How flexibility at work will make marketers more effective post-Covid

Staff have mixed reactions to going back to the office so marketing leaders will need to be adaptable to ensure the best ideas keep on flowing, as Marketing Week discovered during a video panel discussion hosted in partnership with Smartsheet.

With the UK having fully emerged from Covid legal restrictions, the task for senior marketers is to take what has been learned from a year and a half of largely remote working, and use the best parts to build new hybrid models of work, delivering collaboration and creativity while recognising the shifts in our understanding of productivity and work/life balance.

That was the takeout from a recent online panel discussion on the topic of working habits and practices after the pandemic, hosted by Marketing Week editor-in-chief Russell Parsons, in partnership with Smartsheet (see the full video above).

Pete Markey, CMO at Boots, revealed that there have been positives from all those Zoom and Teams meetings. Even without being physically together for long periods, marketing teams have added a more human angle to their relationships by seeing into each other’s homes, complete with occasional interruptions from a cat or a dog. Moreover, physical barriers have also been broken down by increased digital interactions.

Markey has overseen the formulation of a whole new creative concept for the high street chemist, which is in the process of being unveiled. It could only come about through being agile in the way the brand’s marketers have worked with one another and their agencies. By removing teams from silos, he revealed, the brand was able to bring together executives and saw a huge boost in collaboration.

Magic sparks at the office

There is, of course, no replacement for occasions when creative people can meet face-to-face and great ideas flow. Dan Montalbano, global head of operations at creative agency VCCP, referred to the “magic moments” when a chat over drinks can be turned into a Cannes Lion-winning idea, or a chance remark at work between colleagues will start the creative juices flowing almost by accident.

Balanced against that, however, he agreed with Markey that brands and agencies have benefited from marketers and creatives working more closely together. He particularly thinks the way designers, who tend to work in an “introverted” way, have been included in wider marketing discussions can only be a good thing. Collaboration has bought teams closer together, even if it has meant, in one case, a creative director only being able to lead an overseas shoot overseas virtually through a laptop connection.

You find this energy, you find this commitment, and people will move mountains to make sure there are no blockers in the way.

Pete Markey, Boots

While no agency will ever know what ideas never saw the light of day because creatives were not “riffing” off one another, he believes the agencies that will emerge from the pandemic thriving, rather than just surviving, are those which understand remote working is not “a flash in the pan”. Every marketing team now has to work out how to work differently, and yet nobody quite knows how that is going to look.

For VCCP it has been a process of having conversations with staff members and carrying out surveys to find out how they want to work in the future. The overriding feedback is that agencies need to treat people “as grown-ups” and be flexible in combining face-to-face meetings and brainstorms with remote working.

Get the balance right

This is where the really interesting developments lie in the months and years ahead, according to Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of cross-party political think tank, Demos. It has been calling for more flexible work patterns, and now expects that a hybrid approach embracing both office and remote working will become the norm.

Mackenzie warns getting the balance right is going to be difficult because surveys show that, while some people have liked working from home during the pandemic, others have craved the sociability of going to the office. One potential solution many agencies are considering, she says, is asking all members of a team to come in on certain days. This, she believes, will not work because mandating specified office days does not offer the flexibility many workers need to balance their home and work lives.

Instead, her advice to brands and marketers is to find a way to allow creativity and collaboration to flourish among people in the office as well as those who are dialling into meetings. The key here is not to disempower those who are not in the office by having conversations that they are not privy to. The benefit of offering this flexibility will be improved creativity because tired, stressed staff are never going to perform at their best.

Ultimately, the panel agreed there is no known formula for how to bring about this new hybrid way of working. Agencies and brands are going to have to learn as they go along to ensure they get the best creative ideas from teams collaborating well together, wherever each person happens to be joining a meeting from.

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