‘The worst of both worlds’: Confessions of an agency HR exec on the push and pull of returning to the office

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Employers are navigating a delicate balance when it comes to the return to the office. Many are faced with weighing flexibility with finding ways to get employees to return to work from a physical office.

The decision can be a costly one — rental agreements could account for up to 5% of a company’s total operating budget, Digiday recently reported. And with the significant economic uncertainty surrounding next year’s decision-making, whether to have an in-person office can make all the difference.

We do feel there’s a loss of culture by not being with each other and seeing each other.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, we hear from an agency HR exec on the current Catch-22 situation many employers find themselves in.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How’s the transition to get people back to the office? 

We’ve been taking baby steps back. We’ve been very soft [about it like,] we’re inviting everybody back on Tuesdays, right? ‘Come on in, we’ll buy you lunch and grab food.’ We’re a small agency. On a usual day, maybe I get 10 people in the office, maybe I’ll get 16 or 17. So we’ve decided to give up our office space because [it doesn’t make sense for us right now]. Why do we pay all this rent for an office that nobody wants to come to? So we’re trying a co-working space instead.

So co-working allows you guys to stop paying so much to rent a space people are only using once in a while. Do you think that will solve the office issue long-term?

[It’s a trial period for a while.] But… we’re in a service industry. We’ve got clients, they wanna jump on calls. So where do those people go [to do those calls]? If you have a big open space or people are fighting for small conference rooms to get in, it’s kind of the worst of both worlds. 

If people are getting work done at home, why does it matter for them to get back to offices?

We do feel there’s a loss of culture by not being with each other and seeing each other, especially for entry-level and [people in new] roles. There’s really a loss of [asking someone easily], ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ Or just reaching over somebody’s shoulder and having them show them how to navigate what they’re working on. Listening in on conversations, learning how to navigate people in our office or just [getting to know] people in the agency in different departments. I do worry that unless we actually mandated people to come back [they won’t]. But then we’d probably lose a lot of people. So I kind of feel held hostage right now. There is no right answer. Personally, I feel like asking people to come back two days a week is not unreasonable.

I kind of feel held hostage right now. There is no right answer.

If they’re gonna quit their job over that, okay, well maybe you shouldn’t be here.

Sounds like a Catch-22. 

Yeah. And some people will ask, ‘Well, are you gonna pay for us to come in?’ Like paying for their parking, commuting, it just becomes this whole other thing. It’s tough. I do know there are other agencies that have required people to be fully back in the office. Whether they’ve lost headcount over that. I don’t know the right answer. Even though people say they’re more productive at home [I know there’s some burnout associated with being at home.] We’re in a creative industry. After a whole day of being on video calls all day — cause everything has to be so scheduled — everyone’s feeling burned out. Yeah, you’re not commuting, but you’re logging on now at eight o’clock and you don’t get off of your laptop until six o’clock. It’s just straight through. There aren’t any natural breaks in a day. No commuting or going out and getting a coffee or walking to lunch with a bunch of coworkers or going having a happy hour, something that just breaks up the day.

Do you feel like there’s anything that you can do to appeal to people, to try and get them to want to work together again in an office space? 

It’s so funny. No one comes in to use our office. And then when we announced that we’re giving up our office space, I had people be like, ‘Wait, what? We’re not [going to] have a place to go to.’ And I’m like, ‘I know you, I go into the office almost every day. You’re never there.’  They want everything. It’s kind of like when your parents sell your family home, but you only visit once a year. You’re like, ‘Hey you can’t sell it,’ but you’re only there once a year. 

What do you wish employees understood about this squishy in between position that employers are put in now having to accommodate people who want to be in offices but also those who want to work from home?

I wish employees would understand how much it costs a company in overhead to lease an office and provide commuter benefits. It’s expensive to operate an office. I totally understand why companies, big banking firms and all these huge companies that have massive, massive amounts of square footage are demanding their employees come back to the office. Commercial leases are sometimes 10 to 20 years, right? We were stuck in our lease [for a while] and we had to keep, we have had to keep paying our rent without any breaks. They even raised our rent [early on in the pandemic]. Commercial real estate people, they just don’t care. So I guess I wish employees would know the cost. It’s stupid to keep paying for a space that no one shows up at [but then people want it when it’s gone].


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