Every industry is speculating about the future of the physical office and whether or not our pandemic work from home experiment could morph into a permanent reality. As someone who once worked fulltime for a completely virtual agency, I say not so fast.
While I’m sure some industries can go virtual and not miss a thing, it’s a stretch for marketing and communications agencies. We just had a three-month taste of a virtual workplace during an extraordinary time. A honeymoon period. I can tell you though, the longer you’re in a virtual agency, the clearer it becomes that the little things that make agencies—and their people—go and grow just don’t translate.
In my experience, there are three big things you lose when you move an agency to a fully virtual model:
Some of the best ideas I’ve seen materialize didn’t happen during a formal meeting. They happened because a colleague overheard another colleague talking about a movie they saw over the weekend. Or because someone spotted a mock-up on a desk and asked a question. Or because a team was stuck and grabbed someone from another team to weigh in on the issue. In short, the ideas came from spontaneous, not planned, moments. The virtual world, however, is all about planned moments. I can’t drop by your office or bump into you in the kitchen. I actually have to know I want to talk to you specifically, then call you, set up a Zoom or hunt you via chat. No matter how hard you try, spontaneous creativity is less likely to happen virtually.
When you put a bunch of different people into an office together, they will eventually interact—from entry level staff to senior executives, bringing varied experiences and perspectives. That’s critical to bonding, learning new things, growing as a professional and cultivating soft skills. In the virtual scenario, junior staff particularly miss out. For example, while my role means that I am connecting with leaders and staff across our agency, sister company and clients, a majority of my team’s contact is with one another and with me by virtue of what they’re working on. That’s pretty much it. Sure, we plan Zoom happy hours, agency-wide virtual meetings and virtual professional development sessions to bridge the gap, but true “get to know the real me” relationship building just isn’t possible through a screen.
Real-time support and motivation
In an agency, you’re surrounded by people who do what you do every day. People who know how tough it is to get that media placement or design a social media campaign that generates leads for the client, and they support you. The colleague next door can sense your frustration, and help you overcome it—in real time. Being together with kindred spirits is motivating. It helps when you’re stuck, overthinking or need a challenge. This is lost when everything is virtual. You are left alone to try and unstick yourself, which, at least for me, isn’t always the best solution. Being able to throw your hands up, walk down the hall and talk things through with someone experienced and available has made me a better practitioner, and it’s what’s lacking when you are always remote.
At this writing, I’ve been back in the KemperLesnik office for about two weeks as Chicago enters Phase Four of reopening. I don’t feel a hint of sadness that my employer has finally allowed me to vacate my kitchen. And while we might be standing a bit farther apart here and, yes, donning masks in the halls, the ingredients that a creative marketing and communications agency needs to thrive are very much alive and well again. We intend to keep it that way, and I am thankful.