Nearly two years after the pandemic upended the way people work, companies and agencies are still trying their best to navigate the new normal. As the future of work continues to take shape, marketing and advertising agencies have seemingly taken a noodle on the wall approach, trying everything from experiments with hybrid work and location models to company-sponsored trips facilitating co-worker meetups, to see what sticks.
With the so-called Great Resignation looming above many employers, they’re not only looking to retain talent, but also maintain company culture. At least, that’s the case at the Dutch-based creative agency TBWANEBOKO. According to managing director Patritia Pahladsingh, the best way to go about it is returning to the office for in-person collaboration.
Digiday recently caught up with Pahladsingh to talk about a return to in-person work amidst renewed partial lockdown in the Netherlands and how mentorship ties into company culture.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Talk me through your approach to revive company culture. Why go the in-person work route and how did you come to that conclusion?
We want the young people, especially, to come in because young people need to learn. They need to have some guidance and coaching. So, we asked our senior and junior [staff] to come together to get a touch of the culture. We grew quite a lot, and have a lot of new people who came in while we were on lockdown and don’t know the culture of the agency. If you look at the culture of the agency, we’re work hard, but also play hard. Nowadays, the “play hard” was really hard to find because we’re all at home. Yes, we did virtual [happy hour], but that’s really different than getting and feeling the energy of the people you work with. That’s the hardest thing right now with working remotely. How do you adapt and give culture to the people, especially new people?
A large part of culture is the energy of the agency. We’re really in the people business. Winning pitches is not about the great, big creative ideas. It’s about chemistry between people. If you’re not with each other, that’s really hard. We invited people just to meet each other. Wear a mask if you’d like to, but just to feel the energy. I also learned something about myself: I’m not very good with a screen. You need to feel my energy. When there’s a pitch, you need to feel my energy and enthusiasm… because creativity needs energy.
How are you approaching that conversation with staff? Are they ready to come back into the office?
We give people free choice, but some people are still really afraid. In the Netherlands, we are not allowed to ask if people are vaccinated. So we opened our doors to say come in, you’re allowed to. You just have to scan your code so we know you’re in the office. We just did a soft opening. We were monitoring the people who came in and monitoring the people who didn’t come in at all. We had a one-on-one conversation because people are our essence. We need to have our people, but you need to understand their motivations, desires or barriers. Why aren’t they coming in and what do they need from us to come in?
So it’s more of a suggestion to come in rather than a requirement. Are there COVID-19 precautions for those that do come in?
We followed the rules of the Dutch government. So if they say stay home and work from home, we advise all of our people to stay home. So what we are telling our people is if you [mentally] don’t feel good, you’re allowed to come into the office and we’ll help you out. Come in and we’ll help you get in contact with people, to walk with your manager, have coffee and then go home. It’s really hard right now.
We just wanted people to feel comfortable. We don’t believe you should obligate people to come in. We just advise the junior people that it’s good to feel the atmosphere of the agency, so come in. And we asked the seniors that if there are junior people in the office, come in, guide them, help them and coach them.
Survey after survey has noted most employees want a flexible work environment. What makes you confident in-person work is the answer to maintaining company culture?
Because we have good energy and are a creative agency, people feel that if they need to be creative, we have better results when we’re physically together. The purpose of the building will change. You’ll come there to connect with people, create and have coffee. If you need to type a deck or make an internal assignment, you do that at home because it’s more efficient. But for the creative and connection, they’ll come into the office. People do come in to work together.