As pandemic restrictions continue to lift across Britain, the question of going ‘back to the office’ becomes ever-more pertinent. Rather than asking whether things can go back to normal, however, perhaps the better question is ‘should they’?
It’s a question which has been preoccupying companies across the country, not least the global independent creative and production agency Five by Five. Prior to the pandemic, the agency had already begun partially moving to remote work in a bid to seamlessly connect their UK, US, and Australian offices. The result was that Five by Five went into the lockdown-induced remote revolution with open eyes. As employees begin to once again shuffle onto trains and commute to an office, Five by Five believes that a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ balance will be key to the new era of work.
That’s the thinking behind two recent decisions taken by the company. Firstly, Five by Five is opening up a new office in London. Having been based in Southampton for over 40 years (from where the agency will continue to operate), this marks a positive expansion. Secondly, the company has introduced ‘full flexibility’. Five by Five’s employees will be free to choose when - and from where - they work, including home if they wish. The agency has recently been accredited as a ‘flexible first’ organisation by WALC (Women in Advertising and Communication Leadership).
To chat through the decisions and what they mean for the future of work, LBB spoke to Five by Five’s CEO Nick Lawton, as well as Group Head of HR and Facilities, Katie Whittam-Hayes.
A Flexible Balance
“Ultimately, we trust people to work how they want to work”, says Nick Lawton. “That was the thinking behind the partial switch to the remote working we underwent pre-Covid. So when the pandemic hit we were in a good position in that sense - we embraced it, and it’s feeling like we’re coming out the other side in a good place”.
With all of that being said, there have still been challenges which the agency has faced over the past year. “Not everyone works best whilst at home, nor is it good for some people’s wellbeing”, notes Katie Whittam-Hayes. “It’s much harder having informal catch-ups with people over Zoom, and you miss out on the ideas and moments of inspiration you get from bumping into a colleague in the corridor”.
“There’s no doubt people have been missing that element”, agrees Nick. “I’m looking forward to seeing people in the games room playing CoD again. That person-to-person interaction is something that comes up all the time in our internal surveys in terms of what people enjoy most about working here. We’re certainly in no rush to let that go''.
However, there’s also no great appetite to lose the benefits that have come out of remote working, either. “We’re giving all of our colleagues full flexibility because we want to accommodate the best, most-productive styles of work for everyone”, explains Katie. “It’s about giving people ownership of their schedule and ensuring a positive work/life balance. Some of our colleagues work best at nine in the morning, whereas others are night owls - we want to be a business that gets the best out of all of them”.
Allowing their people to work from anywhere obviously relies on making sure their clients are managed and serviced with the same efficiency they are used to. Fortunately for Five by Five they made a big investment into their global IT infrastructure in 2019. “It was painful at the time paying for the investment”, Lawton recalls, “but it was absolutely crucial to align all our offices to be able to collaborate on clients and prospects...and thank goodness we did! The other way we’ve maintained efficiency and underpinned our confidence for this new way of working, is Oceanview, our proprietary software that we’ve built internally. Oceanview effectively drives our process, it’s a one stop campaign, asset and creative management platform that enables us to produce and deliver thousands of assets across multiple territories and languages.”
That same spirit of inclusivity and choice also underpins Five by Five’s decision to set up shop in London this July. “What’s really key about this is that we will be one team, one agency, with two UK locations”, says Nick. “This is not a case of a different office being a different business. Remote working has shown how easy it is to collaborate and stay connected - we’ll be looking to that model when working across our London and Southampton offices”.
So if the branch in the capital won’t be its own company, why make the move? “It’s about expanding the company as it is now, and giving us something extra”, says Katie. “A lot of the colleagues we have here are excited about it, and some are looking to make the move to London so that they can take advantage of it. So it’s brilliant from the perspective of what it can bring to our colleagues’ careers. I imagine we might end up seeing the reverse as well - people based in London who would like to make a move to the South Coast one day, by the water and the New Forest. So there are plenty of advantages for our teams, their development, progression and life plans”.
On top of that, the London office provides Five by Five with exciting new opportunities. “I’d say, above anything else, that it’s about access to a wider, more diverse pool of talent and transition of talent”, says Nick. “It feels like what we’re seeing now is a line in the sand. Employee expectations have changed, and businesses have a lot to gain from meeting - or exceeding - those expectations with regard to flexibility”.
Underpinning the enthusiasm for the expansion and new flexibility guidelines is the awareness required to diffuse potential problems. “I think a big watch out across the industry as we transition back into office spaces will be the possibility of cliques forming between those who are going back to offices and those who work remotely”, notes Nick. “For us, it’s about being on top of that and making sure our teams are adaptable in terms of how we all collaborate”.
Above all, flexibility is the watchword as we move optimistically into a new era of working culture. “We’re output-focused, and if someone is more productive from home either side of a trip to the beach for lunch, it would be a waste for us not to embrace that long-term”, says Katie. For Five by Five, the future of work is grounded in that spirit of choice and balance.