Have you started planning for an eventual return to in-office work? Or are you already back?

David Lubofsky, partner, Y’all: When we asked the humans of Y’all what they wanted in a post-pandemic working environment, they all said the same thing: to work in a custom and comfortable way that suits our new world and, when possible, with the option of working around each other in person. We used that insight to create a new company working initiative, “Y’all work however.” It gives our people the option of working two to three days a week outside their home offices however they want, even in a solo tiki hut at the end of town (as long as it has internet). By having no dedicated workspaces, we’re able to put the money saved into company-designed retreats.

Steve Reeves, partner, Red House Healthcare Marketing: Our teams have been remote since March 2020, and we’re currently planning our return to in-office work. Our goal is to begin the in-office transition in the July/August timeframe so everyone is settled by Labor Day.

Donna LaVoie, president and CEO, LaVoieHealthScience: We have been successfully functioning in a hybrid model, with a balance of being in-office at our Boston headquarters and working from home. We’ve found that we thrive as a team when we can collaborate in one place — so when it comes to strategy sessions and new business pitches, we’ve had smaller groups working together while maintaining social distancing.

Mike Williams, SVP, Brandsymbol: We returned to the office on May 3. Our entire staff has been energized by returning to in-person collaboration and the camaraderie that has resulted.

What are some of the learnings from COVID-era work that can be applied to post-pandemic agency life?

Williams: Working together is at the heart of a creative agency! We’ve revamped our processes to maximize our opportunities to be creative and collaborative. Using virtual tools such as whiteboards and voting platforms, we transitioned to an online creative workspace. We’ll continue to use these tools whenever we’re not on-site with a client.

LaVoie: In post-pandemic agency life, we will put more value on spending time with team members and having a true culture in the office. It is difficult to stay as connected as a team while we are all at home. You miss out on the small talk you would normally have to catch-up with team members.

Reeves: We’ve learned that our teams can function at a high level remotely, and we can reduce our in-office real estate requirements in favor of increased staffing. In addition, the heavier reliance on Zoom and Slack for non-essential internal communications will remain, versus holding in-office meetings to cover the same information.

Lubofsky: Agencies were just not connecting with our people enough. I am sure we all thought we were, but you really learn how little you know about the people around you until you get thrown into this crazy world where you see into their lives — literally. Also, timesheets don’t matter; the quality of work and personal well-being and mental health do. We trust our talent to know how long their work should take. We’ve found that the happier our people are, the better work they produce — and we don’t have to worry so much about hours and dollars spent. There’s less focus on seeing red and black, and more focus on seeing their pearly whites.

Do you expect your company culture will be permanently changed as a result of the year-plus away?

LaVoie: Our company culture will remain the same. We have flexible work-from-home hours and there is transparent communication between members. A negative outcome of this experience is burnout. A positive outcome is that face-to-face collaboration will be restored once the team can be in office again.

Lubofsky: Our core mission when we started was to become a safe haven for extraordinarily talented weirdos to find shelter from the grind of traditional agency life. We’ve learned together how to run an agency right smack during a pandemic and our values evolved from this: to treat people well, deliver thoughtful, high-class digital experience for clients and do away with conventional thinking.

That’s not to say there aren’t negatives. Our company is founded on the premise of Southern kindness and with the goal of investing tons of company time and money into “for good” projects. But those initiatives are always way more special when you can work on them together in-person.

Williams: Because we haven’t physically been together, we’ve made it a priority to recognize our employees’ accomplishments and to promote from within. We’ve also recognized the changing workplace dynamic and made sure our team had everything they needed to comfortably and efficiently work from home.

Is the 9-to-5 (or -6 or -7) office day as we knew it a thing of the past?

LaVoie: That’s a tricky question because remote working makes those lines much blurrier. When you’re working and living in the same space, it can be difficult to shut your laptop and return to normal life.

Lubofsky: Why was a 9-to-7 day ever a thing in the first place? We knew firsthand how unhealthy that type of working style can be, and we knew it needed to change long before the pandemic opened our eyes. So we’ve created a culture out of adapting work life to fit personal lives, not the other way around.

Let’s say an employee wants to be treated as a full-time member (e.g., access to benefits), but needs to work limited hours because they also want to pursue their dream of starting a (non-competing) business of their own. Traditional business models would require that a person pick one path because they couldn’t possibly excel in work, become a true part of the team, work fewer hours and focus on another venture. If you don’t let employees pursue their dreams, they will dream of leaving. We are proud of our dreamers because we were dreamers once, too.

Williams: Since a 9-to-5 schedule hasn’t been typical at our agency, we’ll continue to promote work/life balance. We’ve openly discussed the issues that arise from being overworked (such as burnout) and how they negatively affect us and our families. While our team has proven we’re able to work effectively in a remote setting, we work better and thrive off our interpersonal interactions when we’re in the office.

How do you plan to leverage pharma’s improved reputation among would-be employees working in non-pharma verticals?

Williams: Over 75% of our branding projects are healthcare-focused, so it’s a definite plus that pharma is viewed more positively. This improvement will result in more opportunities for recruitment outside of healthcare, which aligns with the expansion of our non-healthcare business.

Reeves: Our healthcare expertise and client base have been a benefit to prospective employees who recognize the opportunity, and we expect that to continue.

LaVoie: With COVID, people who were not so focused in our industry have become more interested and have spent time learning about vaccine development. Everyone has a personal interest now.

Lubofsky: The industry has adhered to this illusion that you must have experience in pharma to have any measure of success. We were once outside the pharma bubble ourselves, and someone took a chance on us when we applied to our first pharma agencies. Why wouldn’t we pay that forward?

Wouldn’t we want to attract fresh creative talent to our industry instead of recycling the same tired ideas for different clients? Our head of human operations has zero pharma experience. The people who run our project management department had a combined zero days of pharma experience before their first day — and they run pharma AOR accounts with ease. 

All you need are leaders that know the space and the patience to teach those who genuinely want to learn.