News | August 31st 2021

The Drum | How Do You Solve a Problem Like... Making Staff Feel Safe Enough to Return to The Office?

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Originally posted in The Drum by Sam Bradley

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Last week it was reported that holding company IPG is mandating its staff provide either proof of vaccination, or a negative Covid test, before they are permitted to return to its offices (which are currently open part-time). But what about the rest of the industry?

Has the Delta variant changed in-office protocols? Which agencies are asking that only vaccinated staff come in?

How do you solve a problem like... making staff feel safe enough to return to the office?

Aimee Young, senior L&D partner, Oliver

A lot of the discussion around hybrid working boils down to organizational culture and trust. ‘If I can’t see my people, then how do I know what they’re doing?’ doesn’t really wash – what have they been doing for the last 18 months if not productively working from home and demonstrating absolute resilience in the face of an unprecedented crisis? But we do also need to consider the impact on new joiners and those new to the world of work. We have to consider the implications of going fully remote forever on digital wellbeing, siloed teams and navigating an equal employee experience for all our people.

My opinion is a hybrid approach – with trust and collaboration between each organization and their employees to decide on which days work for which teams – is something that works. Oliver also offers global wellbeing sessions and regular fitness challenges, and we’ve partnered with Unmind – a workplace mental health platform that empowers our employees to proactively measure, understand and improve their mental wellbeing.

Greg Ricciardi, president and chief executive officer, 20nine

The Delta variant has not changed our protocols for returning to the office. We have implemented an ’open policy’ to remote working. Employees have a choice to work in the office or remotely. Team leaders will dictate in-office meetings based on company and client need. It is also required that every employee must be vaccinated and provide proof to maintain employment with 20nine.

Linda Nguyen, human resources manager, Waste

Returning to the office is as much about psychological barriers as it is about actual health concerns. Since the start of the pandemic, before the first lockdown even started, we’ve had a constant stream of Covid-related communication with our Wasters, because reassurance is key.

We’ve also encouraged staff to take rapid lateral flow tests before coming in. However, we’re not putting pressure on them to do anything they’re uncomfortable with, which our people really appreciate. We’ve seen 15-20% of our staff choose to return to the office so far, and nearly all of us met for the summer party just a week ago.

Wasim Choudhury, chief financial officer and chief operations officer, MCD partners

At MCD Partners, our offices are currently available to employees who can confirm proof of vaccination. This has worked well for those interested in returning to the office space, however most of our staff has expressed their preference to continue working from home. Fortunately, we are a business that can successfully operate remotely, so we’re not pressuring our people to come back in, nor have we set proposed timelines. Personal safety is a personal decision and larger forces outside of our policies will ultimately impact and determine what our people choose to do. The bigger question we ask is, will office workers ever want to come back?

Cliff Ettridge, partner, The Team

Safety and trust are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Staff need to know that you aren’t forcing them back to the office and that their colleagues and managers have got their back.

At The Team, we’ve reduced the number of people allowed in the office; extended a remote-first contract option; and implemented social distancing measures. Importantly, we lead from the front. Leaders should live the policy they’ve put in place. If you’re advising people to be there one day a week, then be there one day a week.

If you care for staff from day one of any crisis, on day 365 you’ll still have their trust and confidence.

Pam Del Bene, director of human resources, Code and Theory

We are always communicating our office protocols agencywide, updating them as we closely monitor, day by day, all new developments and CDC guidelines to be aware of. While we are a remote-first agency, we have safely opened our office doors for vaccinated employees only on a voluntary basis, but by no means pressure anyone to come in given how successful Code and Theory has been in a remote environment. Consistent communication with our teams is key and we are currently working out the ways to make sure people feel the human connection behind their screens.

Peter Birch, UK managing director, Hybrid Theory

The large agency groups are setting out their stalls by demanding proof of vaccination or proof of a negative Covid test for office returns. Yet I’ve found the agencies most successful at winning over staff focus less on top-down policymaking and more on talking to teams. Returning to the office can be emotional, so it demands sympathy and a willingness to take into account individual arguments. The key for agency leaders is less about one-size-fits-all policies and more about inspiring confidence through a consultative approach where the whole team feels their views have been taken into account.

Laura Sherwood, people director, Rapp

Our return-to-office measures include maintaining a tight control on daily numbers as well as social distancing measures, rigorous cleaning protocols and providing a mixture of collaboration and concentration spaces in our offices. We have also introduced a voluntary wristband idea, where you can wear either red, yellow or green bands to show how comfortable you are with contact.

Equally, we recognize that hybrid working will be different for everyone, so we support our people flexing around their needs and have offered a process to opt out entirely. Most importantly, we continue to encourage people to speak out if they don’t feel safe, and have an ongoing commitment to constantly review our return-to office processes and adjust to keep safety a top priority.

Want to join the conversation? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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