After local governments allow agencies to return to their offices, most will wait an additional few weeks out of an abundance of precaution.
Steve Parker, Jr., CEO and co-founder of Levelwing, a digital marketing agency based in Charleston, South Carolina, says he has no desire “to be the guinea pig.” South Carolina—where the majority of Levelwing’s 75 employees reside—recently began allowing close-contact businesses including restaurants and gyms to reopen their doors. Parker says Levelwing is taking a wait-and-see approach and doesn’t anticipate any employees will be back in the office until June—maybe later.
“By and large, the team has done a really good job in terms of working from home,” he says. “We do have a minority [portion] of the team who are really wanting to get back for a variety of reasons. At some point, we will make the decision to go back to the office. We will make that decision collectively. In this community, a lot of people have gone back to work already. Over the next two to three weeks, how that works or doesn’t work for them will tell us more about what’s a good timeline for us. There is still a healthy amount of concern.”
Parker says Levelwing was able to easily transition employees to work remotely when the pandemic hit. That’s because of a work-from-home plan, launched on March 16, that originally was created in case of a hurricane. When the office does reopen, Parker says it will not be mandatory, at first, for employees to return. Agency leadership, he says, is planning to remodel office space to maintain social distancing.
Most desks and stations are already six feet apart but “some are five feet apart, Parker says. “What do you do? Do you completely remodel the office? Put up plastic screens? All of the options are in consideration.”
Pittsburgh agency Smith Brothers, following Pennsylvania guidelines, reopened its office on May 18. However, President Michael Bollinger says the agency decided to do so only because certain employees wanted to return. It’s not mandatory for anyone to be in the office and, for the next few weeks, he says, only half of the 50-person staff will be permitted in the office at the same time. To manage that limit, employees have to register for a time slot to go into the office, says Bollinger. Other safety measures Smith Brothers has implemented include providing masks to all employees, who are required to wear them when walking around the office, and ensuring that every person is maintaining social distancing in the office.
“It’s entirely up to them,” Bollinger says. “The office is open to whoever wants to go in.”
Six feet apart
Tombras, a full-service ad agency based in Knoxville, Tennessee, has taken the same wait-and-see approach. Tennessee began to reopen the state for many businesses, including gyms, on May 1, but Tombras decided to keep its doors closed.
The agency mapped out a plan, which it shared with Ad Age, to return to the office.
The first phase of the plan was to delay a return even after local restrictions eased, during which time Tombras provided status updates to staff every two weeks. The last status update was given on May 18, when the agency decided again to hold off reopening.
The second phase of reopening will allow for employees to visit the office only to collect supplies they might need, but not to stay and work. In the third phase, 10 percent of the workforce, including leadership, videographers, editors and security, will return on a non-mandatory basis.
During this phase, employees may not gather in conference rooms and must be at least 15 feet apart from one another. Tombras will assign and mark stairwells in its building as ascending and descending and only two employees, standing six feet apart, will be allowed in an elevator at the same time.
The last phase of Tombras’ plan will have the entire workforce return in two groups on alternating schedules. Employees will either come into the office Tuesday and Thursday or Monday, Wednesday and Friday. During that time, they must maintain eight feet of space between each other and conference rooms can be used, but at no more than 50 percent capacity.Tombras says it will continue to encourage employees to use tools like Slack and Zoom as much as possible even when they’re back in the office.
Tombras CEO Alice Mathews says she knows “there are people who are hesitant” to return and says that no one will be required to come in if they don’t feel comfortable. On the other hand, she says “there’s probably 10 to 15 percent [of employees] who are dying to get back into the building,” so leadership has to cautiously accommodate for those employees as well.
Mathews says what this pandemic has proven is “we can work from home, and do it really, really well,” so there’s no rush to get back.
Leadership at various holding companies including WPP and MDC Partners have similar feelings.
“We have found that our teams have been highly productive in this remote-work reality, and MDC’s already-in-progress initiatives in areas including centralized technology have allowed us to transition seamlessly to a work-from-home environment,” says Jason Cammorata, head of global operations at MDC. “This allows us to be thoughtful and patient in our approach to reentry.”
Cammorata says no MDC employee “is expected to return to the office until they feel comfortable doing so.”
Mike Densmore, the New York CEO of MDC agency Forsman & Bodenfors, says he’s been in conversations with the holding company and other sibling shops to understand best practices for reopening. Still, being in New York, Densmore says the agency has “no hard date” for when it might return.
“The No. 1 priority is the well-being of everyone working, emotionally, physically and psychologically,” Densmore says. “We’ll treat this on an individual basis. Some people are in quarantine by themselves and they want to be around other people. Others are obviously worried because of commuting and transportation which could be scary at this stage. Others are high-risk [to COVID-19] or live with family members who are high-risk.”
He says working remotely “hasn’t been an issue,” so the agency will allow that to continue.
In a memo sent to employees last week, WPP CEO Mark Read says while certain offices will soon begin opening in parts of the world, including “in a few markets in Asia and Europe,” he doesn’t anticipate agencies in highly impacted cities like New York and London will be back in the office “before September or October, and it may well be later.”
Either way, Read assures staff that, like other agencies, “returning to the office will be voluntary” and “we will only reopen an office if we believe we can meet the highest safety standards.” Read says WPP will also be considering its employees’ journeys to work, not just the in-office experience, meaning “we will need to know that people can get to work safely.”
“It has been nine weeks since we began operating under our global policy of managed remote working,” Read says. “Some of you, in places where COVID-19 struck first, have been working from home for even longer than that. You are all doing an incredible job, often under difficult conditions.”
A changing business model
Advertising, historically an industry in flux, has always required its teams to adapt quickly, creatively and nimbly to ever-evolving changes to business as usual. With the coronavirus pandemic—just one of a string of events forcing the industry to rethink its model—agencies are realizing that activities like client meetings, which require travel, can be done via Zoom and other web conferencing platforms, saving time, money and the environment.
In a previous interview with Ad Age, Accenture Interactive CEO Brian Whipple said he expects to travel less going forward. Whipple said that before the pandemic, he was on a plane every week traveling among the firm’s global offices.
“Companies, including my own, will, at the end of the day, be spending a lot less on travel two years from now than they did two years ago,” Whipple said. “We will adjust and become much more effective and efficient. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
GSD&M CEO Duff Stewart says the pandemic has “demonstrated people can work from anywhere.”
“People are finding there are less interruptions working from home, not surprisingly if they don’t have kids or pets,” he says. Stewart says he could see allowing some of his employees to work four days in the office, one at home or three days in the office, two at home “just to do what they need to do.”
GSD&M, based in Austin, Texas, has not yet returned to the office but is currently working alongside parent Omnicom Group to flesh out a plan for when it does. Stewart says the plan will likely see only 25 percent of employees going back to the office initially.
Barry Lowenthal, CEO of The Media Kitchen, which is still working remotely, says his agency didn’t typically allow for much remote work pre-pandemic.
“We will have more working from home [post-pandemic],” Lowenthal says. “There’s going to be a second wave [of the pandemic]. We don’t know how bad. This is going to be an ongoing problem until there’s a vaccine. People are going to want to work from home. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Every executive interviewed for this story emphasized the need to survey employees to get a sense of how comfortable they feel returning to the office when they can.
Leeann Leahy, CEO of The Via Agency in Portland, Maine, says she hopes her employees will be able to start returning to the office sometime in June, likely on staggered schedules. However, she realizes many of them, including parents who will have to stay home with their children who are not in school or day care, will remain remote.
“We have our department heads checking in with people on a daily basis to get a sense of how the team is doing,” Leahy says. “I’ve been calling people personally. We have a wellness committee to stay in tune with how people are doing. Our IP team is calling people to make sure their equipment is working. If they need extra equipment, it’s brought to them.”
All in all, Leahy says The Via Agency has “done an exceptional job given the circumstances” and is not in a rush to return.
For Sara Pine, a director of account services at Glow, the opportunity to shift partially to a remote working schedule permanently couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Pine, who is getting married in November, “fingers crossed,” is grateful to have the option to work some days at home—especially, the New Jersey native says, as she and her fiancé debate moving out of New York City.
“I can’t envision myself working 100 percent from home, but it will definitely be a mix for me,” Pine says, “especially as we start a family and move out of the city, which could be sooner than we thought. It’s really exciting. As a young female who’s soon to be married and looking to have a family in the upcoming years, it’s really great to have this flexibility. Knowing I don’t have to alter my life or career is really important.”