I’m virtually exhausted

—Stephen Brown’s basement renovation contractors have reminded him how much he misses his office, and his team—  

Sitting in my kitchen, plucking away at my keyboard like I have been for more than a year, I’m distracted by the sounds coming from my basement.

For weeks now, I’ve been living through the sounds of underpinning—jackhammering being the worst of it. And while the noise has been irritating, I’ve also been surprised by a constant stream of laughter and enthusiastic conversations from the crew.

It dawned on me that I’m envious. Pure and simple. I’m envious of the four-man crew in my basement who are having way more fun than me.

I’ve been thinking about that laughter a lot as I wrestle with big dilemma facing my agency: What will our office of tomorrow be?

Fuse Create is getting ready to move. Our lease at the space we’ve been at for 18 years is up in November, so we’ll be relocating at about the time—we hope—the vaccine rollout will allow us to meet together in person again.

The pandemic has taught us we can work quite successfully from our homes. So when I look at my expense lines and see that very large rent line, I confess I’ve considered going 100% virtual post-Covid.

But going fully virtual just doesn’t feel right… it doesn’t sit well in my gut.

As an industry, we’ve been blessed that we can cocoon in the safety of our homes during this pandemic. However, the long-term costs of this looks harmful to our business health. Ideating over screens feels forced. Virtual social events are tiring on the eyes and nerves. Every little topic or item needs a scheduled meeting, versus simply walking over to someone to clarify.

Understanding someone’s mood (good or bad) over a screen is incredibly difficult. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to build relationships with clients.

But mostly—as my contractors have reminded me—it’s the laughter I miss most. Laughter from a ridiculous idea in a brainstorm (I know, I know “there are no bad ideas,” but if we’re being honest…), or the side-snicker when the long-talker overuses “100%.” Or the simple hysterics from a shared story about someone’s weekend adventure. Yes, we’ve laughed over Teams and Zoom, but it’s not the same. It’s separated. It’s isolated. I can’t feel your energy the way I do when we’re in each other’s presence.

But as everyone in advertising knows, you can turn a problem into an incredible opportunity with a little creativity.

And that’s how we’re tackling our office challenge. This is what we’re doing… it’s pretty simple.

First, and most importantly, we’re going to have a space to meet, collaborate and let our culture thrive. We’re not going 100% virtual.

Second, and equally important, we’re creating a collaboration destination, not an office. It’s all in the works, and I’m incredibly excited about the change this marks in our agency’s evolution, although I’m holding onto the details for a little longer.

Finally, we’re shifting to what we’re calling a fix/flex model. We’re setting some expected “be there” events for the team each week, to ensure we’re fostering connectivity and that much-needed laughter. But we’re leaving a lot of it open so people can manage their time with this hub to what suits their needs most.

I suspect some will be there daily, others once a week. Frankly, I trust the team to figure out on their own what works best for them, the work, the client and teams, because they’ve been doing it for a year now.

A culture destination is what’s right for us. I’m not saying it’s right for everyone. The specifics don’t matter. What matters is that at the heart of it all, after a year of isolation, all I want is to find a space that brings a team together and lets us get back to working in person.

And the opportunity to laugh again. I got into advertising because of my love of the work. But I’ve stayed for 29 years because of my love of the personalities we meet along the way. It’s time for us to come back in.

Stephen Brown is the president and CEO of Fuse Create