industry.
  • The importance agencies place on price/value has risen significantly in the Media i May 2020 survey in response to expected shifts in audience and advertiser demand through COVID-19.
  • Media agencies shared in a significant improvement in sentiment around clear and effective communication [85%] and management effectively balancing staff interest versus the bottom line [83%].
  • Despite these increases in internal sentiment, happiness levels have fallen to their equal lowest in the decade since the Media i survey started - 70% highlight the impact of reduced collaboration & interaction with colleagues, teams, partners and clients. This has impacted junior levels the most. 

Speaking at Advertising Week JAPAC earlier this week, OMD Australia CEO Aimee Buchanan says the operational ways of working were already beginning to shift throughout the industry, with COVID massively accelerating its use.

She says some of the change has been for the good, some of it for the bad, believing that it is incumbent on agency executive teams to decipher the safest and most effective structure.

"I don’t want to flick a switch and go back to what it was, we need to embrace this. We’ve empowered 500 people to work flexibly where before we’ve tried and now they do it naturally, so how does that become a norm," Buchanan says.

"On the flip side, how do we get back to the connectivity that we want with our partners because I do think that is something that we have lost, particularly in the media relationship space. We’ve lost some of the thrashing of ideas around opportunities because everything is diarised."

Buchanan says that while there have been issues with client communications, internally OMD, for the "first time ever" feels like a "borderless agency", with fluid input from offices all over the country.

 

WFH 'on steroids', travel trials and salary concerns

Senior members of the media community will be the first to return to offices, as planning for further integration continues. However, those in the younger end of town and who make up the majority of the workforce will soon have to face the same scenario.

Mi3 reached out to members of the MFA 5+ community to gauge their thoughts on the move back into office life and the concerns and considerations that come with it.

Woolworths@DAN Client Director James Graff says the balance of WFH is key and there are limitations with it being full time.

He says WFH tends to favour those a little further along in their career, not those fresh out of Uni entering the industry and only just learning how to work for a company.

"Not everyone has an ideal WFH sanctuary to retreat to either. We need to support these people to bring the best out of them," Graff says. "I am hoping the conversation can start to shift to how we maximise our in-person office spaces, not jumping so quickly to downsizing for cost-saving."

"How can we make these spaces greater enhance social connection, collaboration, and creativity? This is an exciting space and could be a real opportunity for innovation. There many interesting ways this could work across holding companies, creating better intersection of brands, people, and skillsets for more creative outcomes."

Marco Villella, Group Talent Partner at WPP AUNZ, says the issue surround pay and pay-cuts could have an impact on how agencies structure the way people return to office life.

He says many agencies have asked their staff to take pay cuts, take annual leave and make other sacrifices to keep their jobs and while financial difficulties have been stemmed by less travel and paid lunches, returning to work poses new challenges.

"While we are working remotely, cost saving has been feasible due to not having to catch transport, team lunches and so on. However many people will be returning to work while their salaries are still be sacrificed which makes it harder to justify," Villella says.

"As a parent, it has been incredible spending more time with my son at home and the saving of childcare, but this could all change. As stated previously, working from home, in some capacity, needs to be the new norm."

The Media Store Business Manager Jen Nicholls expects leaders will enact certain procedures/guidelines to ensure the workplace is safe, and make it simple enough for staff to follow but also believes responsibility will lie with individuals to change habits and support each other.

She says organisational culture will be a big factor on how well some teams are able to adapt – workplaces where people didn’t feel supported previously, might find COVID has made things worse upon their return to the office. Those that feel they were supported will be more likely to happily return.

Dentsu X Client Director Sam Down says the biggest change has been peoples’ perception of WFH.

As someone who travels interstate for work once a quarter, and spends 3-4 weeks in Perth over Xmas with his family, he has been a long-time advocate of the practice but questioned how people will view it now they have had extended exposure.

"There was always the underlying opinion or potentially guilty feeling of 'oh they’re WFH today – I’d love a day off too', Down says. "Now that we are working as efficiently as we were previously, I think that those opinions will begin to dissipate.

However, the WFH experience has also yielded positives. As reflected in the Media i survey, many praised the ability to access senior leadership more frequently and with great transparency.

The same has been said for Buchanan's  "borderless" national teams.

"We are having weekly Town Halls with our CEO (instead of monthly) and fortnightly Town Halls with our Group CEO. There has also been more scope to ask questions via chat. We are also hearing from members of the Senior Leadership Team that we don’t usually get the opportunity to hear from," WPP's Villella says.

OMD Group Trading Director Nik Doble says seamless interaction between teams was the most positive development for him to come out of COVID.

He says the teams have certainly become more collaborative as a national community, both sharing and producing work.

"The myth that working from home and productivity have an inverse relationship has certainly been busted. Crucially, this period has highlighted that rather than the benefits being exclusive to the individual, they are in fact mutual with the organisation," he says.

"The by-product of lower office capacity and greater staff loyalty equates to operational savings. Increased flexibility is a win-win."

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