As the U.S. transitions from its peak of COVID-19 cases to a new phase of the pandemic defined by increased vaccinations, healthcare marketing agencies are figuring out how to shift to a new era of working. Many agencies will likely need to create fluid plans to experiment with hybrid ways of working, according to a new survey out of consulting company Filament Inc.

The survey, which included some 288 respondents from four privately held agencies — including AbelsonTaylor, Hart Associates, Greater Than One, and Juice Pharma Worldwide — sought to pinpoint what employees wanted moving forward in terms of a return to the office.

According to the survey, the positives of working from home were largely summed up by the word “laundry,” said Mark Schnurman, president at Filament Inc. Working from home during the pandemic proved to give employees more flexibility to get work done while saving time on household chores — and in some ways, helped employees manage time more effectively.

“Everybody was saying that if I can just take 15 minutes to do some laundry, that’s 15 minutes of my weekend I might actually get back,” Schnurman said. “[Advertising] is very much a seven-day-a-week cycle, so the idea of being able to get a little bit of this done on Monday and a little bit of that done on Tuesday, gives people a fighting chance to get half a weekend back.”

The survey also found that not everyone is willing to give up the newfound flexibility to return to the office full time. Among agencies outside of New York and Chicago that began to open up during the spring, one thing they’ve already learned is that not many people gravitate toward coming into the office, Schnurman said.

“You’re getting agencies that have three floors in an office building and they’re getting 11 people showing up,” Schnurman explained. “They have 20 conference rooms — everybody can have a conference room and a spare. That’s what we were looking to help people understand: What can we expect when we open, what do our employees expect us to do?”

That will require agencies to examine the function the office needs to play. With more people likely working from home in the future, it poses questions about how offices should be arranged — for example, whether they should keep cubicles, or create more collaborative spaces.

At the same time, the survey also pinpointed several positives of returning to the office. While not many respondents planned to spend more than four days in the office per week, respondents still highlighted some things they missed about office life, such as the social aspects of seeing friends and co-workers, and the ability to learn more quickly in-person on the job.

“Advertising is an industry where people learn from their peers and their managers,” Schnurman explained. “As a result, when people aren’t in the office anymore, they’re not getting that institutional learning from their peers that you would just naturally occur when people are in the office. How do we address that? I don’t know the answer, but that’s certainly a big issue.”

All in all, agencies are beginning to think about this new phase, but the challenge is they don’t know what the answer is, Schnurman said. And because the pandemic isn’t quite over — instead, the U.S. is transitioning to a new phase, and things are still uncertain — agencies are being coached to approach the fall as the next phase, rather than the final phase.

“This is not our forever way of working; this is how we’re going to start working from ‘insert date here,’” Schnurman said. “They’re doing that in an effort to recognize it’s a fluid situation, and we have to figure it out as we go along.”

Still, Schnurman recommends that agencies steer clear of indecision when it comes to the matter — as employees are reportedly seeking clear decisions from employers in order to best plan their schedules around family, for example.

“That indecision is not what people are looking for,” Schnurman said. “They’re looking for decisiveness — even if it changes — just let me know today what’s going on, how it is we’re going to move forward.”

Ultimately, most agencies will likely start out with some hybrid form of working, given the fact that certain aspects of in-person collaboration can be important. The challenge will be to determine whether a mix of working remotely and working in the office will be effective.

“One of the CEOs said, ‘We’ve proven we can work in the office and we’ve proven we can all work from home,’” Schnurman said. “What we have not proven is that some of us can work from home and some of us can work from the office.

“We have not proven that hybrid works,” Schnurman continued. “We all suspect it will work and we have to make it work, but the idea that magically 60% of the people are going to be in the office and everything’s going to be perfect, is not practical. How do we find that mix where we get the collaboration that we need, and we get the heads down time that we need.”