In the 1960s, Hewlett-Packard became an early adopter of the open-plan office layout, citing a more natural, egalitarian flow of collaboration and teamwork between employees as a key benefit.
Over the ensuing decades, this distinct brand of contemporary workplace culture became one of big tech’s major incidental exports. Non-hierarchical office configurations, town hall meetings, casual dress, hot desking, snack bars, and standing desks are all hallmarks of a philosophy of work originating in Silicon Valley. These ideas have since trickled down to shape day-to-day office life across many industries and sectors.
Now, with several tech giants announcing a transition to permanent work from home plans for significant portions of their workforces, those within their sphere of influence – including the advertising, marketing, and creative agency worlds – may need to brace for another defining shift in the logistics of being “at work.”
Here are a few areas for consideration when envisioning a future where WFH is the norm and not the exception:
Expecting New Expectations
As cities with already-steep costs of living become even less desirable both in the context of a potential recession and from a public health standpoint, we can anticipate a reverse “brain drain” to more rural areas – realistically, has already started to happen. With alternatives to full-time on-site working more commonplace, companies and agencies of all sizes will need to be accommodating of potential workers’ and collaborators’ preferences to attract and retain the same calibre of talent.
The exciting news is that the decentralization of people represents a major opportunity to engage a huge new diversity of perspective. For sectors like advertising and marketing, where, before, career growth largely necessitated a physical closeness to urban centres, access to a completely new talent base means access to viewpoints and ideas previously unexplored. The democratization of this kind of work has the capacity to fuel innovation and expand creative horizons.
Reimagining Dynamic Collaboration
Creative collaboration is the foundation behind winning strategies. Although it may feel counterintuitive to replicate this dynamic from a distance, by this point many of us have figured out ways to transition in-person work sessions, brainstorming, and other generative collective exercises to proxy platforms.
Soon we will have to evaluate whether interim solutions are sustainable and effective in the long run, or if the optimal arrangement involves a combination of new tools working in concert with occasional real-life meetings. Considering what elements of the “old” way of working are actually serving the team’s process and individuals’ objectives will be key to building a more flexible model. The underlying goal is to create the ideal conditions for creativity and productivity in the reinvented “workplace.”
In the new work culture many businesses will fall on a spectrum from 100% remote to weekly in-person sessions, with organizations that go the route of just monthly, quarterly, or annual summits landing somewhere in between.
As part of an HR or operations function, the need for teams to work in proximity for in-person meetings will be outlined as a job requirement and lead to potential workforce clusters. Of course, different teams have differing needs, and this might mean that some departments or team members work remotely while others are in work spaces onsite.
Mastering the Long Distance Relationship
Building working relationships from the ground up with colleagues and collaborators scattered across geographic areas and time zones, without the benefit of guaranteed face-time, requires a somewhat different skill set to establish the same quality connections.
In a decentralized work culture, thorough onboarding for new clients will help generate robust toolkits for communication, feedback, approvals, and brainstorming. It will also clearly establish expectations on both sides of the relationship. Building trust in new relationships will depend on demonstrating effective use of the chosen tools and processes. Maintaining existing relationships with a client roster will require a shift in mindset from the wine and dine to pragmatism without bravado.
Striking a balance between efficient processes and a relaxed rapport will be crucial to maintaining strong long-term partnerships. Indeed, many people are finding that with video as a primary means for connecting, it may be necessary to forgo formalities in order to foster meaningful communication. Over video calls, a hyper awareness of being watched can leave participants feeling as if they are performing for an audience. Stripping back unnecessary pretences can alleviate some of that pressure and enable a more natural flow of communication.
Establishing New Boundaries
With the potential for 100% of our communications – now including casual interactions and informal catch-ups – to take place over online platforms, the idea that everyone should be reachable and responsive at any given moment is driven to new extremes. The cult of perpetual availability is unsustainable in the long run both for companies and for individuals: Studies show that constant connectivity has a negative impact on engagement and productivity, and Georgetown professor Cal Newport’s theory of “deep work” maintains that peak productivity is only achievable through long, uninterrupted stretches of being immersed in a particular task (the same can be said for creativity).
Long-term remote working will likely create a need for more rigid boundaries between sustained periods of deep work and “shallow” communicative or administrative work, and between work and rest. Companies and team leaders will have to adapt to a remote work ideology that encourages team members to be actively protective of their time, and to log off when it’s time to log off. Some are floating the idea of a four-day work week, with studies on how a “shorter, compressed schedule” boosts productivity and satisfaction to back them up. Longer periods of rest could help to make the division between work and life less permeable, and deep work sessions more sacred.
Reframing the “Place” in Workplace
It’s not a great leap to assume that the reframing of the “place” in workplace that’s happening in big tech will influence broader occupational culture. And with this shift comes a reframing of “work” itself.
As teams in marketing and advertising begin to feel out potential long-term strategies for a decentralized world of work, they will want to look to the companies that have been operating with these ideas built into their business models for some time already.
Making the new way of permanent work from home work will require an open mind, the right tools, and a flexible but structured approach.