Are you a manager weighing your team’s return-to-office options? Amid all the hand-wringing over whether, how and when to have employees return to working at the office is the fact that many organizations were already moving to some level of a remote work model. The pandemic merely kicked it into high gear. According to Cella’s 2021 In-House Creative Industry Report, 80% of in-house agencies shifted or accelerated work-from-home policies as a result of COVID-19. That being said, there are real business-critical reasons to have staff commune in a safe space—especially for those working in creative services and marketing teams.

It’s no secret that creating marketing, sales and general communication deliverables requires a high degree of collaboration and teamwork. Working on, say, a P&L spreadsheet, is more of an individual activity. But creating posters, brochures or certainly a website or digital campaign, requires a multidisciplinary group of skilled professionals to closely partner with each other. The opportunity is to define the key activities and milestones of a particular assignment, and even what types of assignments would benefit from in-person meetings.

But before we jump into the specifics of the different return-to-office options, let’s put some context around the issue. For those reluctant themselves (or those dealing with upper management who are reluctant) to continue work-from-home practices, there’s a strong case to be made for keeping some form of remote work policies in place. According to a study by Accenture, employees who had some form of flexibility about where they could work during the pandemic, “had better mental health, stronger work relationships, and were more likely to feel net better off and less burned out working for their organizations.”

If that’s not enough to convince you or others of the benefits of allowing for work from home, consider the fact that most workers, especially creative professionals who can often work independently on clearly defined projects, are expecting to have that option available to them. A survey conducted by Prudential found, “42% of current remote workers say if their current company does not continue to offer remote work options long term, they will look for a job at a company that does.” In today’s tight talent market, do you really want to risk losing members of your team? 

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And speaking of the tight talent market, when it comes to attracting best-in-class talent, the option of remote work is a critical driver. Creative professionals along with their peers in the professional marketplace expect to have remote work available to them. In a Citrix Talent Accelerator survey, “76 percent (of employers) believe that employees will be more likely to prioritize lifestyle over proximity to work, even if it means taking a pay cut.”

There is clearly a case to be made for remote work, but how much should be allowed, under what circumstances it should be permitted and who should be granted the privilege, needs to be explored, defined and implemented. There are three primary work arrangement options available:

1. Require team members to come back and completely work from the office. This option has been met with pretty assertive pushback as witnessed recently at Goldman Sachs where the edict had to be walked back in the face of resistance from staff, particularly millennial and Gen Z employees.

2. Allow for unlimited work from home with no back-to-office requirements. This option comes with its own set of disadvantages, including the potential loss of a sense of team, employees feeling isolated and burned out on constant Zoom calls, a constant deluge of emails and texts, and blurred lines between work and personal time.

3. Go with what’s being dubbed the hybrid model, where a mix of remote and in-office work is encouraged. This may be the most viable option as it allows for a level of flexibility that gives team members a sense of control of their work lives while also affording them, and their managers, opportunities to collaborate in ways that can’t be achieved when the team is fully remote. It addresses the negatives of the all-in-office and all-remote work options.

For leaders considering the hybrid model, the key issue involves establishing the rules of play and guardrails that should be defined and put in place to leverage the best of both working at home and in the office. For in-house creative agencies, there is clear criteria that primarily addresses the need for collaboration and robust communication. Milestones and activities that work best in-person include:

  • Project kickoff meetings with clients

  • Internal project kickoff meetings with the creative team

  • Brainstorming sessions

  • Internal critiques

  • Client presentations

The communication occurring in these touchpoints is nuanced and can include nonverbal cues that wouldn’t be picked up on a Zoom call. The cadence of in-person conversations is generally more fluid and intuitive. Having these types of interactions in-person also establishes and reinforces personal relationships that build trust and rapport that is key to the client/agency dynamic.

What in-house roles should more regularly be on-site? Any position that requires a fair amount of client contact, for one. This would clearly include account services and members of the agency’s leadership team. Any functions that involve capturing live content such as videographers, webcast producers or photographers would also need to consistently be on site. 

On the other end of the spectrum, those positions that are more independent and tactical such as proofreaders, production designers and developers, likely don’t need to be in the office with any level of frequency. Floating in the middle are senior creatives such as art directors, senior designers and UX/UI talent who need bursts of collaborative touchpoints and can then go off to concept out their assignments.

Once the criteria has been identified for on-site presence, managing the team’s return-to-office strategy requires nuanced yet clear best practices. Safety, in the wake of the pandemic, is consideration No. 1. While policies will vary by company from requiring masks to mandating vaccinations, the upfront need is to put in place and communicate policies that will make the team feel confident that the organization has their best interests at heart and is taking care of them. In addition to on-site requirements such as wearing masks, companies should take other steps such as:

  • Staggering working hours

  • Capping the number of people working on site

  • Creating socially distanced working areas

  • Arranging for frequent and robust cleaning of facilities

  • Developing crystal-clear health and hygiene mandates

There are other factors beyond safety that should be considered to make the return-to-office process go smoothly and with minimal disruption for staff. Many of those returning will be dealing with what’s been dubbed “pandemic fatigue,” one of the symptoms of which is a feeling of isolation and disengagement. This makes it especially important that team-building events, both formal and informal, be put in place. Celebrating employee milestones such as birthdays and work anniversaries and holding impromptu coffee breaks or happy hours are a good start. 

In addition, an added focus on professional development will contribute to a feeling of being valued and belonging to the group. Employing these and other practices that support a team-based culture are critical to retention and engagement. Again, referring to the Prudential survey, “42% of workers with plans to leave their current employer graded them a “C” or below for their ability to maintain employee connectedness and culture during the pandemic.” And this easily applies to post-pandemic expectations.

Regardless of attempts to have the work environment be like it was, there will be a new normal that everyone will have to adapt to. And it will most likely be disorienting for the employees returning to the office most regularly. Be as supportive and empathetic as you can. It will be helpful to be clear about expectations around on- and off-site practices. Having your employees buddy up with coworkers while navigating changes at the office will also help team members get used to new workspaces designed for hybrid work and/or personal safety. Reinforcing the benefits of working at the office can also help employees reframe their experience. There will be a clearer line between work life and home life, more collegial socialization as people reconnect with colleagues and likely less personal distractions interfering with work activities. 

Finally, there are tech tools ranging from social platforms to functional collaborative solutions to ease workers back into working both on and off site. In-house agencies are uniquely positioned to leverage these technologies that enhance productivity and efficiencies. Because of the highly collaborative nature of the work that they engage in, these groups are able to more quickly adopt new communications platforms than their peers in other departments. According to McKinsey, “companies have accelerated the digitization of their … internal operations by three to four years.” 

There are many factors to take into account when managing if, how and when teams will return to the office. For in-house agencies, the choices may be a bit clearer than for other departments because of their pre-pandemic collaborative practices that can be applied to today’s world. The key is to carefully choose an engagement model that works best for the business and the team, deliberately craft a plan of action and then diligently execute on the plan taking the numerous considerations noted in this post into account. It will take time for staff to settle into the new normal, so be patient and generous with understanding and support.

Need strategic help developing or implementing your back-to-office plans? Cella's consulting practice can provide you with real-world insights and advice that will ensure a successful transition for your team.