Is ‘always on’ a sustainable strategy in the face of the Coronavirus?

Does prioritising employees' mental health demand that the industry embraces new ways of working which prioritise digital wellbeing well beyond Mental Health Awareness Week?

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


A creative strategist at a leading advertising agency poses a question; should I block out space in my Outlook calendar for loo breaks? The maxim that it is PR not ER of course applies across the creative industries, yet a straw poll across the industry suggests that she is not the only one currently feeling that she is too busy to go to the loo.

Of course, there is an incredible privilege being in an industry which is lucky enough to work from home. The resilience and commitment of those of the front line of the crisis puts the plight of the creative industries into sharp focus. The diamond shoes may well be too tight, but that doesn’t mean that the industry can afford to equate mental wellbeing to little more than a #WellnessWednesday box ticking exercise. 

Recent research from NABS makes for sobering reading for the industry; 65% of people said they were struggling with anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and 37% said they were struggling with the new pressure of online presenteeism, with 35% citing long virtual video conferencing meetings as a stressor and 45% finding it difficult to set boundaries around working hours.

Of course, it takes time to establish new, hopefully more progressive and healthy routines. But the danger is the industry mistakes the challenges of the current climate as a barometer of the relative strengths and weaknesses of remote or flexible working. 

Smart companies are taking the pressures their staff are facing seriously; from agencies such as Cripsin Porter Bogusky who have created a protected two-hour window in the day, to tech giants such as Google and Facebook who have taken away the anxiety of the unknown by promising all employees they can have the choice to work from home until the end of the year. In the midst of the crisis, prioritising staff wellbeing increasingly demands greater mindfulness about how, where and how much employees are working. Perhaps the ‘always on’ mindset isn’t working.

With this in mind we asked a selection of industry experts if ‘always on’ is a sustainable strategy in the face of the crisis.

Our people are our best assets and technology should be a tool to simplify and enhance our lives, rather than a source of pressure and additional stress.

Uzma Afridi

Uzma Afridi

Uzma, NABS.jpg

Head of Careers


Our work hasn’t changed, we have just moved it online.

‘Always on’ is not a sustainable strategy, Coronavirus or not! We’re not robots. Always on means expecting people not to have sufficient rest periods that our bodies and brains require. To function sufficiently we need to recharge, otherwise we’re neither creative nor at our best, which can be a slippery slope to negatively impacting our physical and mental health. At NABS we know an individual’s wellbeing is vital for them to thrive. Employee wellbeing should always be a priority for organisations. Our people are our best assets and technology should be a tool to simplify and enhance our lives, rather than a source of pressure and additional stress.

We’re all learning to adapt and navigate uncertainty at the moment. Understanding individuals in your teams’ needs and communicating with them is key to cultivating a culture where organisations understand how to use technology responsibly and are aware of how it can impact their employees. It’s about raising awareness of how being online makes us feel and how to look after ourselves and our teams the more we work online. Part of this is recognising the impact that our workload, being online and how we work can have on our emotions, mental wellbeing and even on our physical health.

It is really important not to be trapped in a never-ending Zoom hole and to ensure that everyone can carve out time for themselves.

Jake Dubbins

Jake Dubbins

Jake Dubbbins, Media Bounty.jpeg

Managing Director

Media Bounty

The short answer is no. ‘Always on’ is a pretty damaging term in the best of times. Whoever you are, it signals that you are always available to work, can respond to an email or WhatsApp at any time. Now it is more important than ever to create space. All of us are experiencing days of video calls sometimes followed by evenings and weekends of them too. It is really important not to be trapped in a never-ending Zoom hole and to ensure that everyone can carve out time for themselves. This demands really good communication and to be empowered to say no.

We are now living in our own little bubble more than ever before. We may not realise that the Zoom call we have just set up is trampling over someone’s only window to go for a run, to have lunch with their kids, to call their mum. Prioritising that time and communicating it to your colleagues is vital.

Most important is to listen to your colleagues. Everyone is experiencing lockdown in a very different way. I cannot assume that my experience is similar to others. Some of the team who are parents will be pulling their hair out trying to juggle home schooling and work, some will be enjoying more time with their family. Some of the team will be excited to get back to the office, to interact properly with their colleagues and friends. Some will be enjoying not having the distraction. Some will be longing for the time when they are not sat in their bedroom of a shared house on the thirty fourth video call of the day, looking at the same four walls.

As we come out of this situation we will be talking to our team, asking questions, truly listening and then responding with options and flexibility. We already had a really flexible working policy and among the many things this period has taught me is that we have a really awesome group of human beings that trust each other at Media Bounty. There will be no situation where we will either demand that everyone has to come back to the office, nor that everyone has to stay at home forever. If you can communicate with honesty and trust, then everyone wins surely?

‘Always on’ is not only unsustainable, it’s also not a strategy.

Luke D'Arcy

Luke D'Arcy


UK President

Momentum Worldwide

Did I ever think I’d see my global Chairman give a New Orleans-inspired cookery masterclass from his home? Did I think my furloughed colleagues would throw themselves into the delights of distance-learning Spanish, or graduate ‘virtually’ from UCLA with post-grad qualifications?

Not in my wildest dreams.

But then, these are not normal times. Nor has been our response or the way we have adapted our strategy. Fortunately for us, we had already adopted many flexible and agile working practices. Still, it would be a lie to say I foresaw the Teams addiction that would grip us all and push us into being almost always ‘on’.

Much has been made of decreasing the anxiety levels of employees, and while working from home certainly brings many benefits, it also blurs the lines of work/life like never before. And I don’t just mean wrestling the living room ‘study’ from two boys who want to play Fortnite all day.

We’ve been quick to ensure that areas like Diversity & Inclusion and Wellbeing are not overlooked at a time of real economic and social uncertainty. From soft stuff like online yoga, Kindness Bingo, lockdown Spotify soundtracks and Mindfulness classes, to more practical guidance on work/life balance, making turning your device off as important as turning it on, and flexing working times to suit those caring for children or relatives.

While hiring may not be top of mind right now, it doesn’t mean that D&I should take a back seat. Far from it. Virtual meetings and pitches open up a whole new opportunity to bring more diversity to bear, as personal barriers between clients and agencies, or businesses and consumers, are broken down like never before. It is an incredible chance to bring more of the workforce to the fore and literally put them in the picture.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we have been playing our part with a BIG 5.0 initiative aligning to our five brand values of GIVE BACK, HAVE FUN, BE ONE, DO GREAT WORK and GROW. We’ve been encouraging our staff to take exercise with their families, whatever their ages or ability, from 5k runs to 50 keepy-uppy’s or 5-minute planking, for those with abs of steel. All in the name of wellbeing and charity.

‘Always on’ is not only unsustainable, it’s also not a strategy. While there is still much to do to futureproof the business, we have responded fast and will continue to adapt, ensuring that mental and physical health balances with the economic health of the business, our colleagues and our clients.

Things have undoubtedly changed but it would be a terrible shame if everything returned back to normal.

Anthony Tattum

Anthony Tattum

Anthony Tattum, Big cat.jpg

Founder & CEO

Big Cat

Like some kind of global social experiment, the lockdown has given us all the opportunity to reflect.

It’s given me a rare moment to work on my agency Big Cat; what needs to change and what should stay the same. 

I was always of the opinion that Google circa late 90s had it right. Keep people physically close, let knowledge and ideas flow by osmosis. If we keep the surface tension tight then less information would fall through the gaps.

It worked. We had comms sat behind creatives with digital folk sat opposite accounts and everyone working within feet of each other. Conversations overheard, flowed into people’s unconscious. Formal meetings were reduced. Strategy was activated more efficiently. Friendships were forged.

That all ended abruptly on 23rd March 2020. Almost two months later and we’re still navigating the new normal.

Looking after the wellbeing of your team is not only ethical, its essential to commercial success. This starts with culture, which has been high on my list since the beginning, nearly 20 years ago.

We knew that while many things will inevitably change, we should try to keep some things the same. In an attempt to maintain togetherness amongst the team we kept our weekly All Company meeting and our Friday afternoon, Wine & Wotsits, but moved them to Zoom. We were already collaborating on projects through Slack and Asana so work/pitches/briefs continued ‘as normal' albeit supported by the ubiquitous Zoom.

During the first month of lockdown feedback from the leadership team on morale was good. Things appeared to be great in my ad hoc check-ins with the rest of the Pride. However, I was still concerned about unspoken issues. Our solution was a wellbeing platform called Office Vibe, which tracks 10 measures from Wellness, Satisfaction and Happiness to Relationships with Managers and Peers, Alignment and Ambassadorship. These are combined to give an aggregated Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). Staff are also asked regularly to give more detailed feedback, again all on the QT. Fluctuations and suggestions are discussed weekly at a senior level and we’re able to act quickly on specific issues.

About a month after lockdown there was a drop in Wellness and Happiness in the agency. Within a couple of weeks, we had launched House Cats, a weekly email with contributions from across the agency including recipes, TED Talks, exercise videos, Spotify playlists, and book reviews. The numbers bounced back quickly.

In navigating the new normal, we've learned new things, adopted new ways of working. Zoom has become a verb and a prefix. Things have undoubtedly changed but it would be a terrible shame if everything returned back to normal.