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Have agencies lost the ‘war room’ mentality because of hybrid working?

Posted: Sep 2023
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With increasing numbers of professionals opting for hybrid working, how do you bring together the whole team in one place to share ideas, strategise, and deal with a client crisis when it really counts? Are the days of working late into the evening with your team sitting in the office all pulling together to get the work done over?

In a recent conversation with an agency director, she commented that she thought the ‘war room’ mentality has been lost, with hybrid working all but bringing collaborative teamwork to an end. The fabric of agency life is changing, impacting how employees build networks and form relationships. How can leaders bring back the buzz and re-inject the fun into their offices?

The agency director talked about how, since the introduction of hybrid working models, the collegiate working environment with that strong sense of team culture has gone, and it’s probably a symptom of the prevalence of increased flexibility – people can work from home however much they want, and offices have lost their appeal.

In the pandemic era, many people re-prioritised what they wanted out of work and life: quitting toxic workplaces, leaning out, strengthening boundaries and carving more time for personal lives and hobbies.

Shifts in priorities have taken hold

Long gone is the idea that to be successful and get anything meaningful done, you have to be doing long hours. More and more professionals are shunning the hustle culture ideology that says overworking is the way go-getters get what they want; it’s no longer accepted that you must devote yourself only to work and sacrifice everything outside of it. Home-working played a pivotal role in diluting the trend, as employees had more control over their hours and routines. Professionals identified that shorter hours or taking that one-hour lunch break walk helped them get things done; they acknowledged that, yes, they wanted a promotion, but also wanted to spend time with their families and get to the gym.

Long hours and hardcore working might have once been the ultimate status symbol for many, but following a tough few years – and more economic hardships and possible layoffs to come – more people appear to be prioritising health and family over the hustle.

Where does this leave the state of play in agencies?

It’s hard to retrospectively change a working policy once you have made it. People have experienced it, and many are clearly enjoying the benefits. However, is it right for the business?

If you have offered truly flexible working, how do you change it and say it isn’t really working? The senior people in the agency are happy as they have the balance that a flexible working policy brings. But, as the agency director I spoke to pointed out, they are hardly in the office. When she moved to her current agency role, it took her 9 months to really settle in – the longest it’s taken her at any agency she has ever worked at, mainly because it took months just to meet everyone!

Managing a large team, she has noticed how the senior people are not training or delegating to the more junior members of the team, saying it’s quicker for them to do it themselves rather than scheduling a call to delegate the task to the junior member who is working from home.

The pitfalls of virtual ‘teamwork’

Whether it’s a phone call, a video conference, screen sharing, or any combination, conference calls do allow people to work together when they're in different places. However, they don't solve the problem of having many people working together. Either some conversation is drowned out by other conversation, or several disconnected conversations occur simultaneously.

They also don't solve the problem of onboarding new people to help solve the problem. It's time-consuming to bring new people up to date, especially if the various tasks that are done are disjointed.

All work, no play

The fabric of agency life is certainly changing. It’s harder to buy into a culture and create a sense of momentum. There isn’t the same level or depth of loyalty that you get when you are ‘all in it together’. People are struggling with anxiety, feeling that they're missing out and not getting the support they need. The fun has gone too. Teams are no longer going out for impromptu drinks and formal socials are feeling like ‘forced fun’. You may build up a rapport with someone on a night out but then you won’t see them for another three weeks and it’s back to square one.

Preparing for a pitch and coordinating day-to-day activities is extremely hard as everyone is in different places. The level of communication for client work is overwhelming as it is across so many channels and then on top of this, to coordinate work, you may need to schedule a call – it’s a lot.

Executives, Account Managers, Account Directors continue to move up quickly, but they are missing out on building up their network. They don’t really want to travel for client lunches, journalist lunches, or evening networking events when they are working from home.

What is the ideal hybrid work model?

Our most recent Salary Guide 2023 reported that 7% of professionals come into the office 1 day a week; 33% come in 2 days a week and 40% come in 3 days a week. That leaves 11% coming in 4 days a week and only 6% of professionals putting in a full 5-day week at the office. Professionals also revealed that the biggest challenges around flexible working are coordinating with colleagues and not getting to socialise with colleagues as much.

My conversation with the agency director also highlighted how some companies may be regretting the implementation of a totally flexible working policy. Employees say that they like it, but it comes with its drawbacks, and many leaders are now finding that it’s not really working as well as they had hoped. Perhaps it’s time to back-track, although that will no doubt have consequences.

The agencies which seemed to have struck a balance are the ones asking their employees to come in 3 times a week, and ideally on the same days as their fellow team members. This tends to be Tuesday to Thursday. There are a few agencies asking for employees to come in 4 days a week as they believe this works better for them.

Final thoughts

When all is said and done, we won’t ever go back to 5 days in the office, and 1 or 2 days in the office when you are ‘on your way up’ working as part of a team may not be enough. Although many senior people may disagree, as they have found the balance they desire and the headspace they need to think.

Perhaps it might help to bring back ‘war room’ meetings on days when everyone is in the office – teams can use these meetings to work together to solve complex challenges, adapt to change, and move new projects forward. Alternatively, that large table in the office boardroom could be the perfect place for some impromptu informal drinks and nibbles, giving everyone a chance to chat, enjoy each other’s company, and simply reconnect.

For a free download of our full Annual Salary Guide 2023, click here.

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