The COVID-19 pandemic no doubt forced advertising agencies to “go remote” overnight and the reality is that many will have done so successfully. For some, it may have dawned on them that it is the future of their business. I have no doubt that the pandemic will instigate a lot of progression, but there is a risk that it will simply be a momentary blip if the industry’s culture doesn’t change.

The long-held belief is that working remotely is taboo. The bizarre belief is that it’s almost impossible that creatives can be left to their own devices, that they must be in an office and be watched in some way to ensure they are delivering. In many workplaces, even intermittent days working from home or flexible arrangements can lead to some resentment between employees who have different arrangements and managers who must address the fallout.

When I founded Create NYC over a decade ago, it was very consciously built with telecommuting at its core. I personally didn’t want to be trapped in an office knowing that I can be just as productive at home while removing hours of commuting from my week. But as agencies consider whether they should consider adapting a remote model of their own following the relief of this pandemic, it’s not just a matter of just flipping a switch.

The decision to adopt a remote model must be fully endorsed by leadership across an agency if it is to be successful. There will be emotional barriers to change in an industry that is culturally reliant on long office hours and time spent in team meetings.

Remote working requires leaders and their teams to embrace a new mindset—it’s not about asking permission; it can be the new normal.

Business: Change, Stability, and Continuity

Making fundamental changes to operations, no matter what they are, isn’t without anxiety and such decisions aren’t (or shouldn’t be­) taken lightly. Even if things ran smoothly through the pandemic—that doesn’t mean moving to a virtual business model full-time can be done overnight or simply.

There must be a strong business case behind the decision—it is potentially high-risk, so there must be a benefit, not just the status quo only with staff working from a home office.

Counterintuitively for some in the sector, telecommuting often increases productivity. A two-year Stanford study showed an employee attrition decrease by 50% among telecommuters. They also took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off. Other studies have shown that employees willingly work more hours.

Decreased overheads are also a major part of the decision—the same Stanford study showed that the participant company saved $2,000 per telecommuting employee on rent by reducing the amount of office space it needed. By moving into a shared network office, businesses can still have a base where staff can go to collaborate or meet clients but at a significantly reduced cost.

Some investment may need to be made into new processes and software to facilitate remote working—it is however likely that agencies will already have the tools in place, but are yet to fully realize their potential. One of the key enablers of the swift reaction to the pandemic was the innovative and secure communication and task management platforms that most businesses are already using. Agencies have now awoken to the potential of these platforms which have provided confidence in remote working throughout the pandemic.

People: Recruitment, Retention, and Flexibility

Running alongside the business considerations, and just as important, is the impact on people—top account and creative talent is what makes agencies tick. Team members need to be happy, engaged, and supported to deliver their best work.

An IBM survey of 25,000 people conducted during the pandemic found that 54% of the respondents would like to be able to primarily work from home and 75% would at least like the option to do it occasionally. Once businesses reopen, 40% of people responded that they feel strongly their employer should offer remote work options.

This sentiment will likely change as the lockdown goes on and people crave human interaction, but the message is clear—telecommuting will become a big part of delivering better employee experiences.

Remote agencies aren’t geographically limited—staff can live anywhere—meaning the talent pool is significantly larger. And a little bonus when it comes to client management: You can recruit near your clients, meaning on-site meetings are simpler and cost less.

Telecommuting is also a built-in recruitment and retention strategy, but it must go hand-in-hand with flexibility if it is to work to full effect. Employees are drawn to remote working because they want the flexibility they believe it offers—it’s not just about cutting the commute but about the ability to combine the working day and delivering in core hours with personal responsibilities such as doctor’s appointments, exercise, and family obligations. If agencies expect their staff to remain chained to their home office as they were at work, a remote model may not be as successful.

It Comes Down to Values

The COVID-19 pandemic may have helped many agency executives realize that remote working is not a subversive way for employees to lounge around on their couch while getting paid—but a way of operating that has great potential when done correctly. Many should be thinking of adopting it.

However, it is not for every business or everyone. It requires structure, accountability, drive, and strong partnership and collaboration skills from everyone at the agency to work. If an agency’s core values and processes reflect and can enable these values to flourish, then working from home can become the new normal.

  • Natalie McDonald

    Leveraging her insight from both the client and agency sides, Natalie founded Create NYC, an innovative on-demand agency, to service the ever-changing healthcare industry. She has worked to apply her skills to an increasing number of clients and brands ever since, overseeing details of all three key advertising services for Create NYC—flat-fee advertising, flat-fee adaptation, and studio services.

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