Is hybrid working killing creativity?

—We all appreciate a bit of flexibility in our lives, but many agencies are increasingly keen to get staff back in the office—

By Shauna Lewis

It’s been a good 18 months since lockdown travel and movement restrictions started to ease, but many in the advertising industry still find themselves having to gently remind colleagues during online meetings that they’re on mute.

When the U.K. first went into lockdown after Covid hit in 2020, the concept of working from home was one that businesses around the world needed to grasp quickly.

Three years later, and with the gloomy days of the virus behind us, many agencies have developed hybrid working models and, according to Campaign’s School Reports data, collated in 2022, adland staff are going into the office for an average of 2.6 days a week (90 responses).

It’s only a slight increase on the mandated days of 2.5 (64 responses), but is it a sign that people are responding well to the hybrid model—one that is, quite possibly, here to stay?

In May last year, Adam & Eve/DDB stipulated that staff work from its office in Paddington four days a week with its “Four&Flex” model, which allowed people to choose one day a week to work from home.

Miranda Hipwell, chief client officer at the Omnicom-owned agency, says the decision was made after a staff survey found that many employees were feeling “lonely” and “disconnected” working from home after the pandemic.

At that point, Hipwell adds, most people were doing “twilight days”: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. However, then chief executive and now executive chair, Tammy Einav was worried that this way of working would “kill” Mondays and Fridays in terms of doing business.

Bringing back creative rigour

The task was to create something that maintained the flexibility people had come to enjoy but also reintroduced creative rigour to the business. Although people want fluidity, Hipwell says, sometimes they also want more “guidance” than their workplaces are currently giving them.

More than a year later, the agency has seen an uptick in the length of people’s service and a string of industry accolades.

Hipwell believes that having staff together in the office for longer has been a key factor in the agency’s success: “It’s given us a headstart in terms of getting to better work and getting to better creative solutions. You just can’t do it in the same way when you do it in a hybrid zone.”

The agency does see the need for home-working in some instances though. On average, staff are coming in 3.5 days a week and Hipwell explains that if staff members have been away on a shoot and need that time at home, it is granted.

Adam & Eve/DDB was the most decorated UK creative shop at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, coming home with 19 Cannes Lions, including a Film Grand Prix for the Campaign Against Living Miserably’s “The last photo.” It also won D&AD’s Creative Agency of the Year Award in May.

The agency’s sentiments about producing better work when teams are together in the office are echoed by a recent study from Thinkbox, carried out by Laurence Green.

After interviewing 34 senior creative agency and client practitioners, Green said at a Thinkbox event there was a “genuine fear” that hybrid working and too many calls over Zoom were “undermining” creative work.

Commercial creativity takes a hit

Speaking to Campaign, Green expanded on this idea, saying that creativity itself wasn’t being compromised by hybrid working, but “commercial creativity” was.

“The business of commercial creativity and getting the kind of ideas that are going to work hardest for clients, getting them briefed, getting them built, getting them sold, getting them produced. That gets harder,” he says.

Creativity itself hasn’t been completely compromised because “creatives have always scurried to the local or anywhere but the office” to come up with their ideas, he adds.

Green cites Skoda’s “Cake” ad, created by Fallon Worldwide in 2007, when he was chairman and founding partner. Creatives John Allison and Chris Bovill came up with the concept in a café near the office.

Green adds that client relationships can be harder to manage when hybrid working. An idea such as “Cake”, he says, was reliant upon a great deal of trust between the agency and the brand.

“It’s hard to have unbreakable client-agency relationships if you’re a square on a laptop rather than a three-dimensional person in a room,” he says.

Ultimately, Green “can’t say whether the industry’s found the right footing yet” but, in relation to media agencies at least, he does think their roles are more suited to the hybrid-working format.

Rather than being “relationship”-orientated, a media agency’s work is task-based, he says, which can be completed more easily at home.

However, one media agency boss (who wished to remain anonymous) says that they—and their agency leader peers—want to introduce more days in the office but are wary of doing so because people prefer the flexibility they have become accustomed to.

This flexibility has led to a greater work-life balance for many, as well as improved mental health.

Creative agency Neverland has a “no policy policy,” but reports that staff are coming in 4.5 days a week on average.

Polly Dedman, director of performance at Neverland, says: “Our only rule is that we’re adults and everyone has the freedom to decide where they want to be to perform at their best.”

Buzz and excitement

She adds that they are “not quite sure” why the number of people coming into the office is so high without a policy, but they have focused on making the office an environment that “people want to be in.”

The agency has approximately 50 people, organizes a breakfast once a month and puts on a monthly sport event, which has included softball, yoga, HIIT and climbing.

“We’ve just really tried to create an environment that is buzzing and exciting,” Dedman explains.

The agency, Dedman says, ultimately doesn’t care where its staff are working from—but there is a big focus on individual performance.

“It’s all about your output,” she says and adds that good creativity comes from being together: the “random chats” by the coffee machine or the walk back from the meeting.

With a focus on individual performance and the ethos that good creativity comes from being together, it seems the employees of Neverland have found out for themselves that being in the office is preferable to working from home.

Alongside flexibility, working from home has provided some unexpected—and very welcome—benefits.

Speaking at the All-In Summit earlier this year, Danny Josephs, partner at MFuse, said that working from home had “extended the working lives of disabled people.”

Now, he says, “the pandemic has shown we can all work from home properly. My disability is my mobility, so getting around is hard. The fact I don’t have to come in is just helpful.”

Josephs adds that the pandemic has also changed the way that people view working from home. Previously, he says, people saw it as a form of slacking. “When people were working from home on Fridays, it was thought they were getting ready for things, having a longer lunch and an early finish.”

But now agencies can trust that staff will finish the work from home to the same standard as before, adding “you can get your work done in your own way.”

Still, Josephs thinks that being in the office more often is the way forward. MFuse stipulates that staff must be in two days a week and Josephs uses the government’s Access to Work scheme to take a subsidized taxi into the office.

He says that working from home cannot imitate being in the office: “We collaborate better in the office. We discuss better, more in depth, more thoroughly. Opportunities arise that wouldn’t when you’re at home.

“I think you can work from home, but you can’t do the office from home because it is often about socializing. It’s about learning. It’s about collaborating.”

It seems that anyone looking to replicate the success of Adam&Eve /DDB and other similar office-favouring agencies will have get used to early alarm calls and the vagaries of public transport a little more often.