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?
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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

New York independent agency Walrus has let employees know that they are free to work remotely if they would feel more comfortable doing so, although Walrus co-founder and CCO Deacon Webster said only one employee had so far taken the offer.

“We have people working remotely on a regular basis, so this is nothing new for us. We don’t have a problem getting things done when everyone is not in the same room,” he said.

The team does remote every Friday for work-life balance, but he stresses other benefits.

“It’s perfectly easy to get work done from anywhere, being in the same space together on a regular basis adds something to the process that we’d miss if everyone worked remote all the time,” Webster added. “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.”

A manager at one agency in Seattle—one of the U.S. hotspots in the coronavirus outbreak—initially dismissed a suggestion that employees be allowed to work from home until the virus was contained, according to a staffer who asked not to be named. But as the crisis has escalated in the past week, the manager changed course and began preparing workers for the possibility of shutting down the office on short notice.

The offices of Goodby Silverstein and Partners in San Francisco are currently open for business as usual, according to a staffer there, but management is encouraging any employee who feels sick to stay home and requiring those who travel internationally to work from home for at least two weeks afterward.

The Goodby staffer said working from home can often lead to logistical headaches, like delayed response times and communication misunderstandings. It can also make real-time editing of visual work more difficult than it would be if workers were physically gathered around the same screen.

AKQA has also encouraged staffers who feel sick to stay home and warned of the possibility of office closures–a policy consistent with that of most WPP agencies—though a couple of its studios, like its Shanghai outpost, have gone completely remote, said an agency spokesperson. The agency hasn’t seen any productivity dips and claims that some major campaigns have been produced through largely remote work.

"The wind is blowing and some agencies are building walls while others are building windmills."
—Stephanie Olson, founder, We Are Rosie

As holding companies have responded to the coronavirus epidemic, WPP, Dentsu Aegis network and MDC Partners have all implemented updated remote work guidelines in certain locations. Dentsu, Inc. also closed its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan last month after an employee contracted COVID-19 and employees are still required to work remotely. Additionally, Interpublic Group, Havas and Omnicom have issued policies requiring employees returning from certain regions to work remotely for 14 days. Publicis Groupe is prioritizing video conferencing and Skype meetings over travel for meetings where possible.

Brand experience and strategic partnerships agency CSM Sport & Entertainment, which employs over 1,000 across 25 offices worldwide, has let employees know that they may be asked to work remotely with short notice and instructed them to bring their laptops home with them when they leave for the night.

“We’re set up to work on-demand with whoever, wherever, whenever is needed, so this is a manageable disruption for us,” said CSM North America president Christa Carone. “Work-from-home doesn’t replace the creative energy and engagement our people generate in person, but we can continue keeping the highest standards for our partners with collaboration and meeting technologies.”

Houston-based media and creative content agency 9thWonder also views the outbreak as a manageable disruption and was able to continue work after shutting down its Houston offices in the wake of floods last year.

“Unified communications technology makes remote work about as seamless as it can be for us, said 9thWonder founder and CEO Jose Lozano. “We’re set up to collaborate among offices, so at any given time, a client team involves people from multiple offices globally. Our employee experience and productivity is nearly identical from the office, the coffee shop, the hotel room or the living room.”

Some remain skeptical that the increase in remote work in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic can erode existing stigmas around remote work.

“I’d like to think that perception of remote work will change, but I’m not holding my breath,” a remote ad tech employee said. “We’re an industry that continues to talk to clients about the importance and power of being connected to ‘always-on’ consumers—and we’re often expected to be connected ourselves—but we can’t get over the stigmas of remote work.”

We Are Rosie, which helps curate flexible marketing talent for agencies and brands views remote work as the future. Of its projects, 90% are either fully or partially remote.

“Since we’ve always been a remote-first organization, we have a lot of data on what this means for productivity,” said We Are Rosie founder Stephanie Olson. “Time and time again, we heard that remote Rosies are able to tackle about 1.5x the workload of their ‘in office’ counterparts. For organizations new to remote work, there will be a learning curve, primarily around getting process and communication down for distributed teams, but once we help our clients through that, they will benefit from the productivity lift achieved through remote work.”

Olson is well aware that not everyone is embracing such changes.

“Having seen the inner workings of tons of agencies, every holding company, and big brands, it’s been easy to spot the organizations that are slow to adopt remote work,” she said. “The wind is blowing and some agencies are building walls while others are building windmills.”

David Griner contributed reporting to this story. 

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