The Comfortable Numbness of WFH
As a founder and CEO, for 15 years, I embraced ‘Hustle Culture’. Priding myself on being the first one in and the last to leave. Rightly or wrongly, ‘Busy-ness’ was a badge of honor. Always looking to demonstrate to the team what it took to be successful. It didn’t come without sacrifice. For my entire career, I carried the guilt of missing family dinners, parent-teacher interviews, my children’s sports and generally not being present for important moments in family life.
And then of course the pandemic hit and everything changed. And after the initial scare of an unstable economy, transitioning teams to work from home, suddenly that elusive “work life balance” became a reality. This was a chance to steal some time back. And it’s been glorious. I’ve never spent as much time with my family. I’ve been available for dinner regularly, I spend more time with my kids and my wife and it’s brought a lot of joy to me. I have come to love WFH.
But I think the pendulum may have swung too far. I believe our industry will struggle to survive in its current form. It struggled for relevance before the pandemic. With in-housing, freelancing, AI and consulting firms all challenging the traditional agency model, the industry needs to come together now more than ever to redefine itself.
- Collaboration needs Presence. Presence Creates Energy.
Virtual meetings. Slack huddles. Zoom Briefs. Teams Presentation. All suck. They suck life out of work. ‘Presence’ is a fleeting feeling in the virtual world. We’re inundated with screens, messages and distractions. And we can easily pretend to be participating while we respond to emails or split our attention on other work. Focus and attention are at a premium. Humans get energy from being heard, from being challenged and from reverberating feedback.
Make room for more in-person collaboration. We need the natural spark of ideas that bounce off walls and each other. It’s for everyone’s benefit. For better ideas, for better work and for better mental health.
- New Relationships aren’t being built. Whether its new business relationships, partner relationships or coworker relationships. Humans aren’t built for isolation. There’s a reason why pitch consultants are reporting a record number of pitches this year. I believe that it’s because relationships are weaker than ever. Loyalty is fleeting. We can all hide behind our screens, eschew the ‘taxing’ burden of in-person meetings for a quick zoom call. We are no longer investing time in each other. We’re so much more productive. We’re so much less social. Small talk is diminished. Get to the point: Transact. Exchange. Repeat.
Demand In-Person Meetings. Make it Policy. This sounds ridiculous. I believe those that will advocate for in-person meetings will have a disproportionate amount of success. And they will do so because of real, human interaction. Meetings, coffees, lunches, brainstorms and live presentations. Be a maker of in-person meetings.
- Junior Staff Growth has Slowed. The next generation is being sacrificed for our desire to stay in our cozy nests. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by thinking that newer, younger staffers are going to learn the business at the same rate. Training and career development were strained before the pandemic. With demands on time and output at an all-time high, junior team members at many agencies already suffered from a lack of structured training. Now, we’re leaving them to their own devices and expecting the same rate of growth. We’re only fooling ourselves. To be frustrated with them is totally unfair. Their rate of growth is diminished in equal measure to the amount of time they’re not spending in the office.
We need to get back to ensure the long-term survival of the business. It’s not just the formal training. Newer team members need to observe, feel, hear and learn through osmosis. They can’t do this in isolation. Learning isn’t just about consuming facts and data, it’s learning behavior. Understanding what it takes to be successful. Witnessing skilled, senior people operate and picking up cues from them. Those who embrace this idea will thrive.
- Culture is Suffering. Have you talked to a recruiter lately? Attracting talent has never been more difficult. Retaining talent has never been more difficult. The bonds which connect us have eroded. Loyalty has eroded. And the sense of team can be tested when you’re rarely together in person. A lot of talented people have chosen to become mercenaries, moving from agency to agency for the next better thing. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing for them, but it is a challenge if you’re trying to run a shop built on continuity. Demonstrating your core values and embracing your corporate culture are impeded. We’ve shifted from a team mindset to a me-mindset making it tough to build momentum through a shared vision.
Make more time for in-person play. Whatever that is. Take away the burden of work and bring people together to simply have some fun. Spend time together without the expectation of work. Getting people out of their homes can be a challenge. We’ve lost so much humanity in the hyper-productive, back-to-back, deadline-driven world that we forget that we’re dealing with human beings, with lives and families and interests outside of work.
- Our Work is Human. Virtual Work is Not. We study human behavior for a living. We are in the business of influencing people. IRL interactions are critical to uncovering insights that lead to the ideas that our clients buy. We’re not robots just yet. We must encourage our people to get out of their apartments, get out in the real world, get inspired, spend time in stores, in showrooms, in boardrooms and observe.
Hybrid is the answer. There’s a lot of good that WFH brings. Quiet, uninterrupted work. More time with our loved ones. Less time commuting. A stronger work life balance. And we were in desperate need of that. But we need a bit more balance. It’s time to spend regular, defined, business days together, in our offices. Not half-empty spaces. Not mandated “come in any 2 days you feel like”, but bringing everybody together, at the same time to build back the bonds of learning, collaboration and culture that underpin the spirit of creativity.
As leaders at any level, we know what the right thing to do is. And it’s not always the popular decision but it’s for the betterment of our teams, our output and our industry. We need to physically come together, feed off of each other’s energy and build tomorrow’s agencies now.