Remote & Flexible Work – A Difficult Shift for Ad & Digital Agencies?

It’s 2020 and most advertising and digital agencies have moved to remote work due to the COVID-19 crisis. Web developers, designers, strategists and account managers work from home, using tools like Skype, Zoom and Slack to help them communicate with their team. And it seems to work well enough. The design, dev or project management tools used are largely the same as the ones used in the office. Client projects get done. Team and client meetings happen via video call. Furthermore agencies even post on social media how well they continue to serve their clients - no matter if they’re working in the office or from home. Below are a couple of Instagram posts from well known ad/digital agencies in Perth, Australia:

Could it really be the case that agency staff are just as productive and creative working from home as when they’re working in the office? Or is this just a “marketing spiel” for (potential) clients, reassuring them that project deadlines will still be adhered to and the quality of work is still high?

Why is it that previously many agencies were totally set on staff working at the office only? When asking agency bosses about remote work opportunities, you’d hear time and time again words like “No, we really need designers, devs etc. to work onsite, remote work is just not possible”? Do creatives really need to constantly sit next to each other in an open space office? Many Designers even use their headphones to shut out background noise of phones ringing or others talking in order to get “into the zone” and work with less interruptions. Personally I have received plenty of emails from colleagues in current and previous roles who either sat in the same office or just a few doors down the corridor with a job request or questions. Most would not have noticed if I would have walked out with my laptop, gone to a cafe next door and answered their email from across the road. The result would have been exactly the same: an answered email, and a completed task/job.

Do agency leaders just not trust employees to be efficient from anywhere else other than the company HQ? But how is it then possible that companies like Basecamp, Webflow, ConvertKit, Automattic (all companies with remote teams) are highly successful and efficient? Intrigued, I recently asked on Twitter, if there was indeed a trust issue.

In my tweet I mentioned a few top agencies in Perth, Australia, of which just a couple actually commented. One response was…

I’ve heard this quite a few times: "Our company culture, our culture of working together is just better suited to staff working in one location. We just love spending time together - most of our staff don’t really want to work anywhere else!” Hmm, this is interesting. Is this maybe also influenced by the people who are being hired? If a future employee asks for remote work during the interview, will his or her chances diminish since remote work is not really in the company’s DNA? This person is then maybe not the right (cultural) fit for this agency?

Also, by indirectly (or directly) discouraging remote work in non-COVID-19 times isn’t diversity in the workplaces impacted negatively? Why? Because in most instances only staff who are either childless or have a partner/relatives in the background looking after children, doing school pickups and such are able to sit in the agency Monday to Friday, morning till afternoon. To be present in the office at all times also poses a challenge for single parents, people caring for sick or elderly relatives or staff with other life challenges and commitments. So this means that people who are outside the agreed norm have a hard time scoring jobs in those agencies that either demand or imply continuous in-person presence in the office. But how do you come up with new ideas, exciting new concepts and strategies for clients if you only have the same range of people working for you?

Creativity. Every agency understands itself and advertises itself as super-creative, full of ideas, out-of-the-box thinking etc. But who says that everyone has their best idea(s) at their office desk? Or during the 10.30am team meeting and project brainstorming session? Some people are night owls who do their best work from 8pm onwards. Others like to start early and go for a swim in the afternoon while they clear their head. Without the commute they’re at their desk at home in 2 seconds (or however long it takes them to walk from the kitchen to their home office).

While I don’t propose that every ad or digital agency should switch to a fully remote workforce, I believe agencies need to be more open to new ways of working. Take some US SaaS companies as an example who were able to establish a great team culture with their remote team. Consider hiring staff that is outside the usual norm, and that might require more flexible work arrangements. I hope that the experience of working remotely during COVID-19 drives agency leaders and creative directors to think more creatively about how to work differently in the future and offer more flexibility in terms of working arrangements and location. This could include opportunities for remote and part-time work, or job sharing arrangements. I would love to start a conversation about this with agencies, staff or anyone else interested in this topic!

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