Working Remotely Does Not Mean Disconnecting: Stephanie Nerlich, Havas Creative Network, North America

da Dasha Ovsyannikova
Stephanie Nerlich
CEO, North America Havas

Since employees have transitioned working from home, how has the agency been helping them to adapt?

We are all parents, children and siblings first; and when the pandemic struck, the most important thing we did was remind ourselves of that fact. We immediately moved to a flexible mindset to ensure we could each bring our best selves—even in uncertain times. As the world faced learning how to best work from home, we committed to making the transition as seamless as possible for our people.

The Creative network shared #WFHrituals and #havasfromhome local office content, while offering employee resources including a membership with wellness app WHIL and the Employee Assistance Program, a 24/7 hotline and website where staff members could chat with medical experts and financial experts for free.

To also support remote work, we shifted our Doctors in Office program, which offers wellness checkups completely covered by our health insurance plan, to provide stress reduction counseling. Employee consultations with licensed therapists were virtual, complementary and completely confidential.

The goal was, and continues to be, to do our best to keep everyone inspired, healthy, connected and stimulated—mentally and physically—at a time when it is needed most.


How are the attitudes of employees evolving as the crisis continues?

At first, like the rest of the world, we waited and wondered how impactful the pandemic would be—on business and our personal lives. I’d say a few months into the crisis, everyone started to realize we’d be in this for the long run. But instead of being consumed by fear of the unknown, we all banded together to adapt and come out stronger. I’d use words like “optimistic,” “empowered” and “energized” to describe the attitude of Havas overall in North America. We pivoted fast and effectively to not just meet but exceed the needs of our clients—all while continuing the make a meaningful difference in everything we do. And while there are still challenges we all face every day, we have found the silver lining of this crisis in empathy and resilience which is allowing us to move forward together successfully.  


What has been the most challenging part of working from home for team members?

While we are all parents, children and siblings first, we are friends, colleagues and peers in close second. All although we have all adapted to working from home, it’s easier for some than others. Everyone has their challenges—whether that’s balancing work with home schooling, or living in near social isolation in a new city.

There is something to be said for human connection and the energy you feel when working in person. As my colleague, Zav Rees said, “We need to be together to make our best work. Creative brilliance is so often the product of happy accidents—the kind of collaborative collision that can only happen in-person.” This is a universal challenge that we face as inherent social beings; we all miss and crave that interaction despite becoming accustomed to Zoom and other video technology.  


Has there been any changes made within your agency to ease the process?

In addition to making numerous programs and resources available to support all employees, we have been meeting and working with anyone seeking additional assistance or who has personal needs during this time. We are working to be empathetic to every situation and have embraced flexibility.


Has anything been done to try and preserve the office culture? How has the reception been internally?

Absolutely. Working remotely does not mean disconnecting. Now more than ever, it’s important to continue building your community and lifting one another up. Havas New York is a great example of preserving office culture. The agency maintained cadence and scaled formerly live Creative Consciousness programming—a community-based initiative that introduced wellness sessions, educational opportunities and team-building experiences—to unite people across agency disciplines virtually by inviting more people to engage in meditation, yoga, inspirational speakers, virtual film clubs, trivia nights, etc. Additionally, in partnership with Universal Music Group, employees enjoyed live “at-home” performances by emerging artists during weekly virtual happy hours and monthly Town Halls.

A positive, healthy mindset is core to personal and professional growth, and this experience has been an opportunity for all of us to create new work-from-home rituals together.


Are you planning to return to the office? Is there a plan to make some of the initiatives started during the pandemic?

Many of our offices across North America are open, and we have taken precautionary measures in each one to allow for a safe and comfortable working environment. That said, any return to office is completely voluntary right now. We are following the direction and guidance of the CDC, as well as individual states and cities.

I think what’s clear from this pandemic is that the future of work and the workplace have been forever changed. Our Villages were never factories with punch clocks as the norm, but we’ve now learned that our offices will need to function like clubhouses or town squares—where we come together to grow, inspire and collaborate, then flexibly move apart when the work requires individual solitude and thinking time for the activities that are heads down.     


What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from agencies transitioning to working from home? Do you have any tips?

While I can’t speak for other networks, I know we have all faced common challenges transitioning to working from home. And I also know that great companies are built in difficult times.  We have learned that people need a level of flexibility to do their best work. And a level of ritual for comfort. It’s become harder to disconnect from work at the end of the day, and we are all suffering from “Zoom fatigue.” We need to ensure rituals are put in place to get us up and walking, having coffee together. And at the end of the day, we close the laptop and commute home—even if it’s 10 feet to the kitchen.