A hybrid office strategy for digital agencies

Like most digital agencies, Rocket Insights is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rethink our office strategy. As more of our colleagues get vaccinated, we’re thinking about what work environment makes the most sense for us moving forward.

The COVID clean slate

Prior to COVID, our office strategy was a pretty traditional “hub & spoke” model. We centered around a large, open office - in downtown Boston - with WeWork spaces supporting our smaller clusters of employees. We’ve always allowed folks to work remotely if they so choose, with the small caveat that they commute into town at least two days a week to work alongside our clients. We rented a large office space “hub” in downtown Boston, and had smaller “spoke” offices in Newburyport, New York, San Diego, San Jose, Mar Del Plata, Buenos Aires, Split and Zagreb.

COVID made us rethink our office strategy, and we started with employee feedback. How often do you want to come in? What will you be doing while in the office? Which working environment makes the most sense for you?

It became clear that everyone missed the social interaction of the office, but only wanted to come in for a few days per week. Most employees wanted the office space to be better suited for collaboration, and preferred to do focus work at home. Everyone was tired of long commutes and thought our Newburyport office had the best environment. Newburyport is a small office, with a predictable cohort of regulars that have built a strong sense of community.

Armed with this feedback, and with some inspiration from the Harvard Business Review and Google, here’s where we landed:

Shift from “hub & spoke” to a “clubhouse” model

When Rocket started in Newburyport, we were a little embarrassed to be based in a small town, located between the orthodontist and the ice cream shop. We used to refer to the Newburyport office as the “clubhouse” and thought it was funny when our parent company listed Newburyport as a strategic Dept agency location, alongside Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Zurich.

Rocket Newburyport Office

Despite the small town location, the Newburyport office always had the best “feel”. It is warm and welcoming. There is a regular group of 10-15 area employees who have developed a strong community bond. Compared to the Boston office - which felt a little cold & impersonal, more traditionally “corporate” - the clubhouse in Newburyport felt like you were working with friends. With Covid, we heard from our employees that they wanted us to replicate this model. They wanted “spokes” with no “hub”. More clubhouses, closer to home, with a smaller collection of colleagues that could choose to come and go as they pleased. They wanted to retain the flexibility to work from home, and visit clients on demand.

So we made the decision to shift from “hub & spoke” to the “clubhouse” model.

Design for interaction, not desk work

COVID taught us that our team feels more productive working from home. Our team members believe our Rocket office should center around social interaction, not sitting in a sea of desks with headphones on. This was a significant shift in our thinking when it came to space planning. If you focus on collaboration, and free yourself from accommodating mixed modes of work, every decision downstream becomes easier. How many desks will we need in 3 years? It doesn’t matter, we’re not planning to have many desks. Focus work is for home, the office is for collaboration. Our new space will be designed around living rooms, communal spaces and flexible interaction, making for more of a residential feel. We’re taking inspiration from private clubs like the Soho House and Spring Place, with a little dash of the Magic Castle thrown in.

Pick a neighborhood, not a location

Our Boston office was in Downtown Crossing, on the edge of the Financial District. An area that (pre-Covid) was bustling with commuters during the day and quiet at night. It is a centralized location, close to public transportation, filled with overpriced lunch spots and not much else. Downtown Crossing isn’t a neighborhood, it’s a central location within Boston, optimized for commuters and office tower work.

Newburyport is totally different. We’re in the middle of a small town shopping district. Parents stroll with their kids and walk their dogs past our office. Packs of teenagers chase each other after school. Couples come downtown for dinner or a stroll along the waterfront. A wandering chicken was front page news. It’s a neighborhood, and we feel like we’re part of it.

You might be thinking this only works for small businesses, but that’s simply not true. I recently visited downtown Boulder, Colorado with my son. Nestled next to the bookstore and jewelry store was Salesforce, VMWare and Twitter. These huge companies have small offices that are part of the neighborhood. If Marc Benioff can open a neighborhood office, you can too.

Twitter office, downtown Boulder, CO

Change your office support model

All offices need a baseline level of support. Someone has to handle office operations, order supplies and make sure the office is functioning. All of this is much harder when you switch to the decentralized “clubhouse” model. It’s too expensive to hire an office manager for each location. So, what do you do?

The way we’re going to approach this is with professional cleaning at each location, and a shared office manager for centralized purchasing, key distribution and escalations. In addition, we’re leaning on the local employees at these clubhouse locations to be a little more self-sufficient than normal. One of our mottos at Rocket is, “treat everyone like an adult” and there is no reason that can’t extend to loading a dishwasher. Will 80% of the tidying up be done by 20% of our local staff? Probably. Will this cause some passive aggressive signs to be hung on the microwave? Absolutely. But is this really any different than what you have in a centralized office? And maybe - just maybe - this smaller office model will encourage some individuals to do a better job cleaning up after themselves. In a smaller office, it’s harder to hide.

Invest in cross office culture

A potential downside of the clubhouse model is the risk of fragmentation. You have an increased risk of creating “cliques” within each office. If you have a competitive colleague - I’m looking at you Jesse Streb - this clubhouse model might make things worse.

In order to guard against this, we’re taking a few actions. First, we’ll make sure that all company communications happen in Slack, in general channels that cross offices. We need office specific channels, but all meaningful communications - or company wide cultural stuff - will be shared in open channels that are location independent. Second, once everyone who wants to be is vaccinated, we’re planning to host office “open house” parties to encourage Rocket teammates to visit and hang out with each other at the individual offices. Third, we’ll build something fun that is specific to each office. The Newburyport office has a working ghost, a recreation of Jabba’s lair in our fireplace and a full tiki bar. We’ll make sure each of the new offices has something special, worth seeing in person.

Newburyport tiki bar

Lastly, we’re implementing Robin across all our offices. The Robin platform allows our employees to experience a safe and productive workspace by choosing their desks and even being able to see who else is going to be in the office. You’ll see when a desk is available, and when that office is hosting game night or an impromptu “drink zombies and listen to surf music” night. The other benefit of Robin is it will give us the data we need to see real utilization. Did we pick the right location? What are the busy periods? What kind of work patterns are we seeing in each office?

Post COVID, what is your hybrid office strategy?

Everyone is talking about how to reopen offices and support a hybrid workforce to attract and retain talent. How do you accommodate all the different needs? How do you support employees that want to come back, versus the people that want to stay home, and everyone in between?

At Rocket, we think the answer is this “clubhouse” model. Smaller offices, closer to where people live, in spaces that are more residential and optimized for collaboration. Situated in a lively area that feels like part of the neighborhood. We’re ditching our centralized office and resisting the temptation to go fully remote. We’re also not forcing employees to work in a way that doesn’t suit them. We think this new clubhouse model has the potential to both provide a better working environment, attract talent and be a significant cost savings in the long term.