By Jo Coombs, CEO at OgilvyOne

With a reputation for long days & short-turn around times the advertising industry has begun to question how we can shape our ways of working to create conditions that support a better work/life balance for our employees. It’s an issue that a decade ago wasn’t without it’s justifications when you consider presenteeism; how could one do anything outside of the office when the tools used for work were exclusively held inside a company's four walls - Hello days of PC’s, landlines, fax machines & photocopiers.

Now, in 2017, we have never been more able to mould ourselves to flexing schedules; to dial-in, virtually make an appearance - modern day ways of working that should put ‘Work/Life Balance’ in logical reach. It’s no secret that happier employees make for better work, and increasingly we are becoming better acquainted with the knowledge that to create work reminiscent of the real world our employees also need to live a life outside the advertising bubble. As leaders we need to encourage our pool of talent to prioritise family & pursue interests that provide them with the opportunity to gain knowledge, perspective and balance. I recently caught up with Campaign Magazine to discuss the quest to provide a Work/Life balance, why it remains a crucial talking point & how we can best go about achieving this. 

1. Do you think it is possible to work in advertising and still have a life?

Not only do I think it is possible I think it is essential. If we are not out there living our lives in the real world then we cannot do our job in creating communications that engage consumers. The more we can do, see, read and embrace with both arms the more we can bring to our jobs. None of my friends outside of work are from this industry. They are the first to say to me "stop telling us you can't come out because you're working on a pitch, just write your silly proposal and come out. It's hardly rocket science". And they are right. (Wrong about the proposal being silly but right about us not solving for world peace). Sometimes we get so consumed by what we do so that it's easy to lose perspective. And that's usually at the very time when perspective is exactly what you need. What we do is important but it's not everything. Clients appreciate interesting people who bring fresh perspectives more than agency people who take the job too seriously.  I think we need to be accommodating of people's other interests, we have people who are DJ's & actors, studying acupuncture, training for competitive iron man competitions.  We also have an ex Olympic fencer and one of the 4 women who rowed around the world last year.  Work shouldn't be confined to 9-5 and 'life' shouldn't be confined to evenings and weekends.  A real balance is having one life and enjoying all aspects of it - the bits you get paid for and the bits you don't.  And as employers we should see value in our people doing other things because it makes them more interesting people.  For me every single thing I do or that happens to me is a learning experience. And every single one of them makes me a better person and that makes me better at my job. 

2. What structural changes would encourage greater wellbeing at work?

I think we need to realise that the advertising world in which we work, whilst already one of the more tolerant, inclusive and progressive industries, is by no means perfect so there is still a long way to go.  As an industry have a chance to lead the way. But to be more inclusive & progressive we need to be more flexible and offer more flexibility in the way that our people work.

Unfortunately it's still only a minority that choose flexible working arrangements. And until this percentage increases there is a considerable divide between those working flexibly and those not. With those who work full-time feeling that they are constantly having to pick up the pieces for those who leave early or work part time. And those people working flexibly feeling guilty because they work differently or leave before the rest of their team. We need to get over this.  We need to increase the percentage of people who work flexibly. And that means encouraging more people to work flexibly by not only allowing them to do so but also incentivising them to.  And leaders need to set an example.  I had 12 months off when I had my children. Now I work 9 days out of 10. 8 in the office, 1 at home. Before I had children I actually worked a 4 day week for 5 years. I was offered it by our CEO at the time and I remember saying to him "why are you offering me this, I don't even have children?" His response was "what difference does that make, if it will make you happier then it will be good for us". It did make me happier. But I also said to him "aren't you worried that if you offer me this others will want it too?"  His response was "I hope they do".  The sad thing is they didn't. Now 9 years on, I'm in his shoes and I am now trying hard to bring more flexibility to how we work. Because according to research once more than 30% of a workforce is working flexibly then you reach a tipping point and the whole organisation goes from seeing it as a problem to seeing it as an opportunity. Resulting in the entire organisation being more nimble, agile and responsive. It basically cures itself. The organisational culture shifts and business results improve. Companies in countries like Denmark and Sweden have proven this to be the case. But it does require trust.  We need to trust all of our employees to work responsibly and do a great job without dictating the hours or the location of when and where they work.

All the other wellbeing things we offer like massages, yoga, acupuncture & sleep coaching are all important but it's actually the way we work that we need to change which is more fundamental. We need to increase flexibility in when, where and how people work in order to really practice wellbeing. Then the other things are added bonuses.  

3. Is the notion of “bringing your whole self to work” rhetoric or  reality? How will this bridge the divide between having a life and thriving at work?

I only ever take my whole self anywhere. Bits of me are pretty useless if I'm honest. If I'm not 100% present then I get no satisfaction and only do a fraction of the job. But this does require me to be able to switch modes and switch off at night. Sleep is essential. It's the best gift you can give yourself. I'm lucky I can sleep and switch modes. I have seen others struggle with it. Particularly working mums who are woken at night and suffer from guilt during the day.  I'm trying to lead by example. I'm a single mum. I have to work. But I also have to be a parent. There's no room for guilt about either of those things. I never apologise for leaving the office to do children stuff. And I never (outwardly) show my children my upset at leaving them every day. I check-in with my team each morning (this is each of us sharing anything that might influence how we work that day - a lack of sleep perhaps, or worrying about the health of a family member or friend) for me it's starting the day by acknowledging the other things going on in each other's lives.  Getting it out on the table helps us get on with the job with more empathy for our team around us.

I switch modes but I don't compartmentalise. I'm still a mum even if I'm in the office. It's just I'm focussed on work while I'm there. And for the hour I get with my children in the morning and evening I am present. I'm not taking calls or doing emails (I do that once they are asleep!).  One of the things I have learned is that there really is nothing that can't wait a couple of hours.

But you do need to be able to switch modes. So you can be present in each. My commute is my switch over time. I try not to work or do lists of kids stuff. I just 'am' for 30 minutes. I listen to music or read. Or I just breath.  And then I before I go to sleep I always try to articulate the successes of the day (big or tiny) something that makes it worth it. That always helps me sleep.

4. When young people look at the top of agencies and don’t aspire to be that; will we face up to a talent crisis?

There's an interesting debate circulating on Facebook at the moment about Baby Boomers being at war with Millennials, while Generation X gets on and runs things. A Gen Xer has written the article. It's a good read (esp if you're a gen Xer ) but it's the comments (there are thousands of them) that are really interesting. And insightful.  While it's true that some Millennials (not all) might not want our jobs as they are today, I think it's a good thing. It's not because they don't want our jobs it's because we are failing to change fast enough or significantly enough to make our jobs desirable to them.

The talent crisis is happening right now. We are in it. It's one of the reasons why flexibility in the workplace can't happen fast enough. It's not 'pandering to mollycoddled Millennials' as the Baby Boomers might think, it's because technology is enabling human desire for 'better' to move at breakneck speed and the old rigid rules and ways of working simply can't keep up. Hierarchies slow things down. You can't rule by control (although Trump is obviously trying) you need networks and empowerment to encourage experimentation. It's the only way to keep up. Change (as someone far wiser than me once said) is the only constant.

If those at the top of agencies today can demonstrate how to lead through change, and how to have interesting lives, then I believe people will still want our jobs. They just might not be the white, college grads that we typically expect. In fact I hope they're not just the white college grads. I don't want my job if that's the only talent coming after me.

5. Is burnout an issue in the industry?

Not as much as it used to be, because people move a lot more. But still more than it should be. Often it's due to loss of perspective through too much pressure. Generally in most cases the pressure comes from the individual themselves because they:

  1. Can't say no
  2. Can't ask for help
  3. Are trying to prove something
  4. Are in the wrong job
  5. Don't know the signs / aren't listening to their bodies

None of us are paid enough to put our physical or mental health at risk. 

This job / industry does not suit everyone.  When I look at the exit interviews of people leaving OgilvyOne (and I always do) it's fair to say they are a mix of good, bad and really bad. Most regrettable leavers (yes there are unregrettable ones if you performance manage properly) go to earn more money or to work in a different industry (often both!).  Today the idea of keeping people for decades is not a reality. I'd rather have a couple of great years from someone and give them the skills to go and be amazing doing something else somewhere else, than trying to hold onto them.  As leaders we do need to change the system and our ways of working. Helping our organisations cure themselves by encouraging flexible ways of working and a more inclusive culture. But this isn't a holiday camp and there is real work to be done to run a viable business in this day and age.  We obviously need to look after our people. The right people are the only thing we have. But they do have to be the right people. We need to help the wrong people find other paths (before they burnout).

For me personally; I have always been able to work hard and long hours when needed but then switch off when I'm not at work. When I leave the office I go home and I carry on with the other bits of my life.  In my twenties this meant partying hard. In my thirties it meant travelling. And now in my forties it means trying to raise my children as best I can, and helping them to be interesting people themselves. 

There are times when burn out has been possible. Either because I was playing too hard. Or pitching too hard. Or not listening to my body.  But thankfully I had an incredible mentor in Annette King and a very supportive company in OgilvyOne which has enabled me to flex how I work and what I do.  At one point I took a month off work and went to Mexico to train as a yoga instructor. It was one way of me coping at the time and giving myself the tools to cope with whatever else the future might throw at me.  It's important to recognise the source of any pressure you might feel and then seek help (internally or externally) to change the situation before you suffer.