Nationwide estimates show that more than 1-in-4 Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the bulk of states are due to cross the 50% immunization threshold by mid-June. And, in New York, the literal home of Madison Avenue, Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced a “major reopening” plan for that state as well as New Jersey, and Connecticut to take place on May 19.
So are agencies across the country preparing a quick return to the office? It appears that several are looking at a return in September, and many are looking at doing this in phases, starting with a few days a week. Restrictions, such as masks, are likely. Small shops are more likely to reopen quicker, and much depends on an agency’s location. And in some cases, the physical space employees return to will be different—with private desks, open-air spaces and accommodations similar to the home offices they have become used to.
Before an agency can consider back-to-the-office plans, it has to review the guidance of each office’s local jurisdiction to see what is allowed, Aaron Colby a California employment attorney for Colby Law Firm told Ad Age.
Keeping it equal
“Assuming [returning to the office] permitted, the next question becomes can the employer require employees to come back? Of course, they can, and they have to do it on an equal basis,” Colby says. When it comes to allowing work from home, “equal basis doesn't mean they have to offer it to everybody, but the employer must have a legitimate business reason for why they're not offering it to everybody,” he says. “And, as always, the employer must engage in the interactive process to seek a reasonable accommodation for employees who are unable to return because of a disability.”
Companies can also require employees to get vaccinated, as long as it's a part of its written policy, Colby says, unless an employee has a medical or religious reason for not wanting to return or get vaccinated.
In that situation, the agency must provide reasonable accommodations such as the agency providing the employee with extra personal protective equipment; letting them come back to an isolated office and making sure the employee isn’t asked to come to any meetings or group settings without everybody else wearing PPE; allowing the employee to continue working from home, and if all else fails, the agency can put the employee on unpaid leave.
“In some states before you do that, an employer must look for other open jobs within their organization for which the employee is qualified, Colby says. “An employee that refuses without a doctor's note or religious reason has no protection for an accommodation, and thus can be fired if the employer has a policy on this.”
Holding company issues
Since office openings are reliant on state rules, holding companies have been left hampered, because their employees can be scattered across a plethora of offices spanning many different states, regions and countries. If it’s safe to come back in one state, it may not be deemed so in another.
“As parts of the world start to ease restrictions, we are also evaluating what the future of work looks like at Omnicom,” John Wren, CEO of Omnicom, mentioned during a recent earnings call. “Our leadership on a local and office level are working on gathering feedback from employees and clients to help us decide what the ‘new normal’ will be – one where we can service our clients effectively while also connecting with colleagues in the safest and most flexible way possible.” The company declined to comment further.
During Interpublic Group of Cos.’ recent earnings call, Philippe Krakosky, CEO of IPG, said the holding company’s return to office planning is “likeliest to begin to a meaningful degree in September,” as IPG monitors guidelines across the globe and listens to the opinions of its employees, but the company didn’t offer specifics on the plan.
Publicis Groupe will use its AI-powered platform, Marcel, which fully launched last year, as the go-to for tools and resources for employees to return to the office, such as being able to reserve desks or meeting space. Currently more than 47,000 employees are logging onto Marcel each week.
It’s less complicated for small creative agencies like Joan. The shop, which has 50 employees including freelancers, has a plan in place to return 100% of its employees to its New York office in September. Joan, who was advised by law firm Davis & Gilbert, will require its employees to return to the office at least three days a week as part of its hybrid model, which employees are “generally looking forward to,” says Jamie Robinson co-founder and chief creative officer.
“We have this electric feeling together as a community which is part of our special sauce,” Robinson says. “We're thinking that these three days still gives people more flexibility in their lives than they have had in their work careers and still keeps that team and that feeling of collaboration intact.”
The agency was transparent about its decision during its weekly meetings and department meetings to gauge any concerns employees may have. Joan is recommending, but not requiring, employees to get vaccinated.
But it’s no secret that being a small agency played a big part in this situation. “We are lucky to have just the right size and space that meets capacity restrictions and also enough space to give everyone 6 foot distance from each other,” a Joan spokeswoman says.
On top of social distancing, Joan will implement various safety protocols such as masks in common areas, no shared food, no family style meals or snacks, two people at a time allowed in the elevator, twice daily cleaning, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available for use, no deliveries and windows will remain open.
Independent media agency Horizon is reopening June 1 on a voluntary basis and is expecting around 10%-20% of employees to come back three days a week with a goal of having everyone back by Sept. 14 “only if the guidelines for mask wearing and 6 feet social distancing are lifted,” according to Eileen Benwitt, exec VP and chief talent officer of Horizon Media. “Once these guidelines are lifted, we are allowing for those who choose, to work in hybrid capacity, in an office and remotely.”
The agency said it surveyed its 2,000 employees and found 60% want to come back. While the agency expects a full return in September, it will accommodate employees who either can not or prefer not return to the office on a case-by-case basis. “This is a situation that calls for empathy and a customized approach, reviewing extenuating circumstances,” Benwit says.
Some agencies have started to work on transforming office spaces to make the comeback easier. Boulder, Colorado agency TDA surveyed its 25 employees and 100% said they wanted to return to the office in a hybrid model, with the consensus being to work from home two days a week. Everyone in TDA’s office is either fully vaccinated or halfway there, Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director and partner says, and the agency hopes to return to the office in half capacity this summer and full capacity when it makes sense.
“In the meantime, we are updating our space,” Schoenberg says. “People have become accustomed to the comforts of their homes, so in a way we are now competing with the home office.”
TDA is looking to compete with the home office and follow state guidelines by creating more spaces for people to spread out and have Zoom calls as well as claim their own desk space. Office updates will also include air purifiers, more plants “to add healthier air,” as well as eight patios with mountain views.
Norfolk-based agency Grow will have its employees returning to an entirely new space. Grow Founder and CEO Drew Ungvarsky led the charge for the creation of a new 100,000-plus square foot campus, named Assembly (Grow will be a tenant), which will operate as its own multi-building campus for creative and technology companies.
Each tenant will inhabit its own office and share amenities like a rooftop deck, modern event and meeting spaces, a podcast recording booth, a wellness/mother’s room, a library, restrooms with showers, bike share and bike storage, and more.
The complex which will open its first phase (half the campus) on May 17, has nine tenants, four which signed on during the pandemic, and will house other local creative businesses including architects, nonprofits, coffee roasters and engineering firms.
“We took a smaller core footprint for ourselves because now I don’t need to build an event space capable of holding my whole agency or build a 20 person conference room that gets used three times a month,” Ungvarsky says. “To take a smaller footprint and then share a bunch of amenities with a bunch of other like-minded tenants makes sense financially, as much as it makes sense for what we think is the future business model.”
Last year, Ungvarsky surveyed his team and 90% indicated they wanted a hybrid model of some kind. However, there is no requirement to return to the office attached to the opening, Ungvarsky says.
“Employees who may be interested in coming into the newly opened office, we’ll set capacity limits and safety protocols that follow the latest guidance from the CDC and Virginia Dept. of Health,” Ungvarsky says. “We’ll also continue to allow our employees to work from home entirely as they choose until those same health authorities say it’s safe to work together without masks, at which point we’ll transition to our hybrid model.”
Preparing for the hybrid work model, Ugvarsky and his team were sure to include collaborative tools in Assembly’s offices such as touch screen TVs and multiple cameras in a room for office and remote employees to work together.
Capacity-centric model gone
While the move toward agency collaboration has led in recent years to open-concept offices and shared desks, COVID seems to have shifted that model.
The old days of “capacity-centric” offices are gone, says Emma Armstrong, president of FCB New York, who views the future office as a “competitive tool.”
Armstrong is working with architectural design firm CBRE to see how the agency can adapt its current space to be more flexible so it can accommodate employees’ needs based on what part of their creative process is best done together versus individual work that can be done remotely.
While there aren’t plans on an office upgrade yet, with the help of CBRE the agency completed employee surveys, focus groups and vision sessions with the management team. The goal is to create a space that can support the way the employees work across different disciplines and requirements that they feel comfortable in, and to uncover anything the agency is missing in terms of using the physical office space as a competitive advantage.
MDC Partners’ Forsman & Bodenfors’ Global CEO Guy Hayward expects to have a solid back-to-office plan for the New York office in place next month, but says that openings of other offices are up in the air.
“We have an office in Toronto and Montreal and they're in major lockdown right now. They can't move at the same time as everyone else,” Hayward says. The situation in Sweden is similar to New York “whereas Singapore and China are back to normal.”
One of Hayward’s concerns is maintaining an inclusive work environment as well as safety protocols once hybrid models are in place. The last few months F&B’s New York office has been having agency meetings with a group of around 20 of its employees in the office and the rest online, which he says happened organically, but provides an interesting experiment.
“It’s been interesting observing behavior,” Hayward said. So when the people are in the meeting room [talking with others] on Zoom, people [in the office] are wearing masks. But when they're sitting at their desk and they're spaced, the masks sort of start dropping down, showing us what working in the office really looks like and what we have to think about.”