Maintaining the invisible force of agency life: Office culture


By Laura Smith, Managing Editor, Speak Media

Every year since the agency where I work was founded, nearly a decade ago, the team has taken one day out every summer for a walk in the countryside. It’s an opportunity to talk, reflect and discuss our core values. 

Recently, after nearly six months of working from home and seeing each other’s faces solely on our laptop screens, this socially distanced ‘values walk’ in Richmond Park felt especially important.

Top of our agenda was exploring how everyone had coped with the last few months – and thinking about where we go from here. Having gone fully remote in mid-March like so many other firms, we felt as though we were at a crossroads. What will the future of our workplace look like? 

While our whole team has responded brilliantly to the changes in the way we work, we’re all keen to find ways to connect and communicate ‘in real life’ in the future. London’s current High Risk status means we’re unlikely to be back in a studio space soon, so how to stay connected while working apart is a discussion that every agency, indeed nearly every company, is sure to be having. 

Some are impatiently waiting to return to the old-fashioned pre-Covid office format. Others,  like ad agency Ogilvy UK, are looking at a 3:2 model which combines two days of office work with three days of flexible working – a decision based on the belief that “spur of the moment interactions are priceless”. An alternative approach might make use of co-working spaces.

Whichever approach we and others take, one thing’s for sure: any new decisions will have to be carefully considered, and easily adaptable as government guidance changes. As the CEO of one major ad agency suggested, return to work policies could become ‘deal-breakers’ for prospective employees.

Staying connected while working apart

For the team at Speak, one thing we all agreed on – as we strolled past deer in the Richmond sunshine – was the importance of continuing to live the values that bind us together, even though we’re working apart. 

That includes ensuring our day to day processes and deliverables are on track, for example by regularly finding time as a team to think about how to keep our operations efficient, effective and well-adapted to remote work; and continually reviewing how we’re working in the ‘new normal’ to make sure everyone has what they need to stay as happy and healthy as possible. It also includes team training sessions that will bring us all together at least once a month, to maintain our focus on innovation and personal development; and an agency-wide consultation on what shape our collective working practices should take, allowing us to completely rethink how and where we do business.

But it also includes the less tangible aspects of working together: the fun bits it’s hard to replicate when you’re not making the teas in a work kitchen. Since the start of lockdown, we’ve taken our weekly tradition of Friday beers online, giving us a chance to catch up socially. Two ‘hosts’ – chosen by what we’ve dubbed the ‘wheel of fortune’ at our Monday meeting – provide light entertainment, which might involve trying to double bluff our team mates (two lies, one truth), find an object that’s smaller than your thumbnail (scavenger hunt) or dressing up head to toe in tennis attire (can’t remember why).

The last few months have been hugely challenging for everyone, but they have also made us reflect on what we value about our agency in a whole new way. We’ve supported each other through house moves and bereavement. We’ve packed up our studio space in boxes and committed to home working for the foreseeable. We’ve welcomed new team members and held virtual leaving dos. We’ve even had a goat called Brett (I kid you not) join our Monday morning traffic meet. 

We’ve also got to know each other, and our clients, in a whole new way – it’s hard not to when dogs make unscheduled appearances on Zoom or people are attending meetings from their child’s bedroom. And through it all, we’ve become an even more streamlined, lean operation. 

Office culture is an invisible force, hard to pin down and quantify – but hugely influential in its hold over the way organisations work, play and be together. In the absence of the Friday drinks trolley or the boardroom training session, we all need to find new ways to instil and reinforce our culture. 

Creative agencies should be good at this kind of thing. So, how are you going to do it?

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