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Lockdown learnings: where to from here?

28 May 2020 Article by Joseph Silk


When Level 2 was finally announced, I found it surprisingly refreshing to be showering, shaving, dressing in long pants and a collar and then sitting in traffic while I made the 45-something minute trip to work rather than the 15 second stroll to my home office. But now that we’re back in our new reality, what are the key learnings for businesses moving forward?

Like you, there are two things I have heard repeatedly over lockdown: we must ‘make the most of a crisis’ and ‘New Zealand has a chance to reinvent itself.’ These are lofty thoughts espoused by very smart people, but don’t seem grounded in the real world. Tell that to every small business in New Zealand that was wiped out or put into the uncertainty of suspended animation the minute we moved up to Alert Level 3.

Sure, things aren’t going to go back to normal for quite some time. And yes, businesses do need to pivot (another word I’m keen not to hear for a while), but if we’re honest, many of us have little to pivot to or to reinvent. We’ve trimmed, nipped and tucked our model as much as possible and now need to get on with it. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve learned from lockdown.

1. Technology is good and it does work

While I might have been a bit of a sceptic going into this, now I’m sold. Yes, you can have productive meetings online. Yes, you can be in the office without being at the office. So how might this change the way we work at Chemistry? Well, it’s not going to mean everyone works at home and we give up our lease, but it does give real meaning to flexible office hours as opposed to flexible working hours. While we all need to put in the time to make our business successful, it’s now more reasonable to understand that this time doesn’t have to be behind a desk at 11 Westhaven Drive.

2. People love people, especially in advertising

If there was ever a time during lockdown when I really feared for the mental health and productivity of our staff, it was probably about week three. Week one was fear and adaption; people were distracted while they tried to work out how they’d work from home. Week two was acceptance and coping; routines started to be established and productivity lifted. Week three was when the cracks started to show as we all stared down the barrel of weeks and weeks of what we were doing. Our people missed our people.

It’s great to know we have built a culture where everyone genuinely loves working together. But take away that close personal contact and you really have to dig deep. The ability to read the vibe in a room when you’re having a brainstorm or being clearly heard when you’re riffing off someone’s suggestion are two fundamental tenants of creative thinking – and they are hard to replicate via Teams or Zoom, especially when your internet may be patchy.

So, if we’re saying flexible working hours are fine but people need connection, then, as leaders, we have a tightrope to walk in our post-lockdown world. We want people to be able to embrace their newfound working freedoms, but we also want to ensure our company culture remains strong, connected and inventive – and that requires people to be physically present.

3. Landlords and open plan working

Do we really need a big office? Probably. Should it remain an open plan space with big meeting rooms. Probably not. The office has a role to play as our connection hub. It’s a social and collaboration space and should be designed accordingly. But people still need some quiet time, somewhere they can go to think like they did at home. Perhaps some of our bigger meeting rooms need to make way for small two to four person spaces, where people can do some deep thinking or have a Teams meeting with a client. Then we have the best of both worlds, collaboration when needed but independence also.

3. Meetings in person – or online?

The next big question is, do we really need to travel to all our meetings? The time and money wasted sitting in Auckland traffic is staggering. The answer is probably both yes, and no. 70% of meetings could be substituted with a conference call – but this means the other 30% become more important. Face time with clients is critical and should be prioritised for presentations and strategic discussions.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the value of a coffee or beer meeting. While the actual stimulants are nice, it’s the relaxed nature of chat and banter that is most valuable. There are often insights or ah-ha moments that arise when guards are down and the conversation flows freely. It is in these moments that one can uncover previously unknown business issues and connect disparate ideas to provide true joined-up thinking, linking strategy with technology and business opportunities.

So where to from here?

So, has lockdown been tough? Absolutely. The mental and financial toll on the country is staggering and something we are only just starting to understand and adapt to. But has lockdown also taught us some important things?  Again, absolutely. The traditional way of working for many businesses – and particularly advertising agencies – has been revealed as somewhat arcane. It has to evolve, and it will. How fast is up to us.