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News Plus 27 Jan 2021 - 3 min read

Indie agencies split on return to work strategies, but united on 2021 growth prospects

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

Leaner and unbound by corporate structures, independent agencies are taking an independent approach to returning to the office post-Covid.  Some are all hands on deck, with offices at 100% capacity every day, others have set maximum days staff can work from home and the rest are creating long-term flexible working policies. The only constant is a bullish outlook for 2021 as Covid reshapes the landscape.

What you need to know:
  • The independent agency sector is split in its approach to returning to work.
  • Many believe the workplace will "never be the same again".
  • Others have returned to full capacity, full-time since May/June.
  • Some are offering timeshare options, with a set number of days allowed at home.
  • Those opting for flexible working strategies are still focused on using the office for collaboration.
  • Indies predict a strong 2021, with reports from the Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA) that 47% expect to fully financially recover by Q2.
Independent approaches

As the owners of Australia’s biggest commercial precincts band together in a bid to get larger corporations back into empty CBDs and holding groups across the country juggle global WFH constrictions, the independent agency sector is kicking off the year with clear operational strategies.

While there is no unanimous approach, many are already back to full staff capacity, full-time. Others have set scheduled times to be in and out of the office, with three days in and two at home. 

The rest continue to establish clear working from home and flexible hours policies. However, what is clear, is the overwhelming majority see a return to a physical environment as a driver for better collaboration and client outcomes.

After a tough 2020, most indies predict a strong 2021, with 90% of the Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA) members expecting to bolster their workforce and 31% already reporting full financial recovery.

According to IMAA's second member Pulse Survey, almost half (47%) said they expected to financially recover by Q2 2021, with 11% heading back to black by Q3.

Nick Behr, IMAA founding member and CEO of independent media agency Kaimera, says growth has returned with staff - all of whom are now back in the office full time.

"We have been back since 15 June and there is a clear correlation to the business not only recovering quickly but also the increased wellbeing of our staff, particularly many of the younger employees who house share or live at home," Behr tells Mi3.

"It isn’t a coincidence that we have been successful over this period."

Angie Smith, Managing Director at MediaSmiths, says her team has been through a similar experience, with the majority of her staff returning to the office full-time from May.

She says management was open to feedback on how to handle the situation but found most wanted to return to routines, citing greater collaboration and interaction as key motivators.

"Staff have wanted to return as we all know we work well when we are together. We have Covid-safe policies and protocols in place, extra cleaning and such. They also have flexibility when required: as long as they deliver accordingly, then we all have a happy medium," Smith says.

"There is no rotating roster, however, because our business is more than capable to work from home, there is more flexibility with WFH where needed."

Face-to-face crucial

Agencies such as Cummins & Partners are taking a hybrid approach, asking staff to do a set minimum number of days in the office while facilitating homeworking. Partner Kirsty Muddle says the agency favours face-to-face engagement with the agency thriving on a "collision of conversation and contact", but recognises the need to be flexible with flexibility.

"From 1 February we have invited people into the office for a minimum 2 - 3 days. As we return to the office, we'll blend old methods with new methods and we continue to be flexible around where and when people do work. We realise whatever we do needs to be something that's easily modified. Covid hasn't gone away, we've just created a world around it."

Innocean CEO, Jasmin Bedir, took over the top job in the middle of lockdown. She says while agency productivity was high with staff working remotely, it posed challenges in terms of getting to know her staff while driving significant business transformation.

As such, getting staff back into the office has been "crucial", though not without challenge.

"I’ve always been a big fan of flexible working conditions, so our permanent work policy is three days from the office (Mon/Wed/Fri) and two days from home (Tues/Thurs). This enables all staff to get the best of both worlds," Bedir says.

"Some choose to work from the office five days a week, which is also okay. We cannot assume that everyone has the perfect set up from home so didn’t want to enforce rigid policies either," she adds.

"This is more about long term flexibility than it is about the pandemic, but we’re not afraid to move back into a full-time remote working situation, which we did just before Christmas due to a localised breakout in Sydney."

This Is Flow Founder Jimmy Hyett, who had a slew of client wins in 2020 including Felix Mobile, the first new brand to be formed following the $15bn TPG-Vodafone merger, believes Covid has proved one thing: "agencies with a one-size-fits-all model will be left behind".

He suggests the agency would be "full of shit" if it tried to dictate a uniform working policy, which is why Flow created the ‘Flexible Compulsory’ model.

"The model includes a blend of two days (Monday and Friday) with the choice to work remotely or in the office, and a compulsory Tuesday to Thursday in the office. Those in the team that found success working in their own space still held onto that, those who wanted the office environment had that option too – but as an agency we still maintained the energy and collaboration needed to thrive," Hyett says.

"The results have been incredible with massive growth during a tough year, and increased efficiency and productivity across all our services by more than 60% - plus an office full of energetic and passionate people."

Snapshot: Hubs, collaboration models and custom offices

Below is a snapshot of the approaches other Australian independent agencies are taking:

Jack Watts, Global CEO, Bastion Collective:

Since June, we have implemented a hub and home model, where the hub is the office, the place where you focus on building and nurturing collaborative relationships with colleagues and clients and home is the place where you focus on the work. Into 2021, this looks like 2-3 days a week in the office, all together and 2-3 days at home. 

Justin Kabbani, Managing Director, Hardhat:

"As an indie, we answer solely to our clients and ourselves. To that end, there's no external push for a company-wide return to the office. Instead, we're seeing a gradual pull from many within the business to come back together IRL. With OH&S considerations in place, our guidance to staff is 'wherever and however you and your team work best'."

Jules Hall, CEO, The Hallway:

Our offices will never be the same as they were pre-Covid. They will be better. WFH taught us that work is a thing you do, not a place you go. But every tribe needs a base. So we’re re-thinking our offices as ‘club houses’ - inspiring places for meaningful collaboration. Somewhere we choose to go. We’re reimagining how we use our different spaces ... It’s leading to better creativity. When you need to get your head down, you choose where that happens. Because who actually enjoys sitting at a row of desks doing “work”?

Simon Ryan, CEO, RyanCap:

We are in the process of finalising our new custom-built office in Melbourne, and soon in Sydney. The benefits of a new build is that we have been highly involved in the design process to ensure its Covid-safe and spaciously appointed, allowing us to double capacity quotients and include generous team meeting spaces. This year, we have introduced a weekly face-to-face team meeting to help connectivity in the interim period before moving into the new office.

Gary Nissim, Managing Director, Indago Digital:

Prior to the NSW outbreak, staff were asked to be in the office for two set days a week. That was put and we are waiting to see what next week brings with the NSW Premier intimating that restrictions may be relaxed. In saying that, staff are still coming into the office and for two main reasons; face to face interaction with work ’mates’ and the office providing a more comfortable working environment (than their own homes).

Haydon Bray, CEO, Audience Precision:

We have all been back at the office since October, and we have an option to work from home when our people need to, or want to. Being a global business, we believe it’s important to have an agile and flexible working environment where everyone feels part of the team, wherever they are. We have found that our team is excited to be back at the office and can feed off each other for ideas and interactions. There’s nothing like those spontaneous conversations, or popping across to someone’s desk to chat about a client or a challenge in a collaborative environment – which is the way we work best.”

Aden Hepburn, CEO, Akcelo:

Since sending everyone home to work during the lockdown, we've designed a collaboration model when it comes to people working back in the office. That means the office is much less about getting work done, and more about collaborating with peers to enhance our effectiveness as a team and ultimately to make better work. So when there is an opportunity or need to collaborate with colleagues where video calls aren’t effective, teams come into the office to do that. However, when you just need to put the headphones on and get work done, anyone can now do that from home, the coffee shop, the park, or wherever they choose to! The flexibility is working really well for us and we’ll focus more energy on building out our new collaboration-based model for the office of the future.

Stephen Graham, Partner, Shadowboxer:

As we were born in lockdown our ‘return’ to the office plans started with a clean slate - we just simply asked ourselves what work environment would make us happy. So we’re just about to lock in a home base, designed for collaboration and to be shared with our venture partners, which the team is wrapped about. Flexible working is just how we’re wired too – it's about the impact you have, not the hours you do, although we've made it clear that dialling in from Byron Bay more than once a quarter is in poor taste. 

Adam Ferrier, Chief Thinker, Thinkerbell:

The back to work plan is, as they say fluid. I'm typing this from the office, and loving being here and feeling the messy energy and wonderful inefficiency of working together in the one building. Thinkerbell has a roster in the South, and a days in and days out in the North. Both seem to be working ok.  We have plenty of sanitiser and rum in the office at various checkpoints, temperature checks and check-ins are de rigueur, all of which makes us Covid aware and sensible. This pandemic is going to hang around for a while and we are all treating it with utmost respect, with full plans in place.


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