Career, culture and creativity: the lost opportunities of the office 

Key moments of human interaction are lost when working from home, writes Havas Media Group head of integrated strategy and planning Nick Kavanagh.

I’ve just started to emerge from my Covid-enforced work hibernation. Although there’s a smattering of people on our floor at the Havas Village HQ, the view from my desk is mainly of blank screens, empty chairs, and scribbles on whiteboards for campaigns and pitches long-gone. Ghosts of a more collaborative past. 

As a management team we’re now trying to encourage our people back to the office. It’s February already and like every agency in town, we have targets to meet and clients to service. We need to get going. 

But a lot of our people are reticent to return and the reasons for this are as broad as they are understandable.  

I’m glad the 5 days-a-week, 9-6pm (on a good day) thing is over. Finally, we have accepted that work needs to work for us. That people have lives, families, responsibilities and passions outside of work that demand greater flexibility from our employers. We’ve also collectively endured a once in a century event whose impact on our emotional and physical wellbeing is yet to be fully understood. Expecting people to spring back to how we worked at the start of 2020 is at best unrealistic, at worst unfair. 

However, it’s also important to tell the other side of the story. To reflect on the benefits of being in the office. Considering everything we’ve been through it’s easy to forget this. But I’m not going to preach, no one needs that. Rather, this is a reflection on my own experience. Of how being around others in a shared physical environment benefitted me and my career, from starting as a media buying assistant in 2002 through to head of strategy today. 

The first benefit is just how much I learnt, and continue to learn, via osmosis. Be it my more experienced peers negotiating the trading of airtime, hearing how my business directors handled difficult client conversations, to how the most adept agency leaders work the agency floor and subtly impart their vision, I learnt/learn so much just by being around people more experienced than me. My fear is that, by being at home, we miss out on so much of this informal training.

Physically being around people helped me shape my career choices. Media buying was fun but a) I wasn’t wired for hardcore negotiations and b) I was rubbish at Excel. However, I quickly realised that there were lots of other jobs that take place in an agency that I was perhaps more suited to. By being around people, listening to conversations and participating in meetings I was exposed to planners and planning, and consequently shifted roles into this area. A course correction that put me on a trajectory to head of department. 

This pivot happened the best part of 20 years ago. The diversity of roles in an agency has grown exponentially since then. What you do now may well not be what you’ll be doing in three years’ time, and the chances are you may want to do something different right now. Contact and interaction with others will help guide what you really want to do.  

What I enjoy about working in an agency the most – is agency culture. Yes, the lunches and the invites to events are great, but it’s the rituals specific to each workplace, the micro-interactions that take place every day and the sense of collective endeavour that I’ve really missed. Agency culture creates bonds, and bonds lead to friendships that last well beyond your tenure at a particular organisation. Working remotely makes it extremely difficult to build and maintain agency culture and consequently these bonds weaken.  

Agency culture improves the work, especially creativity. The latter being something we must protect and nurture, regardless of the flavour of agency you work in. Having people together in one place has a direct influence on the quality of the work. That’s not to say you can’t do it remotely, but it is a lot harder and, arguably, less fun.  

But if you take anything from this, it’s that final point – that work is more fun when we’re together. 

We now need to make sure work works for us; that we can fulfill our responsibilities as seamlessly from our bedroom as we can the boardroom. Of course, the job can be challenging at times, but these challenges feel less overwhelming, and the highs more gratifying, when we’re together. Actually, together. 

So however you want to return and at what pace, remember that being in the office can be a good thing. For you, for your career, for your team. Who knows, you may even end up creating something truly revolutionary. 

Nick Kavanagh is the head of integrated strategy and planning at Havas Media Group.


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