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News Analysis 25 Jan 2021 - 7 min read

'Once offices are 60% full, everyone wants to come in' - how big publishers and agencies are getting back to work

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

The pre-Christmas Covid cluster dealt another blow to the industry's plans to return to offices at the start of 2021, with many reverting to working from home initiatives and adopting a "wait and see" approach. However, agency holding group Omnicom Media Group and radio and TV network Southern Cross Austereo have managed to get most staff back into the building. OMG boss Peter Horgan says the business remains completely Covid safe but the dynamic hit a "tipping point" when 60% of staff returned - with positive knock-on effects.

What you need know:
  • After setbacks following December Covid outbreaks in NSW and Victoria, the industry is restarting back to work plans.
  • Some, such as Omnicom Media Group and Southern Cross Austereo, are already at 75% capacity.
  • Outside of Victoria, JCDecaux is nearing full capacity in other states.
  • OMG boss Peter Horgan says the cultural dynamic reached a "tipping point" when 60% of staff returned to work, which in turn brought more staff back – and the old magic.
  • Others are taking a more tentative approach, reverting predominantly to homeworking and flexible strategies crafted last March.
  • As well as OMG, SCA and JCDecaux, Mi3 outlines current plans from agencies and media owners including: Publicis, Mediabrands, GroupM, DDB, M&C Saatchi, Havas, WPP, Network 10 and Seven.
  • Meanwhile, find out how Australia's indie agencies are returning to the office - or otherwise - here.
The 'cultural tipping point'

Agencies are making their way back into city offices, some more rapidly than others, with flexible working still front of mind but a desire to kickstart the industry and reinvigorate collaborative working environments.

Prior to the NSW pre-Christmas Covid cluster, the market was on track to open its doors and floors, with state governments backing the reopening of CBDs.

Since then, many agencies, brands and media owners have had to adapt plans and await greater certainty with people once again hesitant to risk returning to work.

However, some have progressed plans. Omnicom has about 75% of its staff back in the office on a weekly basis. Operating under carefully monitored Covid Safe guidelines and with working from home options for those wishing to use them, Omnicom CEO Peter Horgan says the business has reached a "cultural tipping point".

"We've been slowly increasing our numbers in the office over time. We started initially with 25-35% capacity but we weren't seeing that desire from staff to come in. Floors were relatively empty and not really offering more than what staff were getting at home," Horgan tells Mi3.

"Even at 50%, there was still not that usual buzz and atmosphere that agencies really thrive off. It was only when we hit 60% just before the end of the year that we realised we'd reached the 'tipping point' for workplace culture."

He says the motivation to come back into agency life has primarily been driven by staff themselves, rather than having mandated or rostered days in the office.

"Once that buzz and banter between teams started to kick up again, more and more people began to come in. That's where agency culture is at its best, with people wanting to see their friends, bounce ideas off each other and work more collaboratively," Horgan says. "People are more than willing to get back into it."

While some brands and marketing teams remain home-based, Omnicom is ensuring it finds ways to hold Covid-safe meetings where necessary, says Horgan.

From a talent perspective, he says the opportunity to refocus on educating and developing staff professionally is a major part of the group's decision to increase the capacity throughout its agencies.

"We have all adjusted to the working from home situation but there have been elements like professional development and staff training that have been challenging," Horgan says.

"By being face-to-face, those in management positions can provide better assistance to their teams, and return to a more hands-on approach to on-boarding new staff."

Publicis, Mediabrands and GroupM

Publicis and Mediabrands are also preparing to increase their own office headcounts, while GroupM has opened a further three floors within its Sydney office.

With the pre-Chistmas Covid clusters now past, Publicis Chief Talent Officer Pauly Grant says roughly half of staff will be back in the office by next week. 

To safely manage numbers and enable teams to collaborate, Publicis uses a colour classification approach. ‘Orange’ gives staff access to the office all week; ‘Blue’ provides access Monday to Wednesday; ‘Green’ is Thursday and Friday. 

"We plan to roll out our next return to office phase in Melbourne and Sydney on February 1. This is purely to allow more people into the office. We have staff very keen to get back into the office, especially in Melbourne where they had the prolonged lockdown. They are desperate for a change of scenery," Grant says.

IPG Mediabrands is pursuing its own roster system which sees staff in every other week, Mondays to Thursdays. Friday is set aside for cleaning. 

"It’s four days in the office out of every 10 for people who want to be back, with our current capacity at 30%," Coad says.

"We have an app that allows people to book in their rotation week or seek exception for vital attendance. This helps manage our capacity by floor as well as by city." 

CEO Mark Lollback says GroupM is “opening up additional capacity in our Berry Street Campus as we prepare to welcome more of our people from Mindshare, MediaCom, Wavemaker, Essence and across GroupM, back into the office. We’re embracing increased flexibility with many of our people choosing a hybrid working week with some days in the office and other days working at home.

"Each of our agencies is slightly different but largely we are seeing teams come in regularly on selected days and I’m seeing people return to our offices in bigger numbers.”

Media owners plot ‘roadmap to normality’

Media owners SCA and JCDecaux now report weekly staff attendance upwards of 70%.

SCA attributes staff's eagerness to return to the Covid roadmap plan it launched in September last year, 'SCA Your Way'. The plan gives all staff the opportunity to set their own working schedule from home or in the office.

In the initial stages of the strategy, staff elected which days they would like to return to the office and teams were given a daily capacity quota.

"SCA Your Way allows our people to work in a way that suits them and their team, and focuses on outcomes and output - how we work, rather than where we are working," says CEO Grant Blackley.

While SCA could handle 100% capacity, Blackley says most locations are at 70-80%, with staff on average doing at least three days in the office.

"Where apprehension was raised either from at-risk individuals or those needing to travel long distances by public transport, we worked with them to identify the best approach for them by presenting them with alternative solutions to suit their own needs and personal situation," Blackley says.

Feedback from staff is "incredibly positive" and Blackley credits the consultative nature of the strategy with making back to work a success.

JCDecaux CEO Steve O'Connor says the firm is operating "a Covid-safe version of business as usual". The majority of staff are on the floor, with greater desk spacing, hygiene measures and flexibility.

Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide offices are close to 100% headcount. Victoria remains subject to government regulations and is below 50% capacity.

"It has been amazing to see the energy come back into our office spaces, the camaraderie and ‘better together’ atmosphere,” says O'Connor. “Understandably, some staff have been reluctant to head back into the office, with the most common concern being public transport. We have introduced greater flexibility to help alleviate these concerns."

JCDecaux is introducing a new Flexible Work Policy this year, designed to create within-day flexibility.

Eligible employees have the opportunity to work from home up to two days per week. Other employees in eligible roles will be able to flex-start and finish times or work in a "split shift" style with up to a two-hour break during their working day.

“After a year of Covid, we knew that to be competitive and to attract and retain talent, it was time for us to formalise the progressive shifts we had made around flexible work," says Alissa Bartlett, JCDecaux GM People and Culture. "Allowing employees to work flexibly also fosters diversity."

Creative agency perspective

DDB Sydney Managing Director Priya Patel:

"The agency is currently at 75%. We believe that we work better when we collaborate together, so we’ve encouraged everyone to come safely back in the office, as and when it has been possible and in line with government advice. 

"We haven’t needed to ‘persuade’ people back. Most staff have instinctively responded to the volume and pace of the business by coming in and coming together around creative development, key presentations and reviews. We have tried to stay flexible and sensitive to individual requirements and certainly we are now just as capable of holding seamless virtual meetings as we ware physical ones.

"But we are very much keeping a watching brief and adapting as we go."

Nathalie Brady, Group General Manager M&C Saatchi:

"We’re currently operating in a hybrid way of working. Most employees choose to come on site 40% - 60% of the working week. 

"Strategically we've given purpose as to why you come onsite, and so teams are organising themselves and we are about to rollout a desk booking system to support our flexible working.

"It's been pretty seamless thanks to our set up, clear communication and a good feedback loop. We've offered staggered hours and other support mechanisms for those apprehensive of public transport, as well as the option to work from home."

Laura Aldington, CEO Host/Havas, on behalf of the Havas Village:

"Staff have returned to the Sydney office three days a week, with the option for people to choose between working from home or the office on the other two days. 

"We’ve tended to have different agencies coming in on different days during the week, simply to make social distancing in our shared spaces easier to manage. 

"For our team, the sheen of working from home definitely started to wear off towards the end of last year. Many have also said they find it easier to achieve work/life balance by having more physical separation between home and work, and most find they just really enjoy some good, old fashioned human interaction and collaboration.

"A handful of people have specific health concerns so we accommodate their need to work from home but overall, the team have embraced coming back in, with many actually choosing to return full time.."

Spokesperson, WPP:

"As more restrictions ease, we plan to more actively encourage and support returning to the office – but in a hybrid capacity and no one will be forced to return to working in the office full time. Tuesday to Thursday are consistently the busiest days for workstation and meeting room booking."

"Currently, attendance in the office varies greatly across teams – some are regularly reaching 50-80% of capacity, others are generally much lower.  Some teams have been more active in encouraging their teams to come in on weekly basis for one or two days. Ogilvy Sydney, for example, has split the team into two groups and they go in two days each, and as such has the highest consistent numbers.

More from media owners

James Warburton, CEO, Seven

We will stick with flexible working arrangements. One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that it has taught us working from home can be successful for many people. Having said that, in our industry, people do need to be together at times to swap and generate ideas, collaborate on projects, and bounce things off their colleagues. We are in a creative business and Zoom or Teams are not always great tools for fostering creativity.”

"Across Seven West Media, the majority of staff have returned to the office. But importantly, people still have the option of working from home if they wish to."

Spokesperson, Network 10:

“Broadcast critical staff have remained on site, with the majority of employees in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth returning to the office in October 2020 on staggered rostering.

“Flexible working has been implemented successfully across these offices based on consultation with all employees. Sydney and Melbourne will commence a staggered rostering in the next few weeks, similar to what has already been implemented in the other states.

“The response from staff has been overwhelmingly positive. It was important that employees were offered continued flexibility and felt safe and secure about returning to work, in whatever capacity they preferred. It has been wonderful to see how well everyone has adapted to their new working environments. Employees have continued to show just how agile, tenacious and creative they can be.”

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Josh McDonnell

Senior Writer

Market Voice

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