In defence of the office

In a year that has forced a shift away from the typical office environment, Laura Aldington looks at what working from home has really meant for collaboration, culture, and the collective.

As lockdowns slowly begin to ease and state government leaders take steps to lifting restrictions, we’re seeing more and more business leaders talking about their return to office plans. Or, more specifically, their ‘will not return to office’ plans. The general gist is that this radical social experiment has revealed just how redundant the office has become. That we’re just as efficient, communicative and collaborative a workforce when we’re free to do it from the comfort of our own Uggs; that it offers better work life balance; that it makes for a more ‘flexible’ workplace.

They certainly raise some valid points. There can surely be little doubt that for certain types of business, a 9-5 (and then some) return to a physical location every day is a thing of the past, that we’ve entered a new era of work, and that the flexibility and choice that offers can only be a good thing..

For years now, advocates of remote working have been touting the eminently quotable sound bite, “Work isn’t a place you go, it’s something you do.” The New Statesman championed the concept as its headline when the right to flexible working was extended to all UK employees back in 2014. But I wonder if the two have to be mutually exclusive? Could work be a place you can go to help with the thing you do.

Our hypothesis is that working remotely from home full time can definitely keep an agency ticking. We’re just not yet convinced it’s what will make it boom.

Here’s why.

Time to reel in remote meetings?

Remote working offers structure. But not the magic of the unstructured. 

Nils Leonard, founder of London agency Uncommon, often talks about ‘creative collisions’ – people of differing viewpoints, skill sets or disciplines coming together in the most unexpected ways. In ways that produce the best kinds of sparks. In ways that get to the right (or wrong) answer faster.

But you don’t plan a collision. You can’t schedule a Zoom call to spontaneously collide. You collide in corridors and stairwells. You collide while fighting for the toaster in the mornings. You collide when inspiration strikes at exactly 4:12pm. You race across the floor to check if something so crazy just might work. Someone agrees, a few other people who don’t even work on that project weigh in and you spend the next few hours turning that energy into magic. Together.

That’s not to say creative collisions can’t happen remotely. They can and do. But ideas are a numbers game.

We make less than we sell, and we sell less than we have.

And if creative collision helps spark those ideas, then we need to creatively collide as often and as organically as we can.

And bringing people together in the real world can really help with that.


You can maintain culture from afar. But it’s easier and quicker to build culture when you’re together in the real world.

In his (excellent) book ‘No Bullshit Leadership’, Havas Global CEO Chris Hirst says agencies are simply “buildings full of people” and that “the difference between success and failure is simply the talent and the culture within their walls”.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to this line of thinking. Take away the building and you still have the talent. Take away the walls and (if it’s built right) you still have the culture.

But I still believe that bringing people together in the real world can be a very useful conduit for that culture, and an invaluable tool for that talent.

I’m not talking about free beer and ping pong tables. That isn’t culture. Culture is creating an environment in which your team can outperform your competition.

And, to a large part, it is built and transformed most quickly when that team can be together, in person, in the real world.


Remote working makes it easy to keep an eye on important stuff, but harder to keep an eye on the really important stuff, like mental health.

I’ve read the stats about our industry’s dismal record in supporting the mental health of our people. But I’ve never read anything to suggest that being with real people in the real world is the major factor in that issue. Unreasonable deadlines, increased demands on fewer people to do more, excessive pitching, poorly trained managers and leaders, lack of support, lack of diversity? Yes, although none of those are inherently solved when people are home alone all day.

Bringing people together in the real world in a meaningful way? That can make a real difference.

I can spot a struggling and overwhelmed account director at 100 yards in the real world. I can see from the demeanour of a team returning from a big meeting as to whether an intervention is required to lift some spirits in a nanosecond.

Yep, we do buddy calls. We do daily check-ins. We run social events. We do all the things. And yet, whilst our staff engagement scores increased during our stint being 100% at home, so did staff engagement with our Employee Assistance Program (that provides free counselling to our staff and their families).

Now, you could argue that is correlation and not causation in a global pandemic, and that could be right. But let’s not pretend the mental health of Australians has soared for the better over this period. I’d argue it’s a bit early to say the lack of human interaction provided by a workplace isn’t something of a factor in the decline.

Because let’s be honest, working from home all the time can be good but it’s not THAT good. Yep, some stuff is great. But some stuff? Not so much. I think my kid is extremely cute but is everyone hearing him describe carefully the differences between squid and octopus in great detail over me when they just want to wrap up a call and get on with their lives that cute? Is there any feeling worse post pitch or after a big presentation than hitting ‘leave meeting’ and sitting in silence staring at your four walls with only your adrenaline for company? Is spending huge chunks of the day hunched over a screen really that liberating? And in the end, didn’t many of us feel like we went from working at home to essentially living at work?

It’s not about the office, but about the people

We need to consider the needs of individuals, but also remember the collective.

I find the notion that every individual should be able to create the exact and ideal work environment that suits them a bit challenging. It fails to recognise the importance of community.

We should be able to adapt our work life to a point, of course we should. But here’s the reality – my job as a leader is about my people, above everything else. So just because I might love to work from a hideaway in Bowral on only Tuesdays, Thursdays and every other Sunday whilst I concurrently make olive oil…it’s not really just about me and my needs in a team-based company. It’s about everybody. If I’m, say, an introvert manager but my extrovert team of three thrives on spending time with me, we can’t ALL have what we want, ALL the time. So we have to have a bit of give and take. A bit of, well, 50/50.

Some of my team have thrived at home. Some have really struggled. We need to do what we can to think about the collective spirit and not just what suits individuals. That is the fundamental basis of a healthy society. We have to cater to more than just our own needs. Because those who say, ‘but people can go into the office if they want to!’ are missing the point that for those who need it (and plenty do), the office isn’t actually the building itself, it’s the people in it. And if people aren’t there for them, if we don’t show up for them on a semi regular basis, we are as guilty of enforcing a way of working on them as religiously expecting daily office attendance did.


Remote working can feel, well… remote. And humans need humans.

It feels strangely like an episode of Black Mirror when we imagine that a world where time with real people in the real world is excess to our requirements.

When all is said and done, real world beats the digital world in almost every single human interaction on earth. Technology is wonderful, but I’ve spent the last few years trying to use it less, not more – to be more present in my real life. Is virtual school as awesome as real school? No. Are virtual relationships as excellent as a real cuddle? No. Is connecting over a Zoom wine as enjoyable as catching up with a friend in a bar? No. Because we are, at our core, pack animals. And pixels, no matter how hi-res, are no match for proximity.

And so, when I read about businesses taking a stand and firmly choosing not to return to the office, I applaud their vision. I really do. Because who knows how this will play out in the end and I’m up for exploring and debating new and better ways to create strong, vibrant cultures that make for happier and more engaged humans.

But I also wonder whether it is too binary a stance for such a nuanced issue and maybe a bit premature. Yes, this social experiment has revealed what we are capable of from a distance. Yes, remote working does offer certain freedoms that the office doesn’t. Yes, it therefore absolutely makes sense to consider reducing the size and cost, or re-imagine the shape and function of the office spaces we occupy to reflect our need to be there less.

I’m just not quite ready to throw our brick-and-mortar baby out with the bathwater. Because I believe that our office amounts to far more than desks and chairs and commutes and keycards.

An office is, more than anything, a destination we all find ourselves at together. And in finding ourselves all together, we are finding all that intangible magic that remote working alone simply cannot replicate.

Laura Aldington is the CEO of Host/Havas


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