This time last year I wrote about looking forward to getting back to the office and bouncing back to ‘normal’. Well, it didn’t really pan out that way. With restrictions easing off then tightening again, it was hard to predict what work life would look like from one month to the next. A while before lockdown, Embrace had evolved into a leaner, more agile agency, so we were pretty well placed to flex and adapt. We got over the initial practical issues, making Teams and our other remote working tools really efficient, and we proved to ourselves that the business can do well, even with less face-to-face interaction.

Everyone in the team had different ideas about how much they wanted to work from home. As MD, I aimed to understand and respect that everybody's circumstances and motivations are different. So every day the agency might take a different shape. But at times, the organisation was stretched thin between the opposing forces of government diktats, client expectations and the various needs of the team.

I wondered, does there come a point at which you can be too flexible? How do you formulate some kind of structure around the shifting sands of agency life today? Flexibility means different things to different people, but we needed to define it. It would be hard to run a business where it’s just too much of a free for all. I don't think anybody in an agency wants to work like nine to five, at a desk in London, just because that's what your contract says. It's been proven that working in slightly different ways is liberating for people, and they can manage their work / life balance better. But where do we land in the middle and take the best of both worlds?

Defining this new flexible way of working is very much an open conversation, and a work in progress. We’ve taken a collaborative approach to developing new processes, so hopefully they reflect the needs and wants of more of the team. We also moved our physical offices up a few floors to an area with slightly less floor space, and we’re now designing a mix of workstations and relaxed seating, to compliment the amazing view of London we now look out on. The aim is to make the office a space people want to come to and be together, rather than just turn up and put their heads down.

Our business is all about connections. At Embrace, we consciously build close relationships with our clients and their industries. We share and give each other input and feedback. We value our network of collaborators. And we know that we achieve more when we work together. So the main challenge of this year has been nurturing these connections and keeping them alive and thriving. We have a strong base of relationships built up before lockdown, but we don’t want to just lean on this, we need to renew and re-energize relationships all the way along. We have successfully onboarded staff in these strange times and kept the team tight with regular days in-office and Teams chat that’s just for entertainment. It’s important to maintain a culture of connectedness that means people feel supported and able to do what they do well.

We have had times recently when for example, we have been allowed to meet a client or have internal workshops, and have felt re-invigorated by the magic of just being connected in real life. The impromptu chats in between scheduled meetings where new ideas come up and you see an exciting way forward. That is actually what it’s all about. And I think it’s about making sure that we realise the importance of that as a team, because it can get lost. The convenience of home working feels very easy, but I would say it’s a false comfort. After the initial euphoria of release from the commute, there’s a creeping realisation that we are missing out on something really important.

So we’ll keep striving to nurture the essence of a healthy business. The connections, human interactions and relationships that make the agency what it is. We don’t have all the answers – like everyone else we’re learning as we go along. But rather than wasting time worrying about ‘what ifs’, we’ll deal with the here and now, and keep moving forward.