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One CEO's Prescription for the Ad Industry: More Office Hugs

Don't dismiss the power of the workplace embrace

Corporate culture often frowns on hugs, despite their proven ability to alleviate stress and anxiety. Photo: Getty Images

You can't grow up in a large Italian family and not be a hugger. For one, it's physically impossible to avoid the hugs. They come at you fast and loud and for all sorts of reasons. It's your job to smile, open your arms and catch them. Yes, I'm a hugger. I dispense them with reckless abandon. You just got promoted? Bring it in. Your chocolate Lab died? That's terrible, let's hug it out.

Sharon Napier Illustration: Alex Fine

And maybe that's just me and my hug-filled upbringing, but it's also our industry. As the CEO of an ad agency, I'm incredibly lucky to live and lead in a creative industry filled with highly emotional, highly invested people who treat each other (for better or worse) like family.

And seeing that Jan. 21, 2016 marked the 30th anniversary of National Hugging Day, it seems like the perfect time to respectfully champion hugs in the workplace. In a world when the innocent hug is being threatened by the sterile, PC pressures of modern day corporate America, I'm here to stand up for hugs everywhere. And here's why.

I believe hugs do more for your workforce and the people in it than the most heartfelt-but-toneless armada of thank-yous, congrats and condolences emails you could ever deploy (and please don't ever send condolences via email, ever).

Now, let me be crystal clear on this, because this is not "Sharon said we should force hugs on everyone." We are not talking about forced hugs. That's something called harassment. If someone's not a hugger, you obviously shouldn't hug him or her.

What I am saying is that despite our best efforts to become robots, we are still humans. Hugs are chicken soup for the soul. They make people feel loved and appreciated. Hugs let people know you care. They transcend generations, cultures and even species.

We have a monthly tradition at Partners + Napier where we celebrate anniversaries, or how many years employees have been with the agency. Employees can choose a hug or a handshake from me (or whomever is master of ceremonies) to go with their spot bonus. I've never been surprised that the overwhelming majority go for the hug. Also unsurprising—the more years in the trenches, the bigger the hug.

Many office etiquette pros frown on hugging in the workplace, calling them "iffy" and "only for special occasions." It's uncomfortable for most people, they say, and you're safer and less likely to be sued living in the you-can't-possibly-misinterpret-this-respectful-nod-and-stiff-handshake era. How boring.

To these hug humbuggers, I submit the following: Plenty of studies have shown that hugs increase our brains' production of oxytocin (the hormone of compassion and bonding), reduce stress and social anxiety, lower blood pressure and boost memory function.

And for those eyeing the annual cavalcade of "Best Places to Work" awards, employees who hug in the workplace are, according to the Harvard Business Review, more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the company and accountable for performance. It follows then that a pro-hug organization is more open and collaborative—and probably even more creative.

For me, hugs (given appropriately) can even elevate professional relationships. When I get hugs from our clients, that tells me our relationship is working and we're happy. We're on the same team, getting it done. A hug says we cannot only share hugs, but laughs, cocktails and honest feedback as we face challenges together.

The "hug stage" is a great little hint for new business relationships. I got a nice warm hug from a prospect's CMO just the other day after a pitch. Did her hug mean that Partners + Napier will emerge victorious? Time will tell. Weirdly, ever since I started writing this, many of our clients and clients-to-be have revealed themselves as huggers. And there's just no substitute for connecting face-to-face. An empathetic email or text or tweet is easy to fake. You can't fake a hug. Perhaps most important and most obvious, hugs can say all you want to say, without ever saying a thing. That's why they're special.

I was keenly reminded of the importance of hugs when my dad passed away. My mom told me that his hugs are the thing she misses above all else. Isn't that so true? You're probably seeing the faces of the people whose hugs you'd miss. Now, how ridiculous does it sound that you should save your hugs for a "special occasion?"

So let's not lose the art of real human connection in the workplace. I say if hugging feels authentic to you and your culture, go for it. You might just find yourself marveling at the doors that open and the lasting relationships they bring.

Sharon Napier (@sharondnapier) is CEO of Project: WorldWide agency Partners + Napier.

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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