By Marc Nohr, Miroma Agencies Group CEO, Chairman Fold7, Chairman IPA Commercial Group

The storm clouds are gathering once more. For many, understandably worried about their jobs and businesses, the cautious optimism of late summer as we planned our return to ‘normal’ working life, has dimmed a little. Entering another indefinite period of suspended animation, wearied and impatient, it’s hard to have perspective.

But this will pass. We still have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset and build a truly flexible future of work that works for everyone. And we must not waste it.

I’ve always worked flexibly or at least tried to. It is essential to my health, creativity and productivity.

Whilst still at school, I pursued acting and music professionally; at university, I added journalism to my weekly “extra-curricular” repertoire. (I’m using the inverted commas because I think these activities helped me be a better student). Freelancing is my early days was great preparation for a more formalised long-term approach to flexible working.

Nonetheless, as my career progressed, boundaries became harder to impose, so I made them more tangible to me and importantly, more obvious to others. Rewind maybe ten years ago and I was observing the Jewish sabbath (digital detox and all) and working from home on Wednesday mornings. Rewind two years ago, I became contracted four days a week, spending my Fridays doing other things, like mentoring young entrepreneurs, working with the IPA or in my role as chair of Jewish arts centre JW3.

I mention this because I know from personal experience that managing your boundaries, especially when working flexibly, is hard. It’s a muscle that needs constant exercise. But the personal and professional gains are worth it.

With few exceptions, I believe the same applies to most people, especially in our industry. Our greatest commodities – talent and creativity – can easily be damaged by the long hours work culture, by the office environment and by presenteeism. The mass social experiment of the last six months has proven we can almost all work remotely; that much of our daily office diet is redundant, counter-productive even. Offices can be the wrong place for focused work and our best ideas can come when we are liberated from our desks, especially when it’s the same desk, day in day out. But this time has also highlighted the bits we miss and need the most: The joy of being with like-minded, creative people; the serendipity that occurs when you share the same workspace; the casual mentoring; the ease with which ideas flow and the fun, of course.

A recent survey from Campaign magazine showed just one in eight people want to return to the office full time. Half would prefer to return for certain days each week. Just over a quarter would prefer only to go in for occasional meetings and one in 10 would like to continue to work from home at all times. We shouldn’t be looking for absolutes and talking about returning to the office as an all or nothing pursuit. Or a one size fits all solution. People are different, lives are complicated. But I am excited by the potential of hybrid working for everyone.

So, what does the future look like?

In rethinking how we work and what the office is actually for, we need to be at our most imaginative. If we are committed to revolution, leaders will need to find another gear and push forward change or risk losing the gains of recent months and slipping back to where we were before. There is a win-win here. Employers can save real estate costs, retain talent and make better work. Employees get the freedom to work as they truly want to. Let’s agree to make a new contract.

First, we need to bust some myths:

– People don’t necessarily work harder in the office or produce better work when they are observed.

– Digital presenteeism – being on back to back Zoom calls – is just as bad as office presenteeism.

– Whether we’re part-time or full-time, junior or senior, working parents or young singles, we all need boundaries.

– We need to focus on outputs – the value of the work created – not inputs – the time it took.

Then we need to acknowledge the challenges:

– A more diverse workforce makes for better work, but as leaders and managers, we’re going to have to try much harder to find, retain and flex for them. The onus is on us to do more and do better.

– Every business, role and person is different. Working parents are different from commuters, who are different from house-sharing millennials with no desk. A future of work that works for all, will mean many different types of contracts. We need to embrace that complexity.

– Trust is critical.

– We must all practice self-care. Especially now. We have a long road ahead and looking after our own and our colleagues’ mental and emotional health is paramount.

Where do we start?

As always, we start by listening, observing and trying things out. It won’t always work; it won’t be perfect. But we will make progress.

Could we embrace office shift work as an industry? Part of the week or part of the day?

Let’s talk about how we measure productivity, too. This requires a wholesale look at how agencies and clients work together. It is something I’m proud to be working on with the IPA, but as leaders, we can start to think differently about how we use our time valuably, now.

Research from industry charity NABS revealed that 37% of employees are struggling with the new pressure of online presenteeism – with 35% citing long virtual video conferencing meetings as a stressor and 45% finding it difficult to set boundaries around working hours. The work itself is often squeezed into evenings and weekends.

Research from LinkedIn in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation shows that on average Britons have been working 28 hours of overtime per month since lockdown began; the equivalent of four extra days. It is a trend that sparks the question: what does the industry need to do to avoid us hurtling towards burnout?

We should be using our ‘extra’ time more wisely. I would argue that less commuting means more time to split between exercise, socialising, family and yes, perhaps a little more work of the deep and focussed kind. Or to be there for our colleagues.

This speaks to my final, and perhaps the most important point: we need to look after ourselves and each other.

Instead of taking this opportunity to forge new, inclusive and flexible ways of working, the industry is at risk of simply replacing one toxic working practice with another. A global pandemic that affords the communications industry the ability for a complete reset in how, when and how much employees work is in danger of simply replacing the inflexibility of office life with digital presenteeism.

As we enter this second phase, with no clear end in sight, we need to recognise that everyone needs support. It’s a sign of strength, not a weakness to ask for help. Even elite athletes need coaches, physical and mental, to cope with challenges and to optimise their performances. It’s how they grow. And the same is true of us as professionals and as leaders.

When we grow, we help our colleagues grow, our clients grow and our businesses grow. Or perhaps in this economy, regrow.

This article originally featured on Advertising Week 360. For more articles from Marc; click here.