Work-life integration and the future of the agency floor

How can advertising prepare for the changing work economy?Pixabay
  • Our life and work are now intertwined like never before. Gautam Reghunath, Executive Vice President, Dentsu Webchutney, pens down how to bring empathy and compassion on to the agency workplace and how the future of advertising could be remote work.
  • 'How do we work together when we’re not always together?' he writes. 'The developing concept of ‘work-life integration’ is key.'
  • He further writes about how embracing a culture of writing is going to be key to accepting a more flexible workplace.
  • You may wonder that we couldn’t add flexibility to our workdays the same ways that other industries can, but Reghunath answers how we might just strike the balance right.
This isn’t a 9-to-5 hit piece. It isn’t a fluff piece for Zoom meetings or work-from-home policies either. Across industries, an unmistakable force influences productivity growth: the changing nature of work. And any conversation about the future of advertising is incomplete without also discussing the realities of the modern workforce.

Let me get the clichés out of the way first. Our life and work are now intertwined like never before. Think of all the things you’re doing during work hours that your parents couldn’t even imagine at theirs. Until a decade ago, you had to actually hunt people down and do face-to-face conversations with them to get things done. The horror! Guess it was a no-brainer to keep all employees in one location over a particular number of hours to get them to collaborate better?

Right now, I'm sitting in my living room sipping my morning coffee. It’s a Tuesday and I’m thinking I’ll wait until noon for the terrible Indiranagar traffic to die down before I make the one-hour trek to our office on Richmond Road. My team understands. We’ve already had two early morning calls on our week ahead and prepping for the pitch that is coming up later this month.

A decade ago, even a setup this simple was far less common. For long, we’ve considered a 9-to-5 at a desk the holy grail of work set-ups. Most offices would have scoffed at the idea of employees not being present in office and punching in on time. If we need our colleagues to be comfortable with work intruding their personal time, shouldn’t it also be okay the other way around? Like the tech industry that thrives on remote or part-remote work, advertising will soon have to incorporate new communication patterns and people management styles that our industry has yet shied away from. Companies who figure it out stand to gain a serious talent arbitrage opportunity.

The landscape for creative talent has changed, too. While talent is evenly distributed, opportunities aren't. Clever, interesting people don’t just live in big cities, or for the sake of their creativity, live monotonous lifestyles. Creative people in advertising aren’t all 27, single and work in big agencies. Not all of them need to fall under a homogeneous 9-to-5 workday either. Agencies that care about diversity need to accept diverse lifestyles. Those that can find new ways to nurture and empower talent regardless of our industry’s own straitjacketed processes will find it easier to hire top talent and thrive.

Agency culture isn’t by nature remote-friendly, and I’m not even talking full-time remote work like our friends in tech. For a long time, I used to belong to the old school of ‘seeing is believing’. Grappling between trust and control issues and wanting real work happening right on the agency floor. Company culture, a huge part of what makes an agency itself, was built for an in-person workplace. Making a transition towards more flexibility would require changing aspects of the company culture, something that might hurt in the short term, but is an inevitable competitive advantage in the long term. We’re a ‘ people’ business, yes. However, we don’t need to be a ‘ people always in each other’s faces’ business like we think we do.

How then do we work together when we’re not always together? The developing concept of ‘work-life integration’ is key. Think of it as opportunity cost, well spent. Work-life integration calls for smooth overlaps rather than distinct separations between different parts of your day. A 40-year-old father might choose to have breakfast with the family and drop off the kids at school, then work from 9:30 am to 3 pm, finish a meeting by 4:30 p.m., pick up the kids, hit the gym in his apartment, make dinner, and respond to emails & work texts for an hour or two before bedtime. Simple things like catching a friend for coffee or the gym in between work hours are modern realities that were unacceptable until a few years ago. Just like how browsing social media sites on company networks was prohibited.

In creative agencies, our entire process is built around in-person meetings. We might not realise it, but a great deal of skill learning is based on people see, people do and learning by observation. We don’t appreciate how much of what we learn is mimicry. We watch a lot more than we listen. Sitting next to a colleague, conversations around the office cafe, seeing how bosses behave in meetings. It’s a core thesis of ‘you’re the average of the 5 people you hang out with’. Of course, people find it harder to establish meaningful connections with colleagues they aren’t frequently meeting in person. It’s natural to talk about post-work plans or share Netflix reviews when you’re meeting in the pantry, but it takes more effort to form a bond when you’re mostly connecting over WhatsApp groups.

We're social creatures, we communicate real-time and self-discipline is hard. So outside of logistics, even basic communication could become challenging. Embracing a culture of writing is going to be key to accepting a more flexible workplace. Companies that have embraced remote work in the west rely heavily on writing (post-meeting notes, office memos, written feedback on ideas, etc.). Instant messaging is an inherently one-dimensional way to communicate, why not try and skill up? Don’t underestimate the power of a well-written concise email or a succinct WhatsApp text reply.



(Screenshot of an internal work WhatsApp group experiment)

All this needn’t be for every organisation, nor am I championing a remote-work strategy. This is about empathy and how being accommodating of the realities of its contributors’ lives will be important for any creative culture looking to thrive. The optionality of being able to define your working style sounds like a nice perk in theory, but not everyone is efficient in such set-ups. It could be wise to have an explicit understanding that flexibility is a privilege to be earned continually. We must learn to accommodate on a case-by-case basis to do what's best.

Right now, you may be thinking about the rigidity of the industry that we’re in, positive that we couldn’t add flexibility to our workdays the same ways that other industries can. Modern lives have all of us playing multi-dimensional roles. Real time with kids. To take care of pets. For guitar lessons. Photography. A Zumba class at 5 p.m. Teaching, even. We spend at least 8 to 10 hours working everyday -- more than doing anything else, so then work really is life and life is work. As leaders, success is defined by moments of removing constraints for your team. Actually removing them, however, is dependent on trust between leaders and employees and its bottom line is producing results. I’m slowly finding out that all of this may simply be good for business.

- By Gautam Reghunath, Executive Vice President, Dentsu Webchutney.
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