‘Reentering the office atmosphere is going to be a bumpy ride’: Agencies get creative about welcoming back employees

The header image shows an illustration of three people working together.

For Chris Sojka, the first official day back at the workplace for him and his team at the Brooklyn agency Madwell wasn’t just another day at the office — it was a party.

The co-founder and chief creative officer of the indie shop, which has done work for the likes of Absolut and Verizon, received each of the troops the first Monday in August with a personalized message, breakfast and swag (including gift certificates to area businesses and a baseball cap featuring Madwell’s unofficial Viking logo designed by Susan Kare, the artist known for her early work for Apple). The greeting “Welcome Back!” in brightly colored text lit up flatscreens across the wall. At 5 p.m, the staff called it a day with an in-office happy hour.

Agency bosses everywhere are welcoming back their people with great fanfare after the seemingly endless hiatus necessitated by the Coronavirus — an excruciating year-and-a-half when Zoom took the place of the conference room and creative collaborations were relegated to emails and Slack. Despite the rising threat of the delta variant, doing business face-to-face is (cautiously) coming back, though not with a roar as we had all hoped. 

But there’s still plenty of excitement to be found, as the ad industry finally begins to return to normal.

“Coming back in after 16-and-a-half months of working virtually, this is a celebration,” said an animated Sojka, practically leaping through the screen during a Microsoft Teams call during which he bounded about Madwell’s 24,000-square-foot space (a onetime croissant factory), giving a tour of the newly completed digs and greeting coworkers along the way. “It’s important to celebrate the energy and creative collisions we’ve been missing,” he said. “I’m so psyched to be back in the office.”

About 30% of Madwell’s staff of more than 100 went in the first day. Sojka said the agency will be fully hybrid going forward, even as he personally plans to be in the office on a regular basis. “I find the energy of the people I work with to be inspirational,” said the CCO, who related that his employees, individually confided to him how happy they were to be back, too. “I want to be here — it’s the way my brain works,” he added. “I always felt a duty to come to the office — now it’s a luxury.”

Back in January, Sojka shared how he longed for the daily commute. “That moment in the morning where I could listen to music and let my mind wander as I prepared for a day of meetings and creative reviews turned out to be crucial to my output,” he said at the time. “It was also the mirror image of my trip home, where I was able to shift gears from a work mentality to that of being a partner and dog dad.” Now he can get back to that routine that so inspires him, and the same goes for his people.

Omaha, Nebraska-based agency Bailey Lauerman went so far as to cook up a full-blown creative campaign to welcome back its employees. 

The theme: space. 

The tagline: “From outer space to office space.” 

The brief: “For over a year we have been floating around in a distant universe. It’s time for our controlled meteoric return. Prepare for reentry.” 

An email message the agency sent to employees, read: “Omaha, we have some problems. Which printer is EAST when they stand north and south? Where do we keep the notepads? What day is food thrown out of the refrigerator? Where can we get a new dongle for our monitors? How do we book a conference room? And worst of all, the only flavor of LaCroix left is coconut. Sure reentering the office atmosphere is going to be a bumpy ride. Think you can handle it? We’ll see.”

A newly designed seating chart for the office was circulated. The campaign also featured social posts, posters and plenty of swag, including specially designed lunch bags, notepads, name badges and baseball caps, all sporting the space theme. 

“Since we spend our days communicating ideas through campaigns, it felt necessary to create one for an internal move this big,” said Aaron Jarosh, creative director at Bailey Lauerman, whose clients include Bosch and Phillips 66. “To us, 17 months apart is no small deal. We’re a tight-knit group. We wanted to let the staff know, using a lighthearted campaign idea, that it was OK if the experience felt awkward or bumpy at first.”

The staff was invited to return July 6. The agency is testing a 4-1 flex workweek over the summer for vaccinated staff, with Friday as a WFH day. Staff are required to have their temperature taken when they arrive each morning and must wear masks in common areas. Forty people work in the Omaha office, with remote staff dispersed across five states. 

“While our return to the office was voluntary, we knew it would take some getting used to,” said Jarosh. “We sensed that there might have been some hesitation or trepidation. We were hoping to replace any of those feelings with anticipation and excitement — and remind employees that we’d navigate our return together.”


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