2021 Global Agency Productivity Report
2020 was a year like no other.
For agencies, it was a time of survival and new opportunities. Amidst staff layoffs and furloughs, the demand for social media, digital development, and technology services actually increased. The shift to accelerate business digitization was rampant, and many agencies switched to full-time remote work for the first time.
The move to remote work forced teams to adapt how they traditionally worked together, with 44% of agencies having a limited or no remote work policy pre-COVID. For the next six months at least, 43% of agencies will continue to operate fully remote, 36% will be remote-first (everyone can work remotely or in the office), and 15% will transition to a partially remote policy (everyone works 2-3 days in the office and the rest remote).
This year’s Global Agency Productivity Report aims to provide insights on industry attitudes and sentiments towards remote work productivity, so that agency stakeholders and decision-makers can establish permanent remote operations that foster a productive and healthy work culture for their teams.
We surveyed over 200 agencies across the globe for their views on remote work and its impact on productivity. Our findings indicate that while 2020 was a significant test of agility and ability to make remote work “work” for most teams, 2021 will require more strategic leadership from agency decision-makers in order to make remote work "productive work” as well.
A clearly defined remote work policy and productive remote culture are critical for agencies in 2021 and beyond.
98% of agency employees want their workplace to adopt a permanent remote work policy
Remote-first and partially remote are the preferred work policies for 81% of agency teams (employees only), with 17% wanting their agency to go fully remote.
Despite agency teams feeling overwhelmingly positive about remote work, there is still some resistance from owners, partners, and principals, with 15% preferring a limited or no remote work policy. 24% are open to going fully remote, especially in agencies with less than 50 employees.
Larger organizations overwhelmingly prefer a remote-first or partially remote work policy.
Half of all teams say they feel healthier working remotely
Remote work is an attractive employee perk for agencies to consider, as 50% of agency employees surveyed admit to feeling healthier working remotely than in an office—even when they're stuck working overtime!
Expert insight: Preventing burn out
Emily Logan is a creative producer and content specialist with over 10 years of agency experience in New York and Sydney. Routinely overbooked on projects throughout her career, Emily sees remote work as an antidote to agency culture.
“Remote work has been a game-changer for me. With the nature of our agile campaigns, timelines often shift and I need to find flexible solutions with my time. Working remotely has enabled me to be more efficient,” says Emily.
“For example, if I know it’s inevitable that I’ll be working overtime on a particular project, remote work lets me use the hours spent commuting, to be working or doing something else more productive. I’ve noticed that my time in the office is now also more constructive. When I go in it’s because I need to connect with my team and collaborate in person. With remote work, I can choose to work from where I will be my most productive, based on what I need to do that day.”
She also believes that remote work is a smart strategy for agency businesses to provide as non-monetary compensation for overtime hours and helps them offer a valuable perk to attract top-level talent. “With tight project margins, I understand it’s not always possible to incentivize staff with higher salaries or bonuses. I’m currently living in Bondi Beach, so the option to work from home and go for a swim during my lunch break definitely helps to keep the work/life balance in check一especially if I'm working long hours already.”
“Remote work is a great team benefit that more agencies could be offering to promote a healthier work culture than the “burn out” that the industry is too often associated with.”
Meetings are a barrier to productivity, even when working remotely
Meetings continue to hamper agency productivity, with teams working longer hours and actually attending more meetings remotely than they did working in an office. 66% of those surveyed say they’re working longer hours remotely than they did in the office. In addition to an increase in the number of meetings, team members are finding it harder to “switch off” from work when they're working from home or some other remote location.
60% of those who chose “other” as the reason they're working longer hours remotely say the hours they used to spend commuting are now spent working.
50% of those surveyed say their teams are holding more meetings now than before they began working remotely, with just 9% of teams holding less meetings. Among those attending more meetings, only 36% say that their team’s overall communication and collaboration have improved; 44% say it's about the same; and 27% feel that it's actually gotten worse.
Expert insight: No agenda, no meeting
Jeremy Mack is the head of engineering and a managing partner at Postlight, a digital product studio that has built software for clients including Bloomberg, Mailchimp, and Goldman Sachs. Jeremy’s approach to maximizing team productivity involves prioritizing large blocks of free time on his team’s calendars.
In fact, the Postlight management team routinely holds a “meeting about meetings”, to consolidate them as much as possible. For important and higher headcount meetings, hosts are required to share a clear agenda ahead of time.
“If you can’t define an agenda beforehand, then the meeting shouldn’t happen.”
Agencies can use a variety of apps to ensure all meeting invitations are sent with an agenda included. “Meeting agenda tools like Fellow App or Navigator help you build the habit of coming prepared for meetings by sending helpful reminders. They also have features like live note-taking to keep everyone on the same page,” says Jeremy.
So what’s a benchmark for agencies aiming to have less meetings? “At Postlight, for anyone outside of leadership, it’s no more than one day a week. I try to consolidate team meetings and one-on-ones to the same day to avoid turning our calendars into Swiss cheese,” he says.
Teams get through an additional 2.5 hours of “deep work” a day when working remotely
On an average day in the office, more than half (55%) of teams get through just 2 hours or less of deep work. Deep work is defined as the ability to work without interruption. Working remotely, however, a staggering 69% of team members say they achieve at least 4 hours of deep work a day, with 37% spending at least 6 hours in the deep work zone.
The opportunity to work without interruption increases based on the organization's size.
For teams that work in agencies with 50+ employees, 58% struggle to get through more than 2 hours of deep work when working in the office, while 73% say they’re able to achieve at least 4 hours of deep work when working remotely.
Expert insight: 3 tips to become indistractable
Getting distracted from the task at hand is a common barrier to team productivity and achieving more hours of deep work. Among those working longer hours, 19% say it’s because they’re more distracted at home and, therefore, tasks take longer to complete.
Nir Eyal is a behavioral design consultant and author of “Hooked” and “Indistractable.” He’s been helping companies build productive and focused teams for more than 10 years. Here are 3 tactics Nir recommends for minimizing distractions and maximizing deep work:
1. Let people know when you’re doing deep work
Schedule time blocks to do deep work and let your colleagues know that you don’t want to be interrupted. This can be blocking out time in your calendar, putting up a big sign on your desk, or setting a 🧠 status in Slack. This tactic helps give a visual cue to those around you, that you’re in deep work and shouldn’t be interrupted.
For those working from home with kids, Nir has you covered too.
In his household, they use “concentration crowns” to let each other know when they don’t want to be interrupted. “This is going to change your life if you have kids,” says Nir. “Go around your house and find the silliest hat. This is what we call the concentration crown. When daddy’s wearing this hat, that means that he can’t be interrupted.”
2. Schedule time blocks for the tasks that distract you
When we’re seeking distraction, suddenly every email requires an urgent response and doing admin becomes a priority. Scheduling time blocks for these types of tasks is a useful tactic to combat the distraction and differentiate the important from the urgent.
It can also help keep yourself accountable with how much time these administrative tasks actually take.
Nir suggests scheduling 15 minutes every morning to check and label your emails according to whether they require replying to today or this week. “If you want to receive fewer emails, you have to send fewer emails,” he says.
3. Surf the urge with the 10 minute rule
One of Nir’s theories on the driving principles of distraction is that we have internal triggers that make us want to escape discomfort, immediately. The 10 minute rule is a practical tactic to “surf the urge”ーthat sudden impulse to pick up the phone, tidy the inbox, or if you’re at home perhaps get up and go check the fridge.
“We know now that abstinence can actually backfire. That telling yourself ‘no don’t do that’ can actually make it worse.”
Nir’s advice is to stop telling ourselves “no,” and instead tell ourselves “not yet.” “We tell ourselves: okay, I can do that thing that I know is going to take me off track, but not right now. I will do it in 10 minutes.” With practice, you’ll likely find that the urge to get distracted will slowly subside.
Teams feel confident delivering their work remotely and are maintaining quality client relationships
73% of those surveyed rate their agency as above average when it comes to delivering projects on time, on budget, and to scope when working remotely.
Client relationships have also held steady, with 63% believing they're about the same, and 21% saying that working remotely has actually improved their relationships with clients.
Remote work helps teams communicate more regularly using live messaging apps and less using email
Delivering projects remotely has pushed more teams to adopt live messaging apps over email for daily communication. The majority of agencies (76%) are now using Slack or Microsoft Teams to talk to one another during the day, up 31% compared to 2019.
The increase in demand for instant communication tools suggests that the way in which teams collaborate with each other is evolving, with direct messaging apps preferred for conversational communication.
Still, the overall increase appears, in part, to be driven by necessity more so than process improvement, with 42% of teams rating their organization’s collaboration/communication efforts as mostly the same.
Expert insight: Physical offices will no longer be the default workplace
Celia Karl is a production director at R/GA. Pre-COVID, R/GA had a progressive WFH policy, but not all of their clients did, so she ended up in the office or on client sites most days. “Responding to COVID has removed many of the previously perceived barriers to successfully working from homeーfor both agencies and clients,” says Celia.
“Businesses were forced to adapt quickly and switch to an indefinite work from home/remote structure. This sudden shake up shifted traditional workplace culture, not just in how we work together but also how we relate to each other,” she says.
With R/GA offices in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, the experience has been different for team members depending on where they live. For example, in Melbourne where Celia is based, locals persevered through one of the world’s longest lockdowns. The Melbourne R/GA office has extended the global R/GA WFA “Work from Anywhere” policy through 2021 to support talent who prefer to work remotely.
“From the Melbourne office alone, we have talent now based in Regional Victoria, Western Australia, New Zealand, and Bali. I expect that for a lot of agencies who are adopting a similar hybrid workplace strategy, physical offices will be transformed from the default workplace to a dedicated place where talent meets more intentionally,” says Celia.
“Whether it’s to meet for collaboration, or to undertake deep, focused work away from home responsibilities, the office will become a place where team members can choose to work from, rather than where they’re expected to be.”
Agencies should embrace the move to a remote-first workplace to facilitate a more productive and healthy culture
If there's one conclusion to draw from this year’s Global Agency Productivity Report it's this: Remote work is here to stay.
98% of agency employees want a permanent remote work policy adopted, as do 85% of agency principals. Whatever that policy ultimately looks like might be different for each agency, based in large part on individual team size, logistics, and the scope/nature of the work each performs.
How can agencies ultimately ensure that remote work is their team’s most productive work?
Here are our top three recommendations:
1. Set a clear remote work policy and establish a remote-first operation
A clear remote work policy is the foundation that sets employee expectations for not just where but also how they turn up to work each day.
Abigail Holman is a director at consulting firm Deloitte, and she says the productivity of your remote team begins with expectation management. “I’ve always worked at remote friendly workplace. For me, the challenge in the past was keeping track of which team members would be in the office when, and trying to collaborate effectively with those who weren’t,” says Abigail.
“For that reason, my preference was always to work from the office because it was the most efficient way to ensure that I was communicating with everyone I needed to. Pre-COVID, I was equipped with the systems that supported remote work, but my processes didn’t,” she says.
“Since COVID and operating within a partial and remote-first work policy, I’ve enjoyed the flexibility to work from home. The foundational remote-first processes have been established, so that working between the office and home/remote is seamless.”
For agencies adopting a hybrid remote work policy, the operations and processes of your team still need to be remote-first.
MetaLab has been a remote-first agency for 15 years. With two offices available for employees to work from, the team’s collaboration still happens digitally.
UX Research Director Margaret Gray explains how remote-first is an integral part of MetaLab’s company culture: “What being remote-first means in practice is that we all default to video calls and digital collaboration tools. Because we’re remote-first, there’s no chance that we’ll forget to add a video link or neglect to include someone because they’re not in the office.”
2. Have fewer and more focused meetings that promote async communication
Remote work has already forced agencies to rethink the way they work and meet together. As teams continue to digitize their operations, the channels and means of communication also become more ripe with options.
The 15 (but actually 30) minute morning huddle can be replaced with status tools like Geekbot. Letting your team know what they should be working on can be automated with software like Float (yes, that’s us), which sends your team daily and weekly schedule reminders via email or Slack.
Creative digital studio Impression streamlined their agency’s resource management and time tracking processes with Float in November 2019, four months before COVID.
Founder and Managing Director Charlie Hartley says the software has been instrumental in keeping the team, and management, accountable for how time is spent, especially while working remotely. “With Float we’re able to forecast a project’s scope and schedule resources with much greater accuracy, and ensure that our team is working to realistic and achievable timelines. Without the actual time data, it’s just guesswork,” says Charlie.
Building team workspaces in apps like Notion and creating dedicated project channels in Slack and Microsoft Teams can help your team find answers to specific questions on their own more easily. The less teams rely on meetings to be kept in the loop, the more time they will have to spend on getting their work done.
Agencies should adopt more asynchronous communication methods and meetings, prompting leaders to be disciplined with project documentation and allowing team members to connect when they need to.
All meetings should have a clearly set agenda, and if there isn't a defined agenda, it shouldn’t take place. The Postlight team are firm on this. As Jeremy Mack, managing partner, shares: “For us, even if it’s a recurring meeting and it reaches the day of without an agenda set — we take that as a cue that it can probably happen async.”
3. Time management should be a priority at both the company and individual level
Overbooking resources and forcing team members to work overtime is a stigma story of agency work. This year’s report indicates that scheduling project resources and tracking the actual time team members spend on tasks continues to be a challenge for agencies.
Unless time management is made a higher priority within agencies, the cyclical culture of overbooked and overworked teams will likely continue.
Aligning on the expectations and realities of project work is essential to this. Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company, Senthil Mutiah, says that the handover from the sales team to the teams responsible for solutioning can be poorly managed. “There is often a large difference between what is planned for and reality,” says Senthil. This lack of alignment means that required tasks or resources are not always accounted for, and that can lead to project delays and additional costs incurred by the client.
According to this year's report, 73% of team members say they are required to track their time, with 92% logging their hours on a daily or weekly basis. However, more than half of them admit to making up their reported hours because they can’t remember exactly how long a task took.
While most teams feel confident delivering quality work remotely and executing projects on time and budget, unless the actual time spent on tasks is being accurately tracked, there is no visibility into a project's true costs. Agencies need to implement a system to track and benchmark time as a measure of financial performance.
Senthil says that this should be a standard part of the project review. “Adopting core metrics to track performance at the organization and project levels, including financial, operational, and process-maturity indicators.” He recommends organizations implement productivity-tracking systems that measure the actual hours taken to complete tasks to standardize team’s workload management across projects. “Companies often struggle to set the right scope for projects, translate that scope into a solution, allocate the right resources, and effectively execute,” he says.
“Our experience shows that project managers need stringent resource-planning systems. The more accurate the original estimated scope of work, the greater the chance of achieving the quoted margins.”
Time management is critical to agency productivity and a team’s ability to delivery projects successfully. As agencies shift towards hybrid remote work models, their efficiency will depend on their ability to set a clear remote work policy and establish remote-first operations.
For remote work to truly be “productive work,” agency decision-makers need to provide time-block opportunities for team members to work without interruption, and implement rigorous resource and time tracking systems to plan their work better and more effectively.
For further information about the findings in this report, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please reference “Global Agency Productivity Report by Float” when contacting us.
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