Are agency leaders entering their supervillain era with return-to-office mandates?

Are agency leaders entering their supervillain era with return-to-office mandates?

Media leaders are in danger of perpetuating inequality and eroding employee trust with heavy-handed statements on which desk is best.

Picture the scene: an agency leader is explaining to his globally focused workforce why working from an (in-office) desk is best.

Of course, the meeting is happening remotely and, unfortunately, the leader in question appears to be working from home.

Prompting the question, on the now ubiquitous anonymous all-agency chat system: “Is he some kind of supervillain now?”

Let’s be honest: these iconic unravellings of digital town halls are one of the reasons some leaders distrust hybrid working. Those leaked moments of madness that so brutally expose the chasm between ‘thought leader’ and ‘actual leader’ now come with receipts.

For while as an industry we have embraced the rhetoric of ‘bring your whole self to work’, many leaders find themselves collectively on mute at the very thought of that whole, unedited self going viral.

Particularly if that self happens to be increasingly disconnected from the lived experiences of their employees.

An experience which, as NABS’ All Ears research recently underlined, is already fraught with overwhelm, burnout and hidden mental health challenges.

Presenteeism doesn’t drive employee engagement

The comprehensive research is a must-read because the truth is we all benefit from regular reality checks, particularly when we exist within the confines of the London-focused media bubble.

Yet for business leaders that isn’t always easy. Toxic positivity can make it almost impossible to read the room, particularly when the majority of your employees have their cameras off.

We need to be honest in acknowledging the truth that leading through change is difficult.

The choppy waters of an unforgiving economic climate can’t always rise to meet the rising tides of employee expectations.

But economically and emotionally hybrid and flexible working is a life raft.

For an industry where the people are the product, it is business critical that employees actually care about what they are doing. Undoubtedly they need to be connected to their work and their colleagues. Employee engagement is not a nice to have; it is the anchor of agency culture.

Dressing up a one-size-fits-all office return policy as creative innovation is the Emperor’s New Clothes of employee engagement.

According to research from Gallup, being in the office isn’t the sticking point for employees being engaged; feedback is. 80% of employees who say they have received meaningful feedback in the past week are fully engaged — regardless of how many days they were in the office.

According to Gallup’s research, the boost from meaningful feedback gives four times the lift in engagement than having the ‘correct’ number of days in the office.

Yet of the 15,000 employees surveyed only 16% said their last conversation with their manager was actually meaningful.

Leaders need to be All Ears

Decisions on working practices do not happen in a vacuum and agency leaders making broad-brush statements on which desk is best, without recognising their knock-on impact on their talent are operating in a vacuum.

The uncomfortable truth for those with caring responsibilities, disproportionately women, is that their careers are being crushed on little more than assumptions.

As the All Ears report states so clearly: “There are no definitive solutions or success cases that can define generalised best practice on new ways of working for the whole industry. We are still in a phase where most workplaces are looking for the best solutions that work for them, and trouble-shooting as they go.”

It reminds us that the contract between employer and employee is bi-directional.

“Continuing mandating a return to the office whilst senior leaders continue to work flexibly is unlikely to result in cultural harmony.”

Hybrid work arrangements have killed the return-to-office hype

It’s time to stop looking at return to work policies in a neatly branded vacuum with no acknowledgement of the consequences of reducing flexibility.

Agency leaders cannot lay claim to being on the front foot of the climate crisis without recognising remote work’s role in cutting billions of miles of weekly commuting.

Nor can they adopt the mantle of inclusion advocate or equality champion without recognising the role of flexible working in closing the gender pay gap and creating a more equitable workplace.

The truth is that the media industry runs the risk of lacking the appetite for innovation when it comes to how we work.

A stance which is miles apart from the tech start up culture that agencies have rightly or wrongly long looked towards as the holy grail of engagement. These disruptive brands have long been front-runners in embracing flexible work. Three-quarters of start-ups allow employees flexible working locations according to the Flex Report.

The innovation and global collaboration sparked by hybrid work arrangements have already killed the return-to-office hype.

Yet, in certain corners of the industry, a regressive narrative persists.

Advertising icon Cindy Gallop has long argued the power of ‘communication through demonstration.’ A mantra progressive leaders must measure not just their words, but their actions against.

If we collectively turn a blind eye we are all complicit in treating the consequences of these policies as if they are unintended.

We must not allow the industry to sleepwalk into a return to ‘business as usual’ that will have a devastating impact on diversity in media for decades to come.

Now is the time to wake up.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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