Make it work – by TBWA\RAAD’s Claudinia Harper

TBWA\RAAD’s director of people, Claudinia Harper, explains how to shape a post-pandemic flexible working environment

Every time I move to a new role I switch to a new industry sector, as I truly enjoy the steep learning curve that comes with a whole new field. Post-pandemic, there is even more complexity for people and culture leads to navigate. I was hired by TBWA\RAAD to reimagine work practices post-Covid and partner with the leadership team to elevate the employee experience of our people and enable them to do their best work.

Knowing that remote working was not going to be a temporary measure, we wanted to stay ahead of the curve rather than being led by the market. TBWA\RAAD’s advantage is that the agency has been fluent in delivering award-winning work via distributed teams and a flexible workforce for years, even before the pandemic. Now we have flexible hours, work-from-home any day a week, and we’ve just announced a four-week-per-year work-from-anywhere policy.

In 2022, we see agencies experimenting with exciting new models of work and hybrid working patterns. The 3:2 working model (three days from the office, two from home) appears to be the most common. Some agencies mix these patterns up, tailoring configurations to the operational needs of their teams. Going further, some agencies are exploring even greater personalisation within their teams, with the aim of balancing operational needs with the needs of individual members, to fit in the demands of their roles beyond work.

While the benefits of hybrid work for both agencies and their talent are self-evident, some of the challenges that come with new ways of working have been less obvious, catching some agency leaders off-guard. We’ve seen leaders reaching for traditional and more familiar leadership practices to regain a sense of control, while others have leaned into opportunities to try out new things, pursuing innovation in their work practices for employees with the same determination as the work they produce to delight clients.    

The challenges are significant. Creativity and innovation are central to what we do in this business. Missing out on opportunities for the human connection that in-person interaction and shared experiences provide is a risk with hybrid work. How do we attract people into the office to facilitate moments of connection at critical times? How do we provide entry-level talent and young emerging leaders with the in-person time to learn on the job by watching and learning from coaches and mentors? How do we mitigate the risk of unfairly excluding, assessing, recognising and promoting the people who are not in the office all the time? How do we provide our talent with real points of connection and engagement with the values and goals that attracted them to begin with?

The solutions are already out there, and still many will be discovered before you get to the end of this article.

Companies are redesigning their office space to make the office a welcoming, energising place to be. Zoned spaces aim to give employees reasons to be in the office, and to facilitate more watercooler moments or “moments of congregation”, to quote Bruce Daisley. Meeting rooms and work practices are being reimagined to provide for periods of uninterrupted conversation, and also for periods of uninterrupted focus, enabling employees to reach a state of flow, previously only largely possible when working alone at home.

Some teams have implemented a weekly full-team ‘anchor day’ and ‘department days’, ensuring that people are in the same place to collaborate. However, these can limit cross-department collaboration if, for example, collaborating teams are scheduled for rotation on different days.

To build and maintain a strong community and create a sense of belonging for employees, many agencies are deploying frequent all-hands meetings, birthday celebrations, and regular in-person and virtual leadership fireside chats. These internal practices help build team cohesion and provide talent with frequent points of connection between the agency’s purpose and their own.

We see investment in leadership development that equips managers to be empathetic leaders and to create inclusive hybrid working practices within their teams: asynchronous communication and decision-making; inclusive meeting etiquette and practices; managing talent based on outputs and impact instead of inputs or face time; providing employees with a sense of belonging. This is often accompanied by investment in tech platforms that support these shifts: meeting-room tech, performance and alignment management tech, workflow management tech, apps that allow team members to seamlessly synchronise their online and in-office time so they can schedule their time with intentionality to support team productivity.     

Here are a few principles to consider when rethinking an agency’s work practices:

1. Trust your people. Trust that the talent who kept the agency running working remotely during lockdowns and the stresses of a global pandemic are still acting in good faith and want to continue to contribute to the success of the agency they are a part of. They are not looking for ways to slack off now.

2. Establish your in-office non-negotiables. Start there and then seek opportunities to incorporate flexibility and new ways of doing things around those. A caveat before you label anything an in-office non-negotiable, though: If it was possible to get this done remotely in the midst of the lockdown, is it really an in-office non-negotiable?

3. Be curious about what’s out there. There are many potential solutions that can be explored. What are others doing that you haven’t yet tried? Flexibility comes in different shapes and sizes: in or out of the office, different working hours, part-time and job-sharing working models.

4. Be curious about perspectives inside your agency. Your talent has different circumstances and therefore brings different perspectives to the table. What ideas do they have and what might they be willing to try? Consult your people and involve them in trying out solutions. When you need behaviour change from people to make a change stick, the rule of ‘nothing about me without me’ is a proven success factor.

5. Experiment, and be ready to tweak to improve. You might try something and find out a particular solution doesn’t work for your agency, or perhaps not for all your teams, or maybe not all the time. Ask, ‘I wonder how we could make this work,’ instead of ‘I don’t think this will work.’ Hold on to your assumptions loosely. Keep an eye on performance indicators, feedback from your clients and your talent, and be ready to adapt where required. The win-win-win solution might be just one tweak away.

I encourage leaders to avoid copying ‘best practices’ out there. They’re not right for your team just because they are called that. There really is no one-size-fits-all, because what is right for one agency might not work for another with a different market, mix of clients, core services, talent demographics and cultural context. So be willing to try things out and pursue what is the best fit for your agency and your people instead.

Flexible working might be a new feature for the majority of today’s talent, but it is table stakes for Gen Z already. How prepared is your agency to compete for the talent of the future.?