flowers at work

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Flowers aren’t everything, but they’re a great way to start

Ogilvy head of strategy looks at creating psychological safety at work to try get people back into the office

By Matt Waksman

It’s Tuesday morning 8 am. I’m in the kitchen trimming a couple of inches off two bunches of pink and white roses. But I’m not at home. I haven’t just returned from a country garden with fresh cuttings. (Though the astute seasonal gardeners amongst you will know that already). I’m in the Ogilvy office, in central London, and I’m holding a pair of reasonably priced supermarket bunches. I’m arranging the vases in the planning department for the week ahead, part of my regular routine. Something some may see as a Diva move, but one which I see as a crucial part of my role as a department leader. 

As our industry continues to debate the best way of getting employees back to the office ad nauseam, an important part of the discussion has been missed. The debate centers on overcoming key benefits of working from home like saving time and money on commutes (at a time when people really need it), caring responsibilities as well as other life admin. All of this is true and important. But there’s something else at play, which we ignore at our peril.  Something more emotional. Something which as advertisers, we should be able to spot. Because we know that to change any behaviour we need to tackle the emotional need that’s driving it. 

When you delve beneath the surface, a big part of the competition between home and work is the emotional context. The key is in the name. It’s work from home, not work from house. What is so compelling about home? It’s that it answers our need for psychological safety. Look like crap warmed up? No one there to judge you. Fancy last night’s takeaway for lunch? Dig in without embarrassment. Want to escape quickly after a difficult meeting rather than drag it out with painful small talk? Shut the laptop and breathe. It’s an environment built around our safety. From privacy to decorations and paraphernalia that bring us joy. 

Given the psychological safety that home affords, it’s not surprising many say they work better there. If you look at the Pressure/Performance curve, most people do their best work between moderate and high pressure. Remove the pressure from the environment and you can take on more pressure from the work, and still feel in your comfort or stretch zone without moving into strain and burnout. 

Our challenge as leaders that want a degree of face-to-face collaboration is to make sure that we find ways to engender a greater sense of psychological safety within a commercial space too. Kickbacks and incentives are great, but if you can find ways to make people feel calm and at ease in the workplace, then that is far more likely to end up being a sustainable and motivating strategy. 

We are human beings. Places and spaces make us feel certain ways. Rather than worrying about rebuilding Culture with a capital C as some sort of vague grand plan that nobody understands or can define, we should instead dial into our own humanity. We know what makes people feel safe because we know what makes us safe. It’s time we stop thinking about ourselves as managers, and start thinking about ourselves as hosts. 

It’s not rocket science. We all know how to be a good host. Encouraging people to take proper lunch breaks, getting the chat going around the table, sticking a little music on, and yes, if it’s your thing, even putting some flowers out on a Tuesday morning. When we make the effort with these little touches, we may well find more people are keen to join the party without incentive. Easy yes. But often forgotten. 

As we approach summer, it’s clear that this year is shaping up to be a year of big new business activity with a lot more movement in the market. This means more pitches, more collaboration, more need to get together around the work in person, and yes more pressure too. David Ogilvy was a big believer that happy people do the best work and Josh Krichefski in his IPA address reminded us that ultimately we run a talent business. With that in mind, creating the right atmosphere and ambiance isn’t frivolous, it is foundational. Because it will help us win.

And whilst flowers aren’t everything, they’re a great place to start.

Matt Waksman is the Head of Strategy, Advertising at Ogilvy UK


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