Agencies face a post-pandemic cultural reckoning  

As parts of Australia emerge from lockdown, the test now comes to see what lessons the WFH era has offered, writes Five by Five Global managing director Matt Lawton.

Remember when we first started working from home back in early 2020? There’s a nagging concern in my head that a return to normalised working for agency staff heading back to the office will be equally weird. (What if that new team member hired over Zoom turns out to be a bit of a dick in real life?)

Despite it being the thing a lot of us have been longing for, will it all be as rosy as we remember it? How long will it be before we realise the shitty commute is shittier than we remember it and long for the days when we rolled out of bed five minutes before a meeting and ate breakfast at lunchtime?

meeting team collaboration office teamwork

Anyway, we have bigger problems brewing that relate to culture – now is the time we get to find out if we actually ever had one.

Agency heads have no doubt been doing their best to keep the good ship Culture afloat. But will Zoom drinks and themed quizzes prove enough to have maintained any kind of workplace culture? Most bosses know that culture isn’t set by what gets pushed down, it’s about what lives within the business, peer-to-peer behaviours and the initiatives that move upwards through the agency. Working remotely has removed the ability for that to happen easily and made it harder to observe. The more compassion, genuine and personal contact agency heads have had with all staff during this difficult time, the more likely the agency’s culture has remained strong. 

With an estimated 30% talent shortfall in Australia, a good culture has become a business imperative in order to retain and attract great people. Like many agencies, we’ve had to fend off recruiters looking to poach our staff and conversely we’ve been told by recruiters that candidates aren’t keen on switching jobs during lockdown. That would suggest there’s an imminent tidal wave of resignation letters about to land on the desks of anyone who’s not managed to strengthen their culture during the pandemic. 

The other HR nightmare waiting in the wings is how agencies manage the vaccinated vs non-vaccinated staff mix. It’s a potential minefield, and while corporates may be able to enforce a line and cope with losing staff, it will be harder for agencies (and small businesses generally) to manage any talent exodus due to enforcing the health advice. It opens up the possibility that unvaccinated staff may have to remain working from home indefinitely. If that happens, the impact on client relationships and agency culture may be largely negative.  

Humans can be divisive creatures. But many agencies will maintain (rightfully) the option for staff to work from home. One of the implications we’ve been talking about is the need for ‘rigorous flexibility’. Complete flexibility can be a real challenge in our business because not knowing exactly who’ll be showing up in person, or being unable to keep track of someone’s WFH schedule, can slow us down.

Putting some rigour to flexible working relationships is something we think will help. We don’t think it’ll be good to allow whims to define which form of attendance staff take. It’s not a regressive measure, it’s an attempt to make sure we maintain accountability – something that’s a cornerstone of our own culture. 

Only time will tell if everything we’ve done to strengthen culture during the enforced WFH regime will help us maintain momentum. But agency bosses need to be fully conscious there’s a reckoning ahead.

Matt Lawton is the managing director of Five by Five Global.


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