News | Published June 29 2020

Creative Engagement Group CEO: Offices are more than workspaces. They are critical for culture building and leadership

Since March, office workers in the UK have found themselves adapting rapidly to the new reality of home working. This has led to much speculation of a fundamental shift in how we work that will long outlast Covid-19. Writing exclusively for The Parliamentary Review, Russ Lidstone, CEO of The Creative Engagement Group, mounts a defence of the office and the creativity and camaraderie it inspires. 

The recent and enforced homeworking experiment has taught us all a lot with many positive and some negative lessons.

We probably all found that we can work from home relatively effectively if lucky enough to have a house, garden and good broadband connectivity. On the other hand, if you’re in a flatshare with several other home workers huddled around a kitchen table – the great homeworking experiment has been challenging, to say the least.

We’ve probably all surprised ourselves with how Teams or Zoom meetings can be very effective with much achieved. But a day of video calls are exhausting, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

Working from home means it’s easier to get straight down to work and be more productive. But it’s also dangerously easy to fall into the trap of not allowing yourself downtime and not giving yourself much needed time and space for personal physical and mental wellbeing. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I view with fondness my tube commute as essential decompression time - an often overlooked positive of travelling to and from work.

Twitter recently announced that they would allow employees to work from home indefinitely if they chose to do so, and several other companies are questioning the role of offices going forward, especially as social distancing restrictions are likely to be with us for some time. The line item ‘property’ on all company profit and loss statements (P&Ls) will be increasingly under scrutiny – especially from the naysayers who feel the writing is on the wall for offices.

There is no doubt that given our flexible working policy at The Creative Engagement Group, we will always continue to ensure our teams can continue to work from home and the way our offices in the UK and US will be used will inevitably change.

But we mustn’t lose sight of the role that offices play in two areas that are fundamental to our business, namely building company culture and helping people like me to be better leaders.

Regarding culture, I believe that working remotely draws down on, or at best maintains, a company culture that has been already been cultivated. Remote working does not enable a culture to evolve and build.

Strong cultures (ideas, customs and behaviours of a group of people) by their very nature, are created over face to face meetings; over an end of day beer or cold late-night project team pizza. They are created over disagreements and laughs, over successes and failures and (in the UK) over the all-important kettle and shared cup of tea.

A strong culture works at every level in an organisation – where everyone has a role to play and has the ability to contribute or top up ‘reservoirs of goodwill’. In strong cultures, social activities like shared meals or team drinks are an embodiment rather than the driving force of culture.

The best cultures are serendipitous organisms and self-perpetuating, but the problem with working virtually is that it is hard to share moments together across all levels of a company - no matter how many zoom meetings, ‘virtual drinks’ or teams ‘social chats’ take place. The serendipity is gone.

Company culture needs, by definition, people to be together – for the off-camera moments, the asides and the ‘water cooler’ chats. And talking of ‘water cooler’ chats, I believe they are fundamental to my second contention – that leaders need offices to be at their best.

Offices are not only physical embodiments of company cultures - they are also spaces in which leaders can lead, understand and ‘be present’.

‘Being present’ is an over-used phrase but here I believe it has real meaning – because it is about being aware of what is going on around you rather than simply focussing on your own tasks or challenges. It’s about being on receive rather than on transmit.

Being on receive - understanding our teams and our people - is key to enabling me to manage an agile, dynamic and people focussed business. Detecting signals from those around you, thinking about the said and unsaid - and reacting to what’s important to your teams at a moment in time, means picking up on nuance, anecdote or accidental conversations. This provides invaluable and enriched understanding and an ability to focus on what’s important, as well as show you’re interested and that you care.

Awareness is much more likely to be facilitated by serendipity. The look over someone’s shoulder, the impromptu conversation about a project, the conversation at a kettle that leads to a quick check-in on a client. Of course, these things are possible online. But as a leader who prides themselves on being visible, the ability for them to happen with over 400 people in our business is much more likely in our offices.

Of course as a leader you need to transmit – communicate effectively, share information and let your team see what’s important to you, I often say that a disproportionate amount of leadership is about demeanour – how you act, how you engage, how you care, how you spend time with others. Again, this is possible to some degree online, but if a large proportion of communication itself is body language, then we are clearly less able to make this happen on video calls. The signals you are able to ‘transmit’ as a leader are weakened no matter how good the digital platform.

Culture and (hopefully) leadership have been key to enabling our business to weather the storm of the pandemic. All of our team have done an amazing job of staying strong and delivering for clients, alongside living through Covid. There are inevitable challenges ahead, but the safe return to offices should not be overlooked.

Our company cultures and our leaders need them more than the naysayers think.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

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Authored by

Russ Lidstone
CEO of The Creative Engagement Group
June 29 2020

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