Looking back, the transition into lockdown earlier in the year happened very quickly – like a “hand-brake turn”, as someone in the office put it. Within three days of moving into our brand-new Shoreditch offices, we were all out and working from 28 different home offices.
Huge adjustments had to be made quickly, which caused varying degrees of anxiety for people, some managing better than others. We all had to do it, there wasn’t a choice in the matter. At that time, our whole world changed – streets became empty, everything had closed down. We feared the pandemic and all the uncertainty and strangeness increased our anxiety levels. It felt post-apocalyptic…
In contrast, the transition back to the office has been a much more considered affair. Preparing the office so everyone feels safe; thinking about people’s different needs around travelling in, looking at what other offices are doing, among many other considerations. And this time, we are giving people some choice – come in if/when you feel safe enough.
Having choice can also, sometimes, cause anxiety, and raise questions, such as: when will I feel safe enough to return? Do I want to go into the office? What will it be like? Will I lose some of these freedoms I’ve gained from WFH? It’s important to have clear, transparent communication around what is expected and what the plan is to reduce anticipatory stress.
For advertising agencies like AML, being in the same space is important for collaboration and generating ideas, so finding a solution, whereby we are all together in the office, is important. Other organisations have not felt the need for that, giving up their offices completely. So, we began to ready ourselves for an office return.
Returning to the office
At AML, we came up with a few solutions at the beginning of Autumn. Before opening our doors to staff, we had to ensure the office was and remains to be Covid-secure with social distancing in place and strict hygiene measures. AML is fortunate in having a big office space to work with, making social distancing that bit easier.
As of September, staff were encouraged to come in one day a week on a Wednesday so we could all be together. From the beginning of October, we had initially planned to build up to two days a week, with the other three days left free for people to choose where to work, either at home or in the office. However, with recent government guidance for London asking people to work from home where possible, we’ve had to pause and rethink our plan once again. The office is still open five days a week, and although Wednesday remains a core day, there is not an expectation that people come in if they don’t need to. Rather, if people want to have face-to-face meetings, they can arrange those as and when they need to. What is positive is that those that feel able to, or who want to, are coming into the office on more than just a Wednesday.
There are also some silver linings. WFH during lockdown has taught us lessons in trust. This has made a new attitude to flexible working possible, allowing people to have more autonomy over their work environment. Our communication during lockdown has also improved, with whole agency Zoom meetings every morning for 10 minutes and people sharing regular updates. As we move into this new phase, let’s hope we don’t lose some of these valuable gains.
That’s not to say there might not be some hurdles to overcome, especially if we move into even greater lockdown restrictions. There are some potential pitfalls involved in being overly flexible with the way we work. Some people run the risk of working over-time to accommodate for working hours that suit others. There need to be firm boundaries that everyone follows, so people know where they stand. Boundaries give certainty, which helps with clarity, and lessens anxiety. After all, feeling good about where you work is important. Does office culture exist without an office? A prolonged working from home period may mean we eventually lose our cohesiveness. And how do new starters get an idea of ‘our culture’ if there isn’t an office ‘atmosphere’.
Gradually going back to the office will re-establish the line drawn between work and home life that has become blurred over the last five months. And with times as uncertain as ever, and rules changing all the time, we are learning to be agile in the way we work. This is our opportunity to create a better working experience for everyone.
BY Hobie Walker, head of wellbeing at AML Group