How agencies are keeping the line between work and home clear

Sudden change taught indies lessons about preserving work-life balance. Now they are thinking about how to make sure that isn't lost when things shift back to the office.

Read part one of this series, focused on how agencies are rethinking their physical spaces and collaboration in anticipation of a post-pandemic world, here.

“Putting our people first” became a common mantra for agencies during the pandemic, and the importance of preserving a healthy work-life balance to the mental wellbeing of employees is something that will shape their culture even once they are welcomed back to the office.

The sudden shift from working in an office to working from home blurred the lines for many employees, meaning agencies had to double down on existing policies or create new ones to keep their people from overworking and, ultimately, burning out.

At Toronto agency Mint, the pandemic was a catalyst for an internal change, as it moved away from a focus on PR and XM to incorporating those practices into a more holistic offering. That’s already a massive shift, but doing so on top of the new working arrangement put senior leadership to the test, says Ashley White, VP at Mint, one it answered by giving empathy a primary role in decision-making.

“As a leadership team, we really needed to understand that everybody was showing up the best they can and that’s what they were capable of right now,” explains White. “We wanted to make sure we were adapting our expectations and how we work in order to meet everybody’s unique needs.”

That involved a healthy amount of schedule management, as Mint implemented core hours during which meetings could be booked and blackout periods designed “to really protect peoples’ calendars,” she says. The agency also extended a “short Friday” policy it usually enacted in the summer year-round, further allowing its employees to disconnect.

Many of those initiatives stemmed directly from feedback Mint’s leadership team received through regular surveys and “pulse checks,” adds White, noting the importance of that communication in making sure the agency could “hear everybody’s voice.”

Communication was also key to Zulu Alpha Kilo’s management of the pandemic and work-from-home related stresses. Prior to the pandemic, the agency’s leadership “had doubted the feasibility of working from home,” according to CCO and founder Zak Mroueh, “the pandemic showed us it can work well.”

Zulu had a pre-existing policy against the sending of internal emails between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m., and it doubled down on that rule to preserve the divide between office hours and the rest of the day. It also placed mandatory lunch break markers in employee calendars and allowed greater flexibility to the parents on staff so that they would have time to help their children with schoolwork.

Preserving that flexibility will remain a priority as the return to the office begins, as neither agency envisions a return to the old normal.

Mint gave up its physical office during the pandemic but plans to acquire a a new one suited to a hybrid model where employees will split time between home and the office – something Zulu is going to keep in mind as it reevaluates its own physical presence.

“We want to control our destiny and really challenge the norms of pre-COVID office usage,” notes Mroueh. “Every space in the new office environment will be designed with multiple usages in mind. There is a continual need to pivot quickly and transform.”

For both agencies, the exact physical form their offices will take is still being determined, but the preservation of workplace culture while employees are working from disparate locations will remain a priority in their new normal.

While being careful to maintain the divide between work and home life, Zulu has also done things to make sure employees can still get the sense of community they were used to from interacting with co-workers, such as virtual talent shows, special internal video content and weekly virtual drinks. Important moments like Black History Month and International Women’s Day have also been celebrated, says Mroueh, and the agency’s diversity and inclusion team is working on an event for Pride. He adds that while circumstances meant the agency had to be more creative, the agency plans to continue these efforts when it returns to the office.

“Out of office no longer has any meaning, and in some ways, neither does work from home,” adds White. “We’re entering an era where you’re either not working, but it’s on your list, or you’re getting it done right now. And it’s that level of accountability that will be really integral to the employer-employee relationship, rather than a sense of ‘forced togetherness.’”