Sitting in office alone with cellphone in hand
- Business

Re-opening our office safely

Head shot of SteveBy Steven Piper

We took the decision to lock down a week before the official, country-wide, lockdown came into place in March. For the past few years the team have worked from home every Friday, which meant we already had the infrastructure to accommodate working from home full time, making the transition fairly seamless (apart from a blown up laptop).

Yet during lockdown and as it started to become less stringent, I started to realise we needed to reassess how we would work moving forward. After discussing this with the senior management team at length, we decided to engage with every member of the team to find out what they would prefer.

The results are as varied as you would expect with a team of individuals:

  • some want to work from the studio most of the time
  • some want to be in the studio some of the time and;
  • some would rather only come into the studio once in a blue moon

Now my job as an agency founder is to find the balance between what is good for the individual team members, the team as a whole, our clients and the business. With a fairly even distribution between team members wanting to work from home all the time, to those wanting to get back into the studio four days a week, we needed to figure out how to please everyone.

Here are some of my thoughts on how we opened our agency’s studio back up.

Ask everyone what would make them happy

Some team members wanted to stay at home for health reasons, some team members wanted to get out of the home because they found it harder to concentrate. Either way, without having asked the question I would never have known the answers, and neither will you if you don’t ask.

I would suggest not making the questions overly complicated. We asked the following basic questions:

  • Do you want to come back to the studio
  • How many days a week would you like to come in
  • Is there anything we can do to make things better for you

Everyone is different – don’t assume otherwise

Before we asked everyone what they wanted to do, I had made some assumptions about who I thought would like to get back to the studio and who would want to stay at home. I was wrong on about 75% of my assumptions.

You have a responsibility to not just physical, but also mental health

As a business owner or MD, you are absolutely responsible for the physical and mental health of your team. Staying at home and only communicating through Slack and Zoom can be very isolating. For those of us who struggle with depression, this isolation can become too much too quickly. A face to face interaction with your friends at work, even if it’s a 30 minute meeting, can be good for the mind.

I also believe the separation of work and home life is critical to good mental health. For those team members who do want to stay at home, it’s important to encourage the right balance. Keep an eye on these team members to make sure they are not on Slack at all times of the day and encourage people to close laptops at 5pm and put them away if they’re working from their dining room tables.

If team members prefer to work from home, how can you make it better for them?

At the beginning of lockdown, I drove to most of the team dropping off monitors, keyboards, mice and even office chairs. If the plan is to work from home for a significant period of time, you have the responsibility to help the team have a comfortable and practical set up. By asking them what they need in order to be more comfortable, and making it a better experience, it will allow them to successfully work from home.

What’s the right balance for projects?

No amount of Zoom calls will ever replace the spark and energy you get during a collaborative face to face meeting, and this energy is super important at the start of any new project.

Our next challenge is to see if there is a way of successfully holding a project kick off meeting with a blend of Zoom and studio-based participants – including team members and clients.

What will agency studios look like in the future?

I have come to the realisation that it is likely we will never have more than 30% of our team in at any one time (except on exceptional days – like pizza Thursday). We have evolved into a new way of working. As a result, the studio space is going to change to accommodate this.

Use a ‘zone’ approach 

The way we currently use studio space will change according to work habits. The current studio is roughly split:

  • 20% meeting rooms
  • 20% kitchen and social areas
  • 10% client waiting areas
  • 50% desks and seated work areas

In the studio of the future, the areas most in demand will be those for small, intimate meetings (stand ups, sprints etc), whiteboard sessions, post-it note sessions, idea generating etc. Typically team members will be standing and moving around in these areas as they collaborate.

There will be fewer desks and chairs, with the desks likely to be smaller as people won’t be sitting at them for long periods of time.

Client waiting areas are likely to be multi-use spaces where we can hold informal meetings or whiteboard sessions too.

The team social space should be maintained. Keeping a space for team members to interact face-to-face in a world where most communication will be via Zoom and Slack is critical to maintaining a good team spirit.

Shared space with other agencies 

Most (if not all agencies) would have looked at the rent and rates they have paid for a quarter of the year with no benefit and seriously considered why.

A solution could be that non-competing agencies team up to share the same space (and bills).

This is an idea which I am interested in seeing at work. There is an opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other, adding some ‘new faces around the studio’, whilst also making a significant dent in what is commonly the second biggest cost to running an agency.

In Summary

Coronavirus has brought about a shift to what was not so long ago, considered the normal way of working. Now more than ever businesses and agency owners (like myself) need to adapt in order to succeed, whilst placing the wellbeing of their team members at the centre of this change.

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