Why This Agency CEO Isn't Rushing Back to the Office

WFH has more than a few upsides

The second week of March was a whirlwind at the ENGINE offices. I entered the week determined we wouldn’t close in response to Covid-19. We had a big year ahead and I didn’t want to ruin it by doing a freeze frame and losing our momentum. By Friday, March 13, we had shut down our headquarters in New York and 72 hours later, ENGINE offices across the country and around the world followed suit.

My reluctance to send everyone home with their laptops stemmed from deeply held assumptions about leadership, productivity, collaboration and communication. We are a business that is built upon people from different disciplines working closely together on behalf of our clients. I just couldn’t believe that we could be as effective an organization if our people were working from bedrooms, dining rooms, living rooms and back porches.

I’m learning now that I was wrong. Completely wrong. And I couldn’t be more excited about it. Here are the three biggest lessons I’ve learned while working and managing from home:

Productivity is maximized

I have two boys—one in elementary school and one in middle school. When distance learning first began, my older son never spent more than a few hours on his schoolwork. I kept wondering how he could be learning a days’ worth of content in a fraction of the time. Then he explained that at home, he got up, focused on his work and got it done. There wasn’t all the time wasted transferring between classes, eating lunch, being distracted by school friends, packing up and unpacking. He is spending the same amount of time on lessons, but the other stuff has been eliminated.

The same is true of working from home. I am focused in a way that I just can’t be in our open office environment. Don’t get me wrong—I love interacting with my employees and the friendships I’ve formed at work. But there are a lot of distractions in the form of chit-chat and so-called quick questions that invariably necessitate a 20-minute conversation.

At home, I work in a focused, structured and deliberate way. It requires a certain amount of discipline and a lot of time on Zoom, but in between I can concentrate in a way that is impossible in the office.

Culture grows as we connect in more meaningful ways

Somebody on my leadership team observed that we’ve created more culture in the past six months than in the previous two years. He’s right. Building a more inclusive, connected and positive culture had been at the top of our agenda over the past 18 months but working from home has truly brought us together.

Instead of me talking to one of my leaders about a topic in the hallway, we all talk about it together during our daily leadership team Zooms. I am doing twice a week town halls with the entire organization versus once every quarter so that everyone is hearing from me more and I’m hearing more from them.

We’ve created more culture in the past six months than in the previous two years

We are also focused on innovative ways to help people. For example, we’ve implemented 15-minute meditations three times a week which have been a huge hit. And we have focused our training on how to engage employees through open, honest and frequent check-ins and discussions. We even held a Zoom Your Kids to Work Day, in place of the annual Take Your Kids to Work Day. The best part is that so much that used to happen at a local level is happening company-wide.

We have all gone from being part of an office or business unit to being part of the company community. To be fair, Zoom isn’t always the ideal platform. There are a lot of glitches and sometimes Wi-Fi causes hiccups, but in some ways, we are all paying more attention to those tiny boxes than we did the people who were right in front of us.

More openness means more humility and empathy

When everyone is doing everything at home, you get a through the key-hole view of everyone’s life. You see crying kids barging in at the wrong time, dogs wagging their tails just out of view and bits of people’s houses. These humanizing clues give our professional identities more context. Even the choice of a Zoom background is a statement about who you are. The unilaterally enforced humility of this environment means we are all learning a lot about each other and seeing less artifice and more humanity.

I know there are a lot of people across the country clambering to open. There are a lot of people suffering right now from this economic crisis. For their sakes, I hope our country and the world open back up soon.  But for ENGINE, I’m planning to take my time re-opening our offices. I’m more worried about losing the new strengths that we have discovered than I am missing the things we used to think were so important.

Kasha Cacy is ENGINE’s first global chief executive. She oversees the company’s 17 offices across North America, the UK, Europe and Asia Pacific, helping drive business growth for brand, publisher and agency partners globally.