With near empty offices what happens to office culture?

September 27th, 2020

What happens to company culture without everyone in the office most of the time?

For months now we have been working remotely in most parts of advertising and media.  Many offices have been closed.  Around the world many have opened up again, although in the UK this is recent and then just for a proportion of the workforce in many cases.  The Economist states “The fight over the future of the workplace has just begun”, and points out that the office structures we have grown up with are based on the emergence of corporations in the late 19th century.

It is time to re-imagine what the workplace is for.  If you took someone who might have known Charles Dickens and time travelled them to an office in 2019 they would be undoubtedly shocked and surprised by mobile phones, by computers and by the number of women around.  They are less likely to be at all shocked by the overall look of the place.  Lots of people with their heads down at desks working away with some managers walking around occasionally to see what they were up to.

Lockdown and Covid have challenged this dramatically.  People have had radically different experiences. Working from home has been a curates egg – good in parts.  Suiting some people some of the time, leaving some reluctant to go back to how it was, and others desperate to return to what was normal.

This is unlikely to happen entirely.  A hybrid model of remote and flexible working, with offices re-imagined for the better is likely.  These experiments are underway, and they do raise another question.  What is office culture without everyone in the office?

Our global MediaCom ceo Nick Lawson has frequently said that a great culture is crucial.

Without it, jobs become transactional, not much fun, lacking purpose.  With it the team pull together, go the extra mile for each other, and enjoy the time spent working.  It fuels morale – that magical element that drives confidence, enthusiasm and work ethic.

Armies need good morale, and they don’t work out of an office, so let’s look at lessons from the military.  Artis International, an Arizona think-tank have conducted research into fighters in Iraq.   They have correlated bravery in action with soldiers having “fused” their identity with fellow soldiers.  So an active programme of building team identity is crucial to a good culture.

We are not soldiers.   Brands with Values chief Adrian Walcott pointed out at a recent conference Media360 panel that we might better off if we think like farmers.  Measure and cultivate your culture so that you get the best from everyone.  Walcott said: “You need to understand what is going on in your ecosystem at work so that you can create shared mindsets and values and actively manage this on an ongoing basis.”

This is manifested in how everyone behaves, and is not dependent on the bricks and mortar of the building.  It is about the lived experience of being at work, in the office or remotely.  It is crucial for us all to be careful to curate a sense of belonging for everyone.

Of course we are not farmers either.  For a culture to be successful it needs to be owned and worked on by everyone at work.  Culture isn’t something that happens to you.  Management cannot dictate a good culture.  Managers can and should create policies to prevent a toxic or bad culture but a good culture has to be owned by everyone.  A good culture at work is something that every employee creates, enhances and contributes to, every day.

The analogy for me is more like one of a chorus, in sync, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, where there is time sometimes for a soloist, but where everyone’s voices coming together creates something that no-one alone can claim for their own.  Where every member listens to each other, makes their best contribution in their own way. Where sometimes there is dissonance, but where it always gets resolved.

In a great culture each person enhances each other’s performance.  Helping the collective is rewarded.  Without everyone in the office most of the time leadership of a good culture is even more crucial.  And in a good culture there are cultural leaders and advocates in every single seat, wherever that seat is located.




Find your flow like Ronnie the Rocket

September 11th, 2020

Last month the future of account management was questioned by an IPA study.  The report, by Hall and Partners, suggests that the problem is multi-faceted.  Not enough focus for the role, not enough diversity, clients want more for less, a lack of understanding of what account managers actually do: “The study quoted one procurement lead as saying: “To be honest, no-one has ever really explained what the account management team does.””

Account management must evolve as so many roles will. Times are tough.  With any job today you need to show how you add value.  No-one can rest on their achievements.  We are all under pressure to show how we contribute today and tomorrow.

There is another important facet to anyone’s job.  This one is internal, how you feel.  For real job satisfaction: you need to be in love with what you do.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is referred to by some pundits as a snooker genius.  And for good reason.  Since turning professional in 1992, he has won six World Championships, a record seven Masters titles, and a record seven UK Championships for a record total of 20 titles in Triple Crown tournaments. One of 11 players to win a career Triple Crown, he holds the all-time record for the most ranking titles with 37 including winning the 2020 World Snooker Championship. He also holds the record of being the youngest winner of a ranking title, winning the 1993 UK Championship aged 17 years and 358 days, as well as being the youngest winner of the Masters in 1995, at 19 years and 69 days old. He won 38 consecutive matches in ranking events after turning professional, which is also a record. He has earned career prize money of over £11 million, the highest amount of any snooker player.

He is obviously good.  But he did not sail through the World Championship this year.  In fact, during the semi-final he was losing to Mark Selby until the exciting final frames.

He did rally, and win.  In the after match interview he was congratulated on reaching another final.  His reply was very interesting.  He refuted the praise from the interviewer for reaching the world championship final.  He denied that it was special.  He dismissed the achievement.  He talked instead about how he felt about how he had played.   He said: “I’ve just been trying to find something from somewhere for days, and it gets tiring… the ball is going all over the gaff.. I just tried to make the score look respectable.”  He went on: “It is all about the cue action.. it’s about the beautiful game played beautifully” not about winning, not about the stories or legends.  He said that he was only looking forward to playing again if he could find his “cue action”.   He joked about how he was going to spend the time until the final looking for this: “I might go on Amazon later and see if that Jeff Bezos bloke can deliver me one asap”.

In “cue action” O’Sullivan was referring to finding the “flow”, the joy of being so immersed in what you do that everything seems to fall into place.  It is a sporting phenomenon but also, as Connected Podcast guest Frances Ralston-Good pointed out, it applies to work.  If you want to be brilliant at your job, you have to be immersed in what you do, you have to love what you do.  As O’Sullivan went on to say, post victory at the final, you have to respect the game.

O’Sullivan’s tactic for getting back the “cue action” was to lean into the table physically.  This is great advice, if you allow yourself to be disconnected from the work then you can neither respect it, nor find your flow.

Did Ronnie get his cue action back?  He beat his opponent in the final 18 frames to 8.  So, yes, he did acquire his cue action.  And not from Amazon. He certainly leant into the table.  And there was a turning point about a third of the way through the final when Kyren Wilson had taken an easy shot rather than a shot that would be more difficult but deliver a strategic edge in the long term.  (Snooker is the perfect game for proponents of long term effectiveness).  Ronnie’s self doubt and over thinking seemed to melt away.  He found his cue action.   He won the championship.

Whatever the role in advertising, if you find your flow, if you connect with the work, then you will excel at what you do, you will add value to the business.



Fuel your resurgence

August 28th, 2020

When I was a kid the FA cup final was a huge occasion.  The one match in a normal season (ie outside World Cup and Euros) when time stopped, when everyone, even people who had no fondness for football, paid attention and watched the big game.

This is far from true now in a normal season as there are so many more big European games, but this year is not a normal one as you will have noticed.  So we were all (even mildly attentive football fans) delighted to welcome the return of this occasion this year albeit later than usual.  Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 at an empty Wembley on August 1st 2020 thanks to two goals from captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There is something to learn from the Arsenal manager’s analysis of his victory.

Mikel Arteta started his new job in January, and like the rest of us, his season has not gone exactly as planned.

He is the first person to both captain and manage Arsenal to victory in an FA Cup final.

Arteta, who won the trophy twice with Arsenal as a player, is in his very first managerial role.

“I think it’s even better winning this than as a player,” he told BBC 5 Live.

“I am really proud of what we have achieved because I know the difficulties and everything we have been through,” said Arteta.

In post match interviews, interestingly he didn’t talk tactics or strategy, or call out particular players, he talked about belief.  “For me personally, it has been so tough over the past six months with a lot of things that have happened in our lives but I had just one mission when I came here and that was to make the players and staff believe we could do it.

“We had to change that energy and that mentality”.

A good example then of the leader of the team prioritising whole team culture, and his people’s happiness (players, backroom staff and fans) as a crucial aspect of winning.  One that is frequently downplayed in business and is replaced with time spent planning logistics or on giving the spotlight to a few star players.  Or if it is on the agenda it is dealt with in a 10 minute rousing speech to the team that is not followed through.  As I wrote in my July blog: you can delegate many areas of expertise but as a leader you cannot delegate culture.

Speaking on TalkSport Arteta explained that the turning point in the game was when Chelsea scored in the first five minutes.  He said that this was the very best thing that could have happened.  Going one nil down.  We’ve all watched games when this was effectively game over.  Where the disadvantaged team loses focus and morale slips. In this instance the Chelsea score made the Arsenal players go for it, release the hand brakes, play instinctively.  Falling behind so early made them stop overthinking tactics, over worrying about making mistakes and passionately commit to winning.

Sometimes what you need to spring forward is to be knocked back.  As we come into the autumn, and results awards season for Campaign Media, Media Week and IPA Effectiveness, this is a good point to remember.  Everyone has worked very hard.  Not everyone will win. Whatever your outcome, don’t just take the glory of any win and shrug off any loss. Make sure that your response includes the whole team. Most of all: Remember the feeling of not winning, of being behind the competition, and use this to fuel your resurgence.






How feminine is your style? Understand the impact of what you wear.

August 17th, 2020

“Working without an underwire bra! You have no idea how liberating that is.” Vicki Maguire

What we wear has significance.  Mood follows fashion, trends follow moods.  Current swings in women’s dress are considerable.

How we dress is one of the gender differences at work.  When Kathryn Jacob and I wrote our book The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, we tried to avoid gender clichés.  But we found gender differences.  Dress codes are one of them.

In a survey conducted in the UK, US and Russia in 2016 we asked men and women to say where they would put themselves on a scale of one to ten where one is highly feminine in style (think Marilyn Monroe) and ten is highly masculine/macho (think Arnie).  Most women skew under five ie more feminine. But between 30% (UK) and 40% (Russia) would place themselves on the more masculine end of the spectrum.  Nearly all men say that they are masculine in style and score over six (ninety percent overall and 100% in Russia).  This proved interesting, especially when it was discussed with colleagues.  I personally would place myself at a six or seven in style, but when I said this to one senior colleague he pointed out that I was wearing a pink dress… in his view: how then could I consider my style less than very feminine?  It then dawned on me that I can swing from wearing a black trouser suit on one day to a pink frock the next depending on my mood.  He cannot.  Not without still drawing considerable comments (to say the least).

I only know one businessman who habitually wears a skirt.

Every business woman I know sometimes wears trousers.

This of course was not always the case.  Trousers were not common practice for women at work until midway through the last century.  Early in my career I usually defaulted though to trousers as it seemed easier to get on in a more masculine environment dressed that way.  I stopped this, and started wearing dresses more of the time after dinner with James Truman, then editorial director in chief at Conde Nast, who said that there was power in wearing dresses for women simply because men still commonly can’t.

There are shifts now in how women are dressing.

The top selling fashion item for women at the moment is Birkenstock’s Arizona sandal, which is also the most popular shoe of the past three months according to the Lyst index. Since Sex and the City women have been wearing very high heels to the office as a sign of status.  Frequently shoes that cost a packet but don’t allow fast walking or running.  Shoes that might only allow a stagger from a cab to a lunch table.  Shoes that should command respect for the wearer simply from the perspective of managing to present complex discussion points whilst balancing on precipitous heels.  Not at the moment.  One of the effects of the lockdown is that women are reverting to comfortable footwear.

The fourth most popular fashion item is the Calvin Klein bralette.  No underwire, no discomfort, no pushing up.  Push up bras hit popularity peak when the “Hello Boys” advertising campaign launched and, with or without padding, underwired bras have dominated lingerie ever since.  Not any more.  Creative chief Vicki Maguire has celebrated her own personal emancipation from the pain of the underwire in Campaign by replying to the question about  the one thing that she will definitely keep from lockdown: “I’m never going back to underwired bras again.”

What you wear influences how you perform.  A top athlete’s apparel now gets as much scientific attention as every other part of their training.  Why these days would you dress uncomfortably to have impact? The impact surely should come from what you say and do and how you say and do it, and certainly you should look stylish, but you can feel comfortable too.  Look, if impossibly high heels are the item that gives you confidence then so be it, but once corsets were essential for looking good, and they’ve long been discarded.

Women dressing for comfort,  flexibility and style rather than for a perceived notion of beauty is a step change.  At times when so much of lockdown is damaging to women’s careers we should notice these changes and hang on to them. As even casual athletes do, everyone can dress to enhance peak performance.


There is one aspect of business that the leader cannot delegate

July 31st, 2020

Can’t delegate the culture

We have hurtled into the future of work in the last few months.  For many the workplace has ceased to be the office and we have instead participated in a giant pilot of home working.

Some people can’t wait for it to get back to “normal”.  Most never want it to go back exactly to that pre-Covid norm.    Most of us in fact prefer working at home to being in the office, at least some of the timeForbes reports that according to Qualtrics, workers are in no rush to return to their old desks. Instead three out of five workers in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, who switched to remote working, say they prefer working from home. Just one in four workers under the age of 55 actually wants to go back to the office.

Of those who are still working from home after the switch, the majority (59%) want to permanently switch to a form of blended work that allows working both in the office and at home.

Companies seem to have responded to this cultural shift. Some 41% of global respondents to the survey said their companies are now giving staff the option to work remotely some of the time.

How do we manage workplace culture if the culture of the workplace is no longer just the office?

Some businesses have regarded the workplace culture as just that.  Something that can be controlled and monitored and nourished inside the office.  So businesses might paint corporate values on the walls, or in the lifts.  They will offer sweets or a banana for snacking.  The meeting rooms may contain beanbags to encourage creativity.

Frankly these moves were never enough to deliver a good culture.  Whilst a coat of paint and a decent carpet can spruce up atmosphere, unless the emotional culture is right then everything else is masking reality.

Then there’s office rituals.  When I started out in media an afternoon ritual was often a game of cricket in the office.  This notion of fun was not my notion of fun.  This fun ritual made me feel excluded, not included.  At least virtual online games are easier to swerve.  I only fitted in when I moved to a business that was full of diverse types of people.

As we move to what many think will be a more hybrid office/home working pattern there are new challenges, and new opportunities to get culture right.  To make sure that it is inclusive, that everyone has a sense of ownership, shared vision and empowerment.

This is not simple.  It is not something that any leader should delegate to the people team, or specialist department.  In perhaps every other aspect of the CEO’s job a specialist, experienced, senior expert can deliver strategic advice and actionable tactics.  A great CEO will always keep culture as their own deliverable and their own responsibility.

We are in uncharted waters.  The social capital that has glued the work place together in our sector has been largely earned through interactions in the workplace together.  As we move to a situation where there are new norms the challenges multiply, and so do the opportunities.

Some careers have been built in the past in media and advertising on the golf course or in the pub.  This has held back non golfers and light drinkers.  Businesses with great cultures have reaped the rewards in terms of diversity of thinking because golf has not been the main path to promotion.

If casual encounters or serendipitous meetings become less likely in the future everyone will need to play a part in creating a positive inclusive culture where talent of every kind is encouraged, led in person by the CEO.