Interviews

Helen Matthews, Chief People Officer, Ogilvy

From protecting the space for deep-thinking to intentionally making the space for deep and honest conversations, Ogilvy’s Head of People is at the forefront of building a future of work which works for everyone.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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How do you solve a problem like keeping creative in the midst of a global pandemic? How do you ensure the technology you use is connecting rather than distracting? How do you prioritise the mental wellbeing of employees at a time when a growing pool of data points to the ticking time bomb of burnout?

There are few questions as complex, or as critically important to the future of the creative industries and the talent within it, yet none have easy solutions. As Chief People Officer at Ogilvy, Helen Matthews is committed to ensuring that not only are these questions tackled head on but also that a culture of honesty that allows them to be asked in the first place prevails.

As we approach almost a year of working in the midst of a global pandemic the drive to do things differently is palpable. “We are trying, we are listening and that’s important,” explains Matthews. Notably, this endeavour is being matched by meaningful action.

Of course, we need to rise to specific challenges, but we always need to be asking, what is the sustainable change we are looking for here?

Helen Matthews

Pushing for progress

“This time we really are trying to learn the lessons of the first lockdown, and we have really encouraged our teams to do the same. The first time round it was such a whirlwind,” Matthews explains.

Ogilvy has collected resources and case studies of what worked from across the company. It’s this honest insight which makes not just for meaningful change but helps drive a culture of empathy in which the diversity of experience across the company can be recognised.

This open sharing of information brings to life what Matthews had quickly identified, namely the fact that no two experiences of this pandemic are the same. “We needed to create that space for the individual,” she says.

Words and deeds

Elevating these individual stories has been key to creating an empathetic response at scale. Matthews points to the example set by a creative who is working in shifts home-schooling alongside his wife who is a doctor being really transparent with his out of office. Empowering individuals to be open about the challenges they face has been key to maintaining a supportive culture.

A big part of the agency’s response has been based on what Matthews describes as “team contracting”. It’s an approach which is about much more than simply focusing on working parents. “There is so much emphasis on working parents, but there are also the needs of carers, and people living on their own to consider,” she adds.

This “team contracting approach” was key to avoiding a reflex response to the pandemic, which would simply translate to other employees picking up any slack from those with caring responsibilities. Instead, teams agreed on “quiet time”, time in the day which they could all utilise to go for a walk or do an online class.

It’s an approach that did more than simply apply a sticking plaster to day-to-day challenges, instead creating a more holistic approach to how each team works. As Matthews explains: “That’s the bit that gets overlooked. Of course, we need to rise to specific challenges, but we always need to be asking, what is the sustainable change we are looking for here?”

We are all trying our best to come up with solutions. It’s one thing to say it, it's another to do it.

Helen Matthews

From initiatives to insight

In an industry that has perhaps viewed one-off initiatives as a substitute for meaningful change, Matthews’s is an impressive approach. She explains: “We need to look at the long game. A lot of companies are relying on one off or one size fits all solutions. No meetings on a Friday doesn’t work for everyone.”

Yet that doesn’t mean ‘meeting free Fridays’ are a bad thing. She is clear that she admires the endeavour and the drive to help solve the solutions. “We are all trying our best to come up with solutions. It’s one thing to say it, it's another to do it,” she adds.

Matthews is focused not on signalling or individual policy changes but the longer-term shifts that will drive an inclusive and creative culture forward in the long term. “We are investing in people management and skills design for the long term,” she notes.

Deep work

Notably one area the agency has made significant strides is in focusing on creating space for “deep work”. What is deep work, perhaps you are asking, in that ever-decreasing slither of time between Teams calls, Zoom status updates and the perpetual ping of Slack notifications? That’s the magic space where the meaningful work happens, and it is this space where creativity thrives.

Matthews shares that not only have creatives said they like working from home because it enables this deep work. But also, that leaders across the business have been doing great work when it comes to focusing on skills and designing work as a space where those skills come into play. Music to the ears, perhaps, of creatives who got into advertising because they love to make things, not make themselves look busy by staring at their own face on back-to-back Zoom calls.

Of course, the future of work is a far more expansive and complex subject than the current polarising debate on office versus working from home. Particularly when it comes to building diverse teams which better represent the audiences they are seeking to connect with.

Yet notably Ogilvy has been on the front-foot when it comes to being intentional in creating a flexible working model for the future. Michael Frohlich, Chief Executive of Ogilvy UK, publicly shared the 3:2 working model which encourages everyone who feels comfortable to come in two days a week and work remotely for the other three, or as applicable, for those who work shorter weeks. It’s a move which provided certainty to all employees that there would be no return to ‘normal’.

What we have really tried to encourage is really thinking about what other tools you have at your disposal apart from video calls.

Helen Matthews

Culture of sharing

This culture of sharing and setting out intent has been key to navigating the challenges of living at work. Ogilvy also took the time to really consider the purpose, platform and duration of meetings. “What we have really tried to encourage is really thinking about what other tools you have at your disposal apart from video calls,” explains Matthews.

It’s a pause for thought which could be key to the future of work. Consider for example, the generational shift in attitudes to basic telephone calls. Some younger generations in the workplace would treat an unscheduled call as an intrusion akin to turning up on your doorstep unannounced while for others it's simply part of the natural rhythm of a working day. Less interruptive and more humane perhaps that the rat-a-tat-tat of Slack.

When you consider these differences through the lens of remote working for almost a year, a whole host of different questions arrive. Such as, will we perhaps reach a point where a face-to-face meeting becomes as polarising as the once-everyday act of simply making an unscheduled phone call?

For Matthews the key is critical thinking and personalisation. “No meeting should be longer than 30 minutes and if it is you have to really justify why,” she explains. “Sometimes you feel you need to put time in for a chat, but other times you can simply pick up the phone.”

Boundaries and breaking bad habits

Within Matthews own working habits this personalisation means that she will often have a catch up with Ogilvy CEO Michael Frohlich while he is out walking his dogs. While some in the industry have scoffed at the notion of ‘walk and talks’ the truth is if you really care about creating the best work, you also have to care about consciously creating the conditions in which your employees can thrive.

This responsibility also lies with the individual, but it is clear that Matthews' approach, her genuine care and attention to detail, breathes empathy across the business. “Constant Zoom calls are exhausting because your eyes are always darting across the screen. Walking and thinking time is key,” she explains.

It's this honesty which brings the oxygen into the room of virtual meetings and company cultures which fail to acknowledge that trying to do your best creative work in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t easy.

“This time round it has been really challenging. It’s darker and colder and it's important to have that honest conversation. This time is harder than last time. We shouldn’t hide from that,” says Matthews.

There is no pandemic handbook that is why you need to listen to your people. They will know the real pinch points.

Helen Matthews

Silver linings

Yet just as the pandemic has exacerbated existing tensions within businesses and organisational structures, they also afford companies the ability to differentiate themselves by doing things differently. A desire to hang on to the silver linings of this crisis, to test, learn and share is evident across Matthews’ response to the pandemic.

“Your best ideas always come from your staff and if we are honest about feeling this winter fatigue then we can come together better to tackle it,” she explains. Notably the agency’s 3:2 model was co-designed by its “side board” of junior staff and Matthews is clear that across the agency people “tell us what they really think”.

The vital ingredient to this approach is active listening from leadership, a trait which is key to leading with empathy. As Matthews explains: “There is no pandemic handbook that is why you need to listen to your people. They will know the real pinch points. The truth is some businesses simply don't talk to their own people enough.”

For Matthews the biggest silver-lining of this crisis is that the business world has finally embraced flexible working at scale. “Ogilvy core hours were introduced prior to the pandemic but enforced remote working has swept away the nervousness that accompanies shifting the world of work,” she says.

“My biggest hope is that we don't go backwards,” she continues. “There is so much to do from a societal perspective, but things have changed, attitudes have changed and when it comes to flexible working this pandemic will bring us forward several decades.”

When so many people have lost so much in this pandemic it is vital to hold onto what we have gained. With leaders like Matthews at the helm, the growing confidence that flexible working will remove so many of the barriers that once held women back in the workplace is warranted. Business as normal no more.