Agencies are still split on what the future of work looks like

Leadership teams aren’t done figuring out whether the future of work is in an office or on a laptop screen.
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Morning Brew

5 min read

In 2019, having a New York City-based job at advertising agency R/GA meant working daily from a 173,000 square-foot office space in Hudson Yards—an office so immense that some agency execs have referred to it as “a football field.”

By 2023, that football field was long gone. At the beginning of the year, R/GA relocated to a newly designed office space in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood that’s one-tenth the size of the old one. Only around 10% of R/GA’s New York-based staff are in the office at any given time.

“No matter how fancy the space, there’s no point in paying for an acre of desks for 40 members of staff a day to come in,” Tom Morton, R/GA’s global chief strategy officer, said. “We didn’t need a desk farm anymore.”

Three years of remote work and hybrid arrangements have altered white-collar jobs, and R/GA’s office downsizing reflects some of those workplace changes. As executive teams around the country grapple with hybrid work setups, agency leaders are still reenvisioning what it looks like to build company cultures and workplace camaraderie in a hybrid work world.

“We’re never going back to pre-Covid,” said Elizabeth Eidshaug, executive director of brand and business growth and head of the New York studio at Pearlfisher, a brand design agency. “So what are we now creating in its place? I think that’s the real opportunity for all of us.”

Get back in here

Office policies tend to come down to agency leadership preference. Some, including Omnicom’s Zimmerman Advertising, reportedly mandate five-day-a-week office presence, per Ad Age, while others, like Huge, have embraced remote work. There are many more organizations in the middle, with organizations like DDB Worldwide and Publicis Health implementing three-day in-office mandates, per Adweek.

For agencies that insist employees return, it can be a bumpy ride. Due to concerns about professional development and creative ideation, the leadership team at Pearlfisher instituted mandatory Mondays in July 2021, which required staff to come into its approximately 8,000-square-foot studio, Eidshaug told us. But staff preferred a more flexible policy, according to employee surveys, and in April 2022, Pearlfisher changed its policy to encourage staff to come into the office twice a week on the days of their choosing.

“When we made the shift from one day on Mondays to two days a week, your choice, people were so much happier,” Eidshaug said. “It’s not that they don’t want to come in. It’s that they want flexibility around when and how.”

At some agencies, in-office time is dictated not by broad mandate but by individual staffer preference. Patrick McKenna, CEO of the Philadelphia-based digital marketing agency DMi Partners, works from the office five days a week because he says he’s more productive there than at home. But he isn’t forcing his employees to follow his lead.

“For someone who works a mile and a half from the office and never wants to come into the office because they feel much more productive in their home…I have no clue why I would want to force that person to come back,” McKenna told Marketing Brew.

Trading spaces

With more flexible working arrangements becoming the norm, some agencies are rethinking what their office spaces look like. At R/GA’s new office space, about three-quarters of the square footage is dedicated to meeting rooms, kitchens, and other communal spaces. For staff working out of New York, Wednesdays may be a good day to pop into the office, as that’s when senior leadership is normally in, said Morton, who opts to work from the office two or three times a week.

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R/GA has also earmarked a larger travel budget, funded by the savings from having a smaller office, to facilitate in-person gatherings among otherwise mostly remote staff. “For certain things like summits, certain big client moments, it’s very good to be together,” Morton said.

DMi Partners, meanwhile, installed a small in-office gym—featuring an exercise bike, dumbbells, two Hydro rowing machines, a treadmill, and a shower—to replicate the perks of being able to exercise when working from home, McKenna told us. It’s been a hit.

“We have people who don’t come into the office to work but come into the office to work out,” he said.

For the agencies we spoke to, there’s often more pressure to make in-person meetings, presentations, and company-wide events valuable for staff.

“What is going to be significant enough that will bring you out of that beautiful working-from-home day and make you want to come to the studio?” said Eidshaug, who goes into the office two or three days a week. “We’ve had to set a higher bar for ourselves.”

Distributed gains

There’s acknowledgment among agency leaders that more flexible working arrangements have brought some losses: things like  “moments of spontaneity,” Morton said, or the speed of leaning over a colleague’s computer monitor to “course correct” junior employees, Eidshaug said.

But the shift has also brought tangible benefits. DMi Partners previously favored Philadelphia-area hires and is now more open to far-flung employees, McKenna said, and R/GA has made strides in its inclusive recruiting goals based on its pivot to a distributed workforce, Morton told us.

“Do you want to privilege the guy who loved their commute in from the ’burbs, their watercooler moment, and their beer after work? Or do you want to privilege all the people who suddenly have access to this kind of work, but can also maintain a work-life balance and live in a different city?” Morton said.

It may even usher in a chance for agencies to reinvent themselves. R/GA’s embrace of remote work, for example, brought a new line of business: helping other companies reinvent their workplaces.

“By doing the tests on ourselves, we found we can do it for others,” Morton said.

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