Offices have always been garbage. It’s why they’ve been lampooned in both subtle and excoriating ways in films from “The Apartment” to “Office Space” and, more recently, Apple+'s “Severance.”
Why agencies need to leave the office and broken work cultures behind
And yet, before the pandemic we still all pushed the idea that they were the connective fiber that held our work worlds together. They were houses of culture, large people colliders of spontaneous creative interactions.
We now know this to be BS. Almost all of us worked in an "open concept" space, an absolutely discredited idea founded on the belief that increased interactions would promote collaboration and spontaneous moments of genius. What it actually promoted was distraction and resentment and hushed death threats against whoever heated tilapia in the microwave.
Beyond kitchen miasma, offices are dumb for a bunch of reasons, and I think the one that most needs to be addressed is that they are built around the billable hour. At its core, the office is about validating that we can physically see people putting in the hours we use to bill our clients. It’s a container for the time we use as the driver of our value. It's an ant farm we can show off: Look at them go!
But hours and output are not related and we all know that now. Many of you have worked with brilliant people who came up with terrific ideas before the planner even finished briefing them. And you’ve worked with people that couldn’t come up with a good idea if someone else gave it to them. Which someone did. And then both of their names went on the credits simply because they were in the same room at the same time.
So I’ve been surprised lately to hear of so many people in the industry crafting and enforcing return-to-office policies. In response there are the TikTok horror stories of mousetracking software and the rise of quiet quitting as employees react to a discredited managerial style that is trying to assert itself as it confronts its own extinction.
Most of us have tried to usher clients through digital transformation for their industry, so in the interest of trying to usher ourselves through our own transformation, I'm suggesting three opportunities to do so.
Ask your people what they want, then turn your office into that
Our offices were never our product—as agencies, at best they were a feature. But Razor scooters, Keurig machines, and David LaChappelle prints aren’t as alluring as we thought.
So what is the value of an office? Ask your people: Do they want to go back? What do they want from it? How do they want to use a gathering space?
Get the planners on it; it’s time for some market research on ourselves. We did this at my agency, and these were the results: 0% of people wanted to go back. Now you’ll hear some people say things like, “I actually liked my commute. It gives me time to think." You know what else does that? Giving yourself time to think. No need to get the MTA involved.
It's time to separate the need from the want here. Vox wrote about a study with some interesting results. Yours may vary, but what you will find in your results is the blueprint for what your office could become.
Become part video game
My people have been clear about what they don’t want: an office. So what do they want? They want to do a good job. They want to be a part of an agency with a perspective, and codes of conduct, and ways of doing things. They want process, and opportunity. They want to feel supported, nurtured, and part of something.
In order to do that, we have to develop agency operating systems for the modern age in place of the office. We’re not building from concrete, but from tech stacks that are intuitive. Not just Zoom, but Loom and Notion and Workamajig, Mesh, Trello and Copper. I’m working on exactly how that looks for us at our agency, and my team is enthusiastically helping, which I greatly appreciate.
I’m learning from people in adjacent industries where remote work has always been the norm. I took a remote learning class on building DTC brands. I’m stealing from that. Using new tools. Creating the new game board. Building in powerups. I’m asking myself if this agency was a video game, how would employees play it? Then I'm trying to build it like that.
Prioritize doing cool shit
As long as I have worked in this business I’ve heard the refrain from creatives, planners, account directors, everyone: “I just want to do cool shit.” Your office is not the carrot. It’s the stick. The cool shit is the carrot. If you offer people the opportunity to work on creatively stimulating, strategically challenging, culturally meaningful work, they’re gonna show up. And by show up I mean bring their full selves to the job, put in the extra effort, contribute to the culture, help each other, and give you their best effort from wherever they are.
No tracking software required, no seductive Razor scooters needed. If you make your people come to your office and you’re not giving them the opportunity to work on great stuff, they’ll still be working remotely—freelancing for someone else from inside your office.
Returning to the office is not the move. Building the new office is the move. Is it harder? Sure, we haven’t had to do this before. Is it more exciting? You bet. I don’t know if I’m going to succeed, but if I don’t, at least I won’t have to clean out my office.