Things changed a little in 10 years and then everything changed completely in 10 months.
In 2010, my agency co-lead Andrew and I worked at an agency where if you tried to leave before 6 p.m., just before you started that slog back home to NJ or Long Island, you’d do so at your own peril.
“Half day?” leadership would say to the point where it had become a joke amongst the rank and file. We were already at our desk by 8:00 a.m. to get ahead of the NYSE and Nasdaq opening bells when the financial PR world revolved around the six-and-a-half hour trading day. Even then we felt as though we were always on and that was before smart phones had become an appendage.
Several years later, when we ran our own shop with expectations and policies far more liberal than the previous generation, the residual effects of those staid and humdrum office ways remained somewhat apparent.
Before COVID-19, we were at our open-concept HQ and probably behaving in a manner common among many offices. Most of our conversations were relegated to Slack well past the point of it being a reason to keep record of account related matters. At lunchtime, there was an offer to put in a community Sweetgreens order. There was a mid-day coffee run and probably a donut delivery. There was an occasional—though infrequent—early departure, and at least one or two people stayed behind for afterwork plans in the neighborhood.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '21 Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine
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We hosted most client meetings by phone and still do in many instances, awkward pauses and inadvertent interruptions and all. Those were easier to have with everyone on our team in the same room, and most likely the clients were in the same room with us. After the calls adjourned, we’d spend a few extra minutes talking about each other’s weekends or a meme that at least one of us—probably me—had yet to see.
To be clear, in the moment there was nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, it was all part of our culture. We liked our office and we worked hard at cultivating a fun, collaborative environment.
That was then, this is now
And despite how long we all worked in-person for, I’m not even so sure I’d recognize that version of us any longer. We’re a different agency now and a far smarter one at that, though it didn’t come without struggle.
Once we all started working from home on a permanent basis, we got used to it. At first, we loved it for the lack of a dress code and commute. We already had a work-from-home policy in place, so the transition to remote working was somewhat seamless, COVID fears aside. But then we saw the downside of not having a separation between office and home. Personal space became work space, which quickly presented obstacles we hadn’t faced before. For those of us with kids or an NYC apartment, claustrophobia hit even faster. We were all so exhausted by this version of normal that by the time it became safe to leave the house again and consider visiting an office after everyone was vaccinated, we did.
And you know what, the less we’ve been to the office working in the same place, the more productive and fulfilling those days have been, for our collegial relationships and the work product. We’re no longer resorting to just Slacking each other on a given task or client matter. We turn in our chairs and talk (and in 3-D) for which there is no on-camera substitute. We just had to figure out what we were going to do long term before this novelty of a return wore off.
The big question, which we formalized in an internal agency survey: “How many days a week do you want to work from an office?” Everyone said one or two days a week and shared their reasons why, and so that’s what we implemented as our return to HQ policy. After months of studying what other firms were doing and reading every remote work survey ever conducted, we decided to simply listen to our people and hear what they had to say.
We chose Tuesday and Wednesday, because no one wants to end a weekend at the office on Monday, and the same goes for the other side of the week as we head into the weekend. That’s all we’ll need to remain connected in the way we once were, when we probably overdid it by reporting to an office five days a week. For us though, that wasn’t enough. The work-from-home experiment has proven that overworked employees are unhappy and unhappy employees produce sub-par work, and then they quit, so we went ahead and issued a summer break for the last week of August to be sure everyone gets offline. This, coupled with our unlimited paid time off policy, ensures we’re recruiting and retaining top talent, all of which benefits our clients.
I didn’t know who Elbert Hubbard was until I Googled him, but one editor at Inc. did know who he was and quoted the early 20th Century writer and philosopher. Given his trade, he probably had volumes of sage advice for humans, but here’s the one that’s applicable here.
Hubbard said: “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” While it would’ve made more sense to say “people” instead of “man” in this case, regardless of the time in American history, the statement holds up today and I think it behooves us all to be on the “side of someone doing it.” The suggestion isn’t that we’re alone in this. I certainly hope not!
Matthew Kirdahy is Partner at Water & Wall.