Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Rewiring the Workspace

Published in May-Jun 2021

The pandemic has rewritten the rules by which we work by, but are we prepared to stick by them for ever more?

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to work with a high-performing, instinctively-fuelled, and highly-adaptive team. A mouthful? I know. But in a simple Venn Diagram, teams like these lie on the sweet spot between talent, drive and adaptability. What has enabled us to build such a potent creative body is by first honing in on a higher purpose of being at constant war with mediocrity, but more than that, it has been the ability to identify and recruit people who share the same vision.

So in 2020, when we were expected to pivot, the transition didn’t seem as difficult as it was for most. In fact, it felt like we had been working up to that very point to be prepared for something like this. The pandemic proved a very important point: the widespread orthodox notions of what defined an agency and its way of working (often referred to as a toxic work culture) needed to be rattled.

When the world closed down… no, I am not going to do that to you. I will do you one better. I will tell you how the world did the exact opposite of that overly exhausted line and ‘opened up’ instead. Yep, I am back with another listicle. Here is what the pandemic has opened up for us.

1 The Definition of a Workplace: We are no longer bound by the walls of the proverbial box we were often found creating out-of-the-box ideas within. We are now free-moving, location-free, free of limits. Isn’t there just so much freedom in being remote? Having always been a believer that good work can happen anywhere, we have always had lots of work from home days (before WFH became a thing); we even had what we called work from chaaye khana days. But we always got the work done (and to its best) without missing a single deadline. If you ever visit our office (hopefully someday when the pandemic is behind us), you will find a sign leading to our bathroom that says “good ideas can happen anywhere” and you can take us up on that!

In fact, I have an interesting hiring story to share. Before the pandemic, I singled out a resource I wanted to hire for their sheer talent and collaborative nature. There was only one request from them; they would not be able to stay post seven o’clock, but would work from home whenever needed. Knowing post seven was after work hours anyway, the admission of being available after-hours for emergencies seemed a no-brainer to me as a trade off for what they brought to the table. With this thought in mind, I approached the person’s direct managers. To my dismay, the idea was ruthlessly shot down. The comfort of a physically present team was too good to give up. Respecting that this was their team to lead, I didn’t push it. But the person never left my mind. Fast forward a year, in the post-pandemic world, and I was able to hire the person because the WFH clause was now void; everyone was working from home and I faced no friction on that front. Lo and behold, this person is one of the biggest assets we have on the team today and would have been equally great pre-pandemic too, if only our perception had opened up back then to see it.

It’s like our world has become borderless. We now have one person working remotely from Dubai and another from Islamabad. Geographies don’t matter; the people and what they bring to the table do. The good news is, agencies all around the world are embracing remote teams and the possibility of working at the agency you ‘stan’ (A Gen Z term for ‘st’alking someone and being a ‘f’an’) are now much higher!

2 The Parameters to Build a Solid Workforce: I am going to say something highly controversial, but stay with me. I don’t believe in diversity checklists. There, I said it. I feel like more than checking off a list that coddles our conscience, we need to ask why there is an erring conscience waiting to be coddled in the first place. Would it not be so much easier if we just hired the right person for the job; free of their gender, free of their exterior demeanour, free of what their plans for procreating are, free of all other biases that keep us from seeing what they bring to the table? The intent then should be to hire people who are right for the role. For me, that has meant a 70:30 ratio (women:men) hired through a process that was free of biases or a ‘diversity checklist’.

This brings me to our fool-proof hiring process. There are two simple steps to it. The first one is aptitude. We put out a brief, not an announcement post. This helps weed out trigger-happy people (who send out their CV without context or eligibility) and ensures that only the serious ones come through. In the pandemic, this process was done through email as opposed to an in-person meeting. Without having met the candidates, only their work shone, setting aside any other factors that would appeal to one’s bias. The second is attitude. We handpick the best work and a handful of meetings are set up to determine attitude and vision. Do they believe in a ‘we not me’ ideology? Are they driven by the work they do? Are they looking to raise the benchmark of the industry? The right attitude is important because we set ourselves up for failure when we hire people to do what we want them to do, instead of hiring people who by default want the same thing we want. The presence of this robust hiring process has ensured that we had the crème de la crème working on the team during the pandemic, maximising efficiency. WhatsApp messages were read on time, emails promptly answered, tasks done and dusted to the best capacity without ever the need to ‘police’ the team either on timing or work quality.

3 The Possibility of Work-Life Boundaries: The pandemic has stripped our work day of all the frills around it: driving to work and back, rushing to meetings and then hurtling back, the small talk before and after, the school drop-offs and pick-ups, the smoke breaks, the chai and the lunch breaks, the for-no-real-reason breaks. (That’s far too many potential Kit Kat plugs in there). The point being, we now have a true 10 to 6 day, dedicated entirely to the work and this means razor sharp focus on getting the tasks done and on time, because there are no other distractions (minus the ‘leisurely’ shrieks of a child; I have a screamer at home). I have found (with noise-cancelling headphones) I am able to get more work done, with far greater focus today, than I ever could back in the day.

Which brings me to this. The idea of balance might be fleeting when it comes to advertising, but boundaries are tangible and the onus of creating them lies with both the workforce and the management. You get your chunk of work done on time and with accountability, and the management makes sure they don’t over-fill your plate. I am going to be an idealist (only by virtue of having experienced this first-hand) and say this is completely possible, if both the workforce and management do their part. Amidst rampant talks about mental health and treating your employees with respect, this is a great chance to self-reflect and ask yourselves if amends need to be made to help draw those clear, healthy boundaries.

To wrap this up, I would like to point out that we are lucky because the pandemic has given us a clean slate. Unlike many others before us, we have a choice; we can either choose to comfortably fall back to our old regressive ways or rewrite the rules that the industry lives by from this point onwards, propelling ourselves forward. What would your slate say?

Hira Mohibullah is ECD, BBDO Pakistan.