Will the Coronavirus Response Mark a Turning Point for How Agencies View Remote Work?

Will longstanding stigmas against working from home finally fade?

Will the exodus from offices during the COVID-19 response have a long-term effect on remote staffing? Getty Images

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While technology has made it easier than ever for far-flung employees to coordinate across a variety of physical spaces, many managers have been reluctant to embrace these changes, clinging to perceived benefits of office culture.

But as a global outbreak of coronavirus infections drives a wide range of companies to scale back or even empty their offices, the often-unspoken tensions around working remote are suddenly coming to the forefront. While many hope these emergency measures are temporary, the business culture to working from home might be here to change.

Advocates for the idea of remote work, fueled by tools that have emerged or evolved in recent years for real-time teamwork, hope the coronavirus response might mark the turning point when bosses learned to stop worrying and embrace the virtual office. 

“The stigma against full-time employees working remote is one of the most bizarre things you’ll witness as a freelancer,” Clare Barry, a freelance copywriter in the U.K., told Adweek. “In many instances, I’ve worked with companies who have no problem at all with me working remotely—but if one of their staff members were to do it, there is instantly an air of conspiracy and resentment.”

"As long as employees are held accountable for their output, I've only ever seen remote and flexible working be more efficient and produce better results."
—Clare Barry, freelance copywriter

Proponents of remote work like Barry and others argue that the added flexibility and variety it gives workers can actually boost productivity overall.

“As long as employees are held accountable for their output, I’ve only ever seen remote and flexible working be more efficient and produce better results,” she said.

One ad tech employee said productivity increased with the additional work flexibility and lack of commute, plus creative ways to stay connected to the rest of the company.

“I’ve worked in the ad industry for more than 15 years, and this is the first place I’ve been where remote work is actually embraced,” the employee at an ad tech company told Adweek, adding that they still ran into resistance from those outside the company.

In an ad agency world that stresses creative collaboration, some staffers and managers maintain that all the video-conferencing cameras and chatrooms in the world are no substitute for a group of people being in the same room together.

“Agencies have been one of the last industries to [embrace] remote working,” said Jeff Sweat, founder of PR consultancy Sweat + Co. “The feeling is that the things agencies do well, like creativity, don’t work if you don’t have everyone in the same room.”

Having run a virtual office of scattered employees at his firm since its inception, Sweat has found the opposite to be true in terms of performance.

“Some things require more thought, like communication and collaboration. But I’m probably twice as productive as I ever was in an open-plan office,” he said. “The space we all have to concentrate and work has more than made up for anything we’ve lost.”

While remote working en masse is generally a new experience for large agencies, many newer shops have been receptive to letting employees work from just about anywhere. Such an approach might have begun as a cost-saving measure on real estate and talent, but such agencies often stick with the approach as they grow.

"I suspect that in some institutions, there's a theory that confining people to one space ensures productivity."
—Rebecca Armstrong, CEO, North

Rebecca Armstrong, CEO of Portland, Ore., agency North said that the agency has always allowed employees to work remotely as desired, claiming that “productivity is improved by allowing periods of ‘deep work’ with no interruptions.”

“I’ve heard it said that this business requires us to convene in-person to benefit from collaborative face-to-face problem solving and those allegedly meaningful conversations that happen on the fly,” Armstrong said, admitting it’s an argument she has made herself in the past. “But technology allows us to do this now. I can butt in on anyone using Slack. It’s just as annoying as interrupting them in person.”

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many agencies are relaxing guidelines around remote work or closing physical offices altogether.

John Harris, president and CEO of independent agency network Worldwide Partners, Inc. said that a third of the 70 agencies in the network had implemented updated remote work policies in response to the coronavirus, with another 40% considering taking such action.

"When you work in a collaborative, creative industry such as ours, there's a certain exchange of ideas that only happens when everyone is in the same room."
—Deacon Webster, co-founder and CCO, Walrus

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.