Work isn’t a place you go anymore, it’s a thing you do. So our agency won’t be going back to the office

The Hallway won't be making employees return to the office. The leadership team realised that the agency should, and wants to, continue being remote. Does that mean it won't have an office though? CEO Jules Hall explains.

2020 is a year for the history books. And rightly so. It’s been horrendous for so many people in so many ways, and regrettably there are plenty of challenges ahead. But it’s a year we must remember so that we can learn from what’s happened and make our precious world a better place.

As the ‘return to work’ bandwagon gains momentum, our agency is taking a slightly different approach.

Three weeks ago, the leadership team reviewed our ‘reboot’ plan. It had all the essential elements – social distancing, hygiene, a phased return to work etc. But something was missing. It didn’t feel right. Someone suggested we flip the paradigm. So we asked ourselves a question: ‘What do we like about lockdown?’ And suddenly, the ideas flowed.

The Hallway won’t be forcing employees back to the office

We realised something special. Lockdown has made our business better. We communicate with each other more. The quality of our communication has improved and we get to better outcomes, faster. Yes, we’re in more meetings, but we spend less time in meetings. And with no commute, or travelling to meetings, we have more time.

Most importantly, we’re using that time to do more of the things that humans are brilliant at avoiding – thinking. We’re firing up the (often reluctant) System 2 part of our brains and analysing situations. And then we’re allowing the System 1 brain to synthesise the thoughts to create new answers, quicker and more consistently. We’re being more creative.

This was powerful stuff. And it was surprising. Like many ad agencies, we over-index on extroverts. And us extroverts like having company – we thrive on the energy of others. Which is the opposite of lockdown, isn’t it? Except it’s not – because of the technology. Especially the ease of video calls with all of our colleagues – thank you Google and GSuite.

So then we asked ourselves another question: How do we codify these learnings?

Rather than policies and processes, we agreed on a principle: In the old world, work was somewhere you went. In the new normal, work is something you do. And in our new world, we’ve discovered that it doesn’t matter where you are.

What does matter, above everything else, is the way we communicate as a team.

For the past 10 weeks we’ve had a meticulous communications rhythm. We have two all-hands video calls every day – the ‘9 o’clock news’ and the ‘5 o’clock news’. The 9 o’clock news focuses on the work and the day ahead. The afternoon meeting is a team check-in; it’s light hearted, focuses on the people and always includes a poetry reading.

The meetings are 10 minutes long. Simon Lee (ECD) and myself (CEO) host the meetings, alternating days. This means we each get a chance to focus on everyone else – looking for the visual cues – then drawing people into the conversation when we are hosting, working to ensure everyone is involved.

After the 9 o’clock news we go straight into team standups. And at lunchtime, the leadership team has its daily standup.

This might sound like a lot of meetings. In terms of ‘quantity’, it is. But the magic lies in the total time we spend in meetings, which has reduced dramatically. Because we are communicating better, everyone knows what they need to know. Conversations aren’t repeated. Responsibilities are understood and actions efficiently executed.

All of this brought us to a surprising conclusion. We went into the meeting to discuss ‘returning to work’, which meant back to the office. But during the meeting, we realised that wasn’t the answer.

So, we won’t be asking our team to return to the office. We are doing phenomenal work from all sorts of different places – be it bedrooms, lounges, or studies. Wherever. And we like it.

A team survey from earlier this week shows that 97% of us enjoy working remotely and 77% don’t want to return to normal office working. Productivity and flexibility were the two main reasons.

The non-negotiable is our communications rhythm. This will continue post-COVID. It’s better for our team. It’s better for our work. And it’s better for our clients as a direct result. And we’ve learned that it keeps our culture alive.

So what was the output of the meeting? We kept the hygiene and safety guidance. But we ditched the blue team/red team idea of phased attendance.

Instead, we documented the principle that sparked our pivot: Work used to be a place you go. Now it’s a thing you do. It doesn’t matter where you do it. Provided we maintain our communications rhythm.

Does this mean The Hallway won’t have offices? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean our team is being forced to work from home? Categorically not. There are plenty of times where face-to-face human interaction is critical, and better.

So our offices will be available for people to use if they want to. But we’ll almost certainly use our offices differently. Exactly how will be defined in practice. But the principle is liberating and exciting.

Jules Hall is CEO of The Hallway


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