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Deep Dive 17 May 2021 - 6 min read

The new angst: Hybrid working for some, too flexible for others; fears for culture and careers, while burnout risk rises

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Work from home

Working for some: Industry leaders have a balancing act to keep everyone happy while maintaining culture, output and wellbeing. Pic: iStock

OMD CEO Aimee Buchanan says managing hybrid working arrangements – the 'new normal' – is far more nuanced than giving staff three days in, two days out of the office. She questions whether industry is equipped with the processes and programmes to cope beyond an exceptional pandemic year. Meanwhile, Pedestrian Group chief Matt Rowley says the young risk mortgaging their future by missing out on networks that will shape their careers. AFL Media GM, Sarah Wyse, The Hallway CEO Jules Hall offer contrasting views on the way forward, while The Brand Institute CEO and Culture Garden founder, Karl Treacher, says any firm that still fails to grasp the value of culture is effectively dead.

 

What you need to know:

  • Flexible working is here to stay, but it’s not the nirvana some had anticipated.
  • While bringing benefits to staff, managing hybrid working arrangements beyond the pandemic is proving problematic for industry leaders. Process, training and resource are urgently required.
  • IAB chief Matt Rowley says younger workers will suffer long term if they miss out on mentoring and networking that they can’t get via Zoom. He suggests it’s like skimping on superannuation payments and wants at least three days in the office – regardless of what an apparent “army of introverts” might want.
  • AFL Media GM, Sarah Wyse has gone the other way. She says two days in, three days out will reduce burnout risk, but offices have to be “completely redesigned” as a result. Staff aren’t coming in for emails and admin, but to socialise and do the smart stuff.
  • Jules Hall agrees. After telling staff they never have to return to the office, they “self-selected” and came back of their own accord, particularly younger staff. But the office is now a “clubhouse” where The Hallway’s “tribe” meets up.
  • Karl Treacher, CEO of the Brand Institute of Australia, thinks businesses are paying the price for neglecting cultural capital. Staff must want to return to offices – are leaders giving them a vision to believe in?

Less than a year of home working has thrown everything out of step. Australia’s media owners and agencies are struggling to find the right balance between home and office working patterns. There’s no rulebook for ‘hybrid’ working and nobody can ever succeed in pleasing all of the people all of the time. It’s causing angst in the upper echelons – and that’s before we get to fears of mass burnout as clients expect ‘Covid hours’ to become the stretched new normal.

Workplace as a pension?

One size rarely fits all – and Pedestrian Group CEO Matt Rowley thinks businesses should be unapologetic about making decisions are not universally popular. He thinks ‘hybrid’ working patterns should be skewed to more time in the office – at least three days a week.

While in recent months some recruiters report increasing “resentment” from younger candidates about being forced to waste time commuting, Rowley thinks making them come into the office more often than not is for their own good.

Young staff may otherwise lose out professionally and financially by failing to fully develop the soft skills and networks that come from working alongside others. You can’t acquire life skills on a Zoom call, Rowley suggests, and says arrested professional development will rob people of at least some of their future potential.

“Those [softer skills] are really important – even more so in a market like media in Australia. In Sydney [for example], everyone knows each other, and so building on those networks is really, really important.

“A lot of that building and learning happens in that first ten to fifteen years of your career. From then on, your career sort of trades on that, which is why I think it is so important,” says Rowley.

“It’s our job as leaders to help people who haven’t had that ‘lived experience’, even though they might not see the value in it.”

Rowley likens it to pension planning.  

“You've got to help staff understand: ‘This is something you're going to need in the future’ and help guide them there.”

 

You find yourself in a mix that you can't fix. You're going to be forced into making a decision: 'What do I think is best for the business,' and making a call on that. For me, that is at least three days a week in the office.

Matt Rowley, CEO, Pedestrian Group

Three days minimum

Rowley first floated his perspective in Mi3’s Covid: One year on series. He says not everybody in his organisation agreed, according to a company-wide anonymous survey.

“If I could summarise the feedback in one phrase it was ‘But what about the introverts’,” says Rowley.

Suddenly, he says, it was as if “there was an army of people who self-related as introverts, saying ‘this is our chance to shine and be in the natural habitat that we were born to be, which is working from home rather than being forced into being with other people.’”

But Rowley thinks disparate arrangements for different groups will likely end in tears.

“You find yourself in a mix that you can't fix,” says Rowley. “You're going to be forced into making a decision: ‘What do I think is best for the business; what do I think is potentially best for everybody’ and making a call on that.

“You can't just say, ‘I'll just follow what [some] people are telling me they want’. As a leader, you're going to need to make a stand. For me, that is at least three days in the office.”

 

What we have learned in the last 12-15 months is that flexibility … is the thing that's really stopping people from burning out as much as they maybe would have done in the past.

Sarah Wyse, General Manager, Digital, Media & Marketing, AFL

Two days max to prevent burnout

Sarah Wyse, the AFL’s General Manager, Digital, Media & Marketing, has flipped that ratio. Wyse thinks fewer office days will help prevent burnout.

“The way that we've thought about getting everyone back into the office has been really through two lenses. One is around diversity and inclusion, and the second is around how do you retain and attract the best talent?” she says.

“We've settled on two days work in the office and three days work from anywhere model where the office is open five days a week.

“What we have learned in the last 12-15 months is that flexibility … is the thing that's really stopping people from burning out as much as they maybe would have done in the past.”

As a result of the shift, the AFL is embarking on a “complete reimagining” of its workspace. “The office has to be redesigned if we’re only going to be in it two days a week,” she says. “The purpose of the office has fundamentally changed. It is not about getting to your desk and getting through email – you can do that at home. Being in the office is much more around socialising, connecting with your team, collaborating, solving problems and being creative,” adds Wyse.

“But also to do things that are complex or challenging, when you need help, a different perspective – when two heads are better than one.”

Whereas much of the day-to-day admin work can be done from home – or anywhere, says Wyse.

“You don’t need to be in the office for that – and actually, the level of productivity for those task, as we’ve learned over the last year, you’re actually better off not doing them in the office.”

More carrot, less stick

Creative agency The Hallway has reached a similar conclusion. In March 2020, CEO Jules Hall said the agency would not ask teams to return to the office – but would keep its Sydney and Melbourne offices open. Over the next 12 months, says Hall, “we saw people increasingly self-select back into the office”, with younger staff at the vanguard.

“What’s evolved is how we use them.” The office is now “a clubhouse”, says Hall.

“It’s an important mindset shift. We used to think about offices as offices. You had rows of desks and monitors and keyboards. You spent a large chunk of the day sitting in your zone doing your thing. We have flipped the language to the office being a clubhouse. The idea is that our tribe has a base somewhere we can come and communicate, share, interact with our peers more easily and more effectively than can be done in a remote context.”

Hall thinks leaders should “focus on the carrot rather than the stick” when it comes to striking a home-office balance.

“We don’t know what normal is yet. That means being agile and identifying what works, building on it and also working out what doesn't work and finding smart ways to evolve it.”

 

As we move towards this hybrid model, are we setting our people up to succeed in that, do we have training programmes on how to lead and manage ourselves and others remotely? Are we talking to our people about burnout, how to switch off and how to construct a working day within an office-free environment?

Aimee Buchanan, CEO, OMD

OMD was one of the early movers in encouraging staff back to work. Chief Executive Aimee Buchanan says setting out clear guidelines – three days in, two days at home – was key.

“But it’s way more nuanced than that,” says Buchanan. “So I think the question now is, how do we create nuance without killing ourselves with complexity, and how do we set ourselves up for greater flexibility in how people work flexibly?

“As we move towards this hybrid model, are we setting our people up to succeed in that, do we have training programmes on how to lead and manage ourselves and others remotely?

“Are we talking to our people about burnout, how to switch off and how to construct a working day within an office-free environment?” asks Buchanan. “Because I don't think we're going back – and we have to find a way for that to work in the future.”

For the months ahead, Buchanan’s “biggest focus from a people perspective is setting them up to be able to continue to lead in a way that we've never experienced”, she says. “ Whether that be how they're managing people remotely, how they're working with clients – I just think there's a whole bunch of skills that we need to be teaching them to be ready for that.”

After a year in which agencies across the board have had to help brands transform at pace, Buchanan is also deeply worried about the threat of burnout. (This week, the World Health Organisation said overwork is driving hundreds of thousands of people each year to an early death.)

“From a wellbeing point of view, our people are exhausted collectively. They've become used to operating at a pace that's just not sustainable to be healthy, ongoing," says Buchanan.

“So I think the biggest problem that keeps me up at night is how are we looking after them and equipping them to care for themselves as we move forward? We have to create patterns that are more sustainable.”

Until companies get their head around the value of culture and invest in it – knowing full well that like any investment, you're going to make a significant return – they are not going to go anywhere.

Karl Treacher, CEO, The Brand Institute of Australia & founder, Culture Garden

The problem many firms may face is that they give staff little reason to want to return to the office – whatever the ratio of days in/days out of the office. Too many businesses have “substandard culture,” according to Karl Treacher, Group CEO at the Brand Institute and founder of Culture Garden.

“The reality for many organisations right now is that their cultural position and their cultural forecast and prognosis is terrible,” he says. Treacher pins that squarely on “a lack of investment and understanding of the value of culture and how culture drives strategy and actual business performance”.

Companies must grasp that culture requires investment, but done properly will earn significant returns, says Treacher.

“Culture is not about having a nice place to work. That's one of the biggest myths and misconceptions,” he says.

“What business leaders need to do is say, what are we trying to achieve? What's our strategy to achieve that? And what is a culture that we need; what is it that's going to help us achieve that strategy and objective?

“Until companies get their head around the value of culture and invest in it – knowing full well that like any investment, you're going to make a significant return – they are not going to go anywhere,” Treacher suggests.

 

If you've got clarity of purpose that your people align behind, you've got an organising mission. Then the self-organisation, self-selection happens relatively easily. IIf you don't have that, it makes it a lot harder.

Jules Hall, CEO, The Hallway

Leaders: drive candour culture or innovation dies

“Learning culture that leads to innovation must come to the fore” in post Covid Australia, and leaders must foster cultures that value candid feedback, says Treacher.

“If you don't have a sense of community and care to the extent that you can give someone high candour feedback, have the hard conversation – you're not going to be able to take that information on board, make changes, iterate and then move on into the next version,” says Treacher.

“Innovation is inherent in the success of every company now. So leaders need to find ways to step in and – not make demands – but find ways of bringing their community with them.”

The Hallway’s Jules Hall puts it succinctly.

“If you've got clarity of purpose that your people align behind, you've got an organising mission. Then the self-organisation, self-selection happens relatively easily,” he says. “If you don't have that, it makes it a lot harder.”

OMD’s Aimee Buchanan agrees.

“If your mission is clear and your values and behaviours sit behind that, the rest of it sort of follows,” she says. “You can give all the guidelines you like. But I think it comes down to whether people are buying into that or not.”

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