Work life integration. Agile offices. Flexi-time and telecommuting. Do all of these work place innovations mean more of the same?
Words by Rome Jorge
Work-life integration, agile offices, flexi-time, and telecommuting: these innovative business practices made possible by mobile computing devices connected by the internet. Has technology empowered employees to work at the time, place, and manner of their choosing? Or has it enabled employers to invade their workers’ private lives and steal their leisure time?
Work culture matters. People spend more time at work—wether it’s rushing to beat deadlines in dead of night, waiting on prima donna clients, getting stuck on traffic for hours daily, or responding to a deluge of emails and other messages—than they ever will bonding with their children, romancing their lovers, immersing themselves in nature, or traveling to different cultures.
The creative industry—by its very definition—is the first to innovate with new ways of working. And yet it is an industry beset by high turnover rates from young employees who quit after the company has invested in their training, depression, and karōshi or death by overwork. This, despite cutting edge offices that resemble cozy cafes and children’s playgrounds, free yoga classes and in-house gyms, despite company outings abroad, and motivational speeches from nurturing superiors. For all the innovative ideas and technologies, too much work is still too much work, impossible deadlines are still impossible deadlines, and difficult bosses are still difficult bosses.
Work-Life Integration, Flexi-time, and Telecommuting
Work-life integration—as opposed to work life balance—is supposed to allow people to do their work where and when they live their private lives. But as every freelancer and entrepreneur knows, even when one works when and where one lives, one can still be too busy for quality time for loved ones, and one may wish for borders to instill professionalism and work ethic.
Flexi-time and telecommuting—as opposed to fixed working hours at the office—is supposed to allow better time management to accomplish both business and personal matters as well as allow evaluations based on results instead of time logged in. But will it mean colleagues who see less of each other in person lacking understanding, rapport, and camaraderie that are crucial company unity and business relations? As anyone working on commissions know, even with flexi-time, one still has to abide by the business hours and geographic locations of clients and partners. Communicating with clients abroad knows, understanding, rapport, and camaraderie are best fostered in person.
Evidently, the dichotomy between professional and private life was lost years ago. A study by TeamViewer released in 2012 found that 52% of employees in the United States work during vacations, with 30% reading work-related emails, 23% receiving work-related phone calls, 19% wanting access to a document on my home computer, 18% receiving work-related text messages, 13% wanting access to a document on my work computer, and 13% being asked to do work by a boss, client or colleague. According to employment website Glassdoor’s April 2014 study on Paid Vacation Use, only 25% of employees in the United States availed of their paid vacation leaves.
In contrast, since January 2017, French law has required companies to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology after working hours to ensure their employees continue to enjoy the French mode de vie or “way of life.” This “right to disconnect” flies in the face of those extolling “work-life integration.” France also limited work to 35 hours a week in February 2000. This initiative not only protected the French mode de vie but also aimed to reduce unemployment by compelling companies to hire more employees instead of asking fewer employees to work longer hours, since it was more costly to pay for overtime. Tellingly, in France, overtime is generously compensated and hence discouraged. According to data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) titled “Compendium of Productivity Indicators,” France had the second most productive workers in the world.
Agile offices—as opposed to office cubicles clustered round different departments—is supposed to allow better collaboration and do away with territorialism. But as everyone laboring at co-working spaces and other time-sharing office venues know, having a permanent working space to truly call your own for better efficiency and greater sense of belonging is still the aspiration.
The physical layout of any office reflects an underlying concept on how people should work. In 2009, a report entitled “Property in the Economy” by the the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on Agile Working recognized “two entirely different concepts; the physical concept – the workplace and its environment, and the business concept based on human and social need.” It notes, “Successful organizations have many admirable characteristics but the most consistent one is agility. Agility is the ability to change routines without resistance.” It also cautions, “Agile working does not do away with an office or a workspace; it suggests a solid, supporting and energizing base.” Physically, agile offices do away with cubicles and provide free seating for employees to work within laptop computers and other mobile devices while huddle rooms provide venues for collaboration. Some the world’s largest corporations such as Unilever have become major proponents of agile working.
In the early 1990s, Jay Chiat of TBWA/Chiat/Day pioneered the Virtual Office—arguably the forerunner of the Agile Office—that did away with any personal desk spaces and cubicles, issued all employees laptops instead of desktop personal computers, and allowed them to work from anywhere in the office. A seminal attempt, it was a failure since there were never enough laptops and people longed for personal storage space and privacy.
The concept of an Open Office is not new. In the 1900s, offices were white collar factories with rows of desks without borders while executives were hidden away behind the closed doors of private offices. Then in the 1950s, designer Robert Propst, attempting to strive an ideal balance between workers exposed in open offices and people working behind doors invented the Action Office concept—which inadvertently led to the pervasive cubicle. In the early 2000s, billion-dollar technology companies founded by mostly college dropouts such as Google and Facebook pioneered offices that resembled college dormitory recreational rooms—complete with bean bags, foosball tables, arcade video game machines, espresso machines, deli cafeterias, and even ball swims, hammocks, and playground slides. All these concepts are part of the evolution that has led to the Agile Office.
Death from overwork is real. The Japanese have a word for it—Karōshi. The Labour Ministry of Japan has defined karōshi as death from either: cardiovascular illness linked to overwork or suicide following work-related mental stress. A study by the Japanese government of 1,743 companies and 19,583 workers found that 22% of Japanese workers were logging 80 hours of overtime per month, four more hours per day than the official threshold at which risk of death from overwork dramatically increases.
Cases include: Twenty-four-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, of the internet advertising division of Dentsu Inc., who killed herself by jumping off the third floor of the company dormitory after clocking 105 hours of work in one month and the number of staff in her division slashed from 14 to six on December 25, 2015. Twenty-four-year-old Mita Diran, copywriter for Young & Rubicam Indonesia, who died of heart failure, and slipping into a coma after not sleeping for three days on December 15, 2013. Twenty-four-year-old Li Yuan (aka Gabriel Li), tech team staffer for Ogilvy Public Relations Beijing, who died of sudden cardiac arrest according to doctors after collapsing at the office on May 13, 2013. Twenty-four-year-old Ichiro Oshima, involved in the planning of radio commercials and events for Dentsu Inc., who killed himself by hanging after working overtime two out of every five days most often until 6am the next day, leaving no time for sleep before going back to work the same day, on August 27, 1991.
Depression is another reality that has always existed yet only been belatedly identified. According to the study titled, “The economic burden of depression in the United States: how did it change between 1990 and 2000?” published in 2003, the economic burden of depression was estimated to be 52.9 billion USD 1990 in absenteeism from work, lost productivity, and direct treatment cost. The treatment rate for depression increased of over 50% from 1990 to 2000. Today’s generation now recognizes the medical problem—once nameless and brushed aside by previous generations—and seeks treatment for it.
According to the records of First Chicago Employee Assistance Program Study 1989-1992, 76% of total short term disability days due to depressive disorders are filed by female employees, perhaps partly because more pressures are placed on women by a patriarchal society, and perhaps partly because gender-normative men are less likely to admit being beset by depression.
According to the American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, almost 15% of those suffering from severe depression will die by suicide.
Unlike Baby-boomers and Gen Xers who saw it as a mark of toughness and diligence to meet the impossible demands of clients and bosses, a growing number of Millennials and Gen Z youths would rather quit and leave. They do so not because they are delicate and self-entitled as many perceive them to be, but arguably because they recognize abuse for what it is and do not tolerate it.
The Philippine creative industry has innovated many workplace innovations. Several industry luminaries revealed to adobo magazine their winning ways.
Elly Puyat, CEO Ogilvy & Mather Philippines, shares, “August actually marks the first-year anniversary of our office move from BGC to Rockwell. The last workspace had assigned desks and closed areas, including separate rooms for managers. We felt very strongly then that this did not reflect the collaborative way we operated. Our talents ‘flow’ or get reorganized around a clients’ brand needs; solutions can come from any discipline; and the most junior earns his seat at the table. Our current space, in contrast, supports and cultivates our desired behavior. The first day we moved in, people naturally moved into the open spaces, or collaboration areas. While our meeting rooms have increased to 14 on two floors, regroups also happen as needed—anywhere, anytime.”
Puyat explains, “A study with Jones Lang LaSalle confirmed that, on an average workday, 20% of our people are out of the office for our clients. That meant underutilized spaces, which we now turned into collaboration areas. An agile space gives the power back to employees. They get to decide the best way to work to make them most productive. For example, we have a cafe which can accommodate up to a hundred employees, who then have the flexibility in using the space for what they need—from training to work huddles to socials. It’s not just a new space, it’s a new way of working.”
“An agile office takes 100% commitment. We engaged early and often to get people excited about the empowering features of the new workspace. We also anticipated needs, such as individual lockers and offsite group storage in lieu of assigned desks. Business units had ‘home zones’ from where they can then choose to break out in collaboration areas. Technology was boosted for steady wifi anywhere in the office, as well as to support systems for online work groups and processes for virtual check-ins. All these and more facilitated early acceptance of the agile work environment. Today, it feels like we’ve always worked this way,” she notes.
Puyat enumerates the benefits: “As a result of our work environment, are we more nimble and integrated—across our specialist capabilities—in responding to clients’ business needs? Does this help build the kind of agency-client partnership that navigates the many opportunities of modern marketing? Do we continue to practice Ogilvy’s ‘divine discontent’ towards pursuing our twin peaks of creativity and effectivity? We think so. At the end of the day, taking care of our Ogilvy talents is taking care of our client-partners.”
She adds, “As it happens, the open-plan, collaborative, agile environment is a very millennial way of working. Even in my own experience with millennials within Ogilvy, they want to be able to design their own systems—and this includes flexible team-ups—for their own professional productivity and personal satisfaction. They expect enabling technology and reliable connectivity, but they also need real-time, regular feedback. In addition, the Ogilvy culture of independence and freedom for employees appeal to millennials. David Ogilvy himself had a tremendous belief in training to do things better. His meritocratic attitude to recruitment and advancement, and his dislike of hierarchy and politics are also, as they say, ‘very millennial.’”
Merlee Jayme, of Dentsu Jayme Syfu, lives up to her second title as “Chief Creative Officer/ Chairmom” with the creative ways that nurtures her employees.
She describes how her office reflects its values: “Transparency is key. We have one flat floor: right side is for the right side of the brain (creatives) and the left is for accounts. On one end, we have the Spacebar where beers and wine are overflowing usually on Fridays. Or on a challenging day after major presentations.We have a video gaming corner and a table tennis table for moments when you can’t seem to crack the brief. On the other side of the office is our ‘baby area.’ We have a crib/playpen, a table for kids to do art work. Moms and dads are encouraged to bring their kids to the office. This way, they could do their work while some people in the office enjoy the anti-stress activity of babysitting. The upper floor is a studio for production called Ramen and a big pantry for everybody’s meal time.”
“The goal: To create an agency that’s family and women friendly, conducive to great creative thinking, that upholds good values,” Jayme espouses.
She defines the office culture: “We married two super different personalities. The Dentsu personality is formal, quiet, with strict processes in place, relaxed and assured of their aligned brands. The Jayme Syfu personality is restless, free and easy, flexible, hungry, super competitive. We liken Dentsu to a son of a prominent family and JaymeSyfu, to an illegitimate child. At first, it took time for the two agencies to become one family. We had a Dentsulympics in Tagaytay Highlands. Here teams from the two cultures were formed. We had a corporate coach who even helped us in sessions similar to a couples’ therapy. Today, we have the hybrid DJS personality. A mix of both without losing each one’s core personality. Work has improved tremendously. Processes has become more efficient. Relationships have strengthened.”
Third Domingo, CEO at ideasxmachina (IXM), believes in the benefits greenscaping—the introduction of plants to the office environment—and its benefits to creativity. “Face a plant. We make sure there’s a plant (palmera, bamboo, cactus, orchids, gumamela, whatever!) in every workstation. Oxygen helps the brain perform better. It’s true. There’s a suggestion to construct cubicles on tree tops and we’re seriously considering it. Each team also sits around “electric brainstorm tables” that release mildly painful electric currents when a team member suggests an off-strat, stupid idea. Keeps people on their feet. We also don’t want people to be facing walls, so we just make them face each other. But because an ‘open space’ working area is too “startuppy” for our taste, we gave each team their own semi-private bakuran (backyard), where they can grow their ideas.”
Domingo advises, “You are dealing with millennials here. The success of this ‘office structure’ is measured by the number of times people want to go home already. Which is always a good thing. Less OT means more efficiency,” he notes, adding, “They love recognition; that’s their prime need. A little pat in the back always works. So what we did is we labeled each of our trophies with a note that says, ‘Do you have one? Well, what are you waiting for?’”
From providing agile work spaces to accepting split personalities to pats on the back, Filipinos are fostering their own unique take on creative office culture.