Returning to the office has been an unalloyed pleasure

After months of coronavirus lockdown, Maitland/AMO chief executive Neil Bennett admits that working patterns will forever change, but nothing substitutes the buzz and creative spirit that is found in an office environment. Here he reflects on what it has been like returning to the office.

On returning to his desk, Neil Bennett says: 'It's good to be home'.
On returning to his desk, Neil Bennett says: 'It's good to be home'.

I am writing this at my desk, looking out across the office. Behind me, through the window, are the rain-washed roofs of Kings Cross, while over there a colleague is speaking on the phone to a client.

Four months ago these words would have been mundane, tedious even. Now they seem little short of miraculous. The offices of Maitland/AMO are open for business again and it is a thing wondrous to behold.

Havas, our parent company, reopened its doors with great caution at the start of the month having successfully done the same in Paris a few weeks earlier.

From the moment you come through the front door though, the COVID-19 restrictions are evident. You are temperature scanned, masked up, then signed in. The lifts take a maximum of two, the building up to 30 per cent capacity. You register yourself with a barcode on your desk, so they can trace you should you later develop a temperature and a nasty cough…

For all that, a return to the office has been an unalloyed pleasure, a chance to see colleagues again, share jokes, insights, triumphs and troubles again (all two metres apart naturally). I became quite emotional ordering my first Pret A Manger strong cappuccino in three months.

My Brompton bike has been invaluable taking me to client meetings, and even they have changed radically. My first business lunch since March was a sandwich with a company chairman on a park bench in Berkeley Square. 

We have all worked hard during lockdown. We have become techno whizzes on Zoom, Teams and a host of other systems. We have served clients tirelessly, helping through these tough times. We have even won new ones, learning how to pitch on a laptop.  

The working world will of course be different after COVID-19. The total change in client and consultant behaviour has liberated us from the office. We can advise, draft, research and pitch remotely to great effect. We will never return to five-day office working again.

PR though at its heart is a creative, collaborative business. We all became PR advisers because we like being with people, whether they are colleagues, clients, journalists, politicians or policy advisers. Teams simply work better face-to-face than on any video conference – the creative spirit flares more brightly.

What I’ve learned is that the chance remark at the coffee counter, the joke, the grumble, the ludicrous plan are all part of that and you simply don’t get those off an iPad in your bedroom. Already in the three weeks since the office reopened we’ve seen a pick up in activity in the firm – more initiatives, opportunities, projects, pitches... just more life.

The office is in fact most important to our younger consultants. I learned most of my best skills and cunning tricks watching and listening to older colleagues in the newsrooms and offices around London. The next generation deserves the chance to do the same, rather than be condemned to hours of earnest webinars.

So hello again chair, desk, unreliable lift and dodgy pot plant. Welcome back tedious commute. I've missed you all. As one of my colleagues said yesterday as he settled back into his old seat: “it’s good to be home.”

Neil Bennett is the chief executive of Maitland/AMO

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