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Will we ever go back to the office?

The way we work is changing, from how we collaborate with clients to the tech we use and how we reach our audiences. In our new lunchtime series FutureGaze, we chat with creative leaders about the innovations they’ve made to their own businesses during the pandemic, and ask which changes are here to stay.

With social distancing restrictions easing, a return to the workplace is imminent for many workers. That’s not exactly universally popular. 19% of UK workers hope to work from home long-term and 1 in 4 say that they would quit their jobs if forced to go back to the office.

But our appetite for telework is far from black and white. 36% have said they can’t realistically work anywhere but the office, while a majority of 43% prefer a hybrid split between home and the workplace. As employers start to plan their road to recovery, they will need to consider these individual employee needs.

It’s a conundrum that Andrew Dobbie, founder and CEO of strategic brand agency MadeBrave, has come to know a lot about.

Right at the start of the pandemic, MadeBrave decided not to go back to normal and instead plan a new kind of company culture. They’d only just signed an eight-year lease on the office before COVID-19 hit, so going completely virtual wasn’t an option. Things would have to be hybrid.

“What we started to realize, and what we started to see, was: our physical studio space should be a destination for the brand - and our team, rather than a mandatory place our people have to work from," says Dobbie.

Clearly they did something right. MadeBrave was recently named one of Campaign Magazine’s Best Places to Work for the second year in a row. So what does flexibility look like for MadeBrave?

The Triple Flexi Policy

“Rather than just thinking about giving people flexibility of where they work, could we make a policy that flexes around everyone individually?”

Everyone has individual life circumstances that affect their ability to work, be it childcare, health, or anything else. So Dobbie and his team have devised what they call the “triple flexi policy”, which breaks down into:

  • Flexi desk - “the flexibility to work where and when they need to”
  • Flexi time - “a flexible time for starting in the morning and flexible end in the evening”
  • Flexi leave - “we've given a really generous leave of 37 days a year, but we've said if you run out of holidays, just come and ask

But none of this can happen overnight, and some businesses will find it easier to pivot to remote flexible working than others. What ideas might be put in place to help create this new blended office?

State your intention, then work out how to get there

A little accountability goes a long way towards getting a task done. By announcing their decision to continue flexible work after the pandemic, MadeBrave created a vision for themselves. That vision has kept shaping their decisions as a company going forward.

“You don't get to the moon by getting on the moon and then telling everyone you're going to the moon,” Dobbie tells us.
 “You tell everyone you're going to the moon, and then you as a team figure out how you're going to get there. I said if we go out publicly and say we're going to work from anywhere, forever, it's going to force us to figure out how to do that.”

Get input from your team

Once his 50 staff members were settled at home, Dobbie upped MadeBrave’s monthly company-wide meetings to daily. It was an opportunity to be completely transparent about the business operations - to share what was going well, what was going badly, what was different - and to invite ideas from the team.

“I've never been through a pandemic,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has. So we need to work at it together. If you're leading a business, you can't possibly have all the ideas, all those solutions, so you
 need to open it up to everyone.”

Invest in new tech for hybrid offices

“I foresee the problem of when you go back into the studio, you've got 50 people and different Zoom calls,” says Dobbie. “You're going to
 have all sorts of feedback and hearing other people. I think we're going to need lots of little isolation pods.”

Before COVID-19, MadeBrave had already invested in cloud computing and remote communications tools like Slack. Both have become essential for businesses working together from home.

But now that MadeBrave are plotting a more hybrid model of in-person and remote work, they’re finding that the office needs some extra kitting out. A new event space for live streaming in the studio, for example, and a handful of noise cancelling office booths made by the company Room.

The rise of co-working spaces

“We've got to remember not everyone has the same home working environment.”

While some of us are clamouring to keep working from home after the pandemic, others have spent the last year navigating flatshares, working on kitchen tables or sofas, or fielding childcare and other parental distractions. For many, working in the office is still preferable.

The co-working space was already one solution for freelancers pre-COVID, including at MadeBrave who would host freelancers whenever there were spare desks. This hot desk model will likely apply to the entire office in the future, with desk ownership a thing of the past.

Elsewhere, business owners are repurposing spaces in surprising ways. “I have heard from a group of freelancers that have all gone to a sharing space, but what's quite different about it is they're sharing a space with a restaurant,” says Dobbie. “During the
 day they'll use it as a collaboration space with multiple different freelancers, and at night it will turn back into a bar.”

What are the challenges of remote work?

One of the main barriers for employers looking to implement a hybrid working model is the cost. It takes investment to make sure that everyone’s homes are fitted out properly for work, from paying for an extra screen monitor to ergonomic furniture. In MadeBrave’s case, each of its 50 employees recently received a brand new office chair.

With remote hiring also comes the question of wage expectations. “We have a market differentiation in terms of salaries, and usually people in London and Paris and cities
 like that get paid more because there's a higher cost of living,” says Dobbie. “What does that do when we're looking at things like pay gaps and pay disparity to the rest of the team?”

Work out what's possible for your business

Not all workplaces are equally resourced, and what works for MadeBrave may not sound practical for your business.

That’s okay. You can start by creating your company vision, then pool ideas with your co-workers to envision your new office culture. As Dobbie has said, none of us have been through a pandemic before, so there’s no one right way to adapt to its aftermath.

The key, as we start to see an end to presenteeism and a surge in flexible work, is to find out what works best for your team and how you work together.

“We're trying to build a culture of freedom, trust and respect,” says Dobbie of MadeBrave’s approach. “We will try and build around flexibility for everyone, but everyone has to respect that that's going to look differently for some people.

Further reading:

Choose #FlexForLife report by Flexibility Works

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