The Agency Business: Taking summer breaks without compromising client service

Even though PR is a 24/7 industry, Keith O'Brien discovers that some agencies have found ways to award staff extra time off during the summer without sacrificing attention to clients

Even though PR is a 24/7 industry, Keith O'Brien discovers that some agencies have found ways to award staff extra time off during the summer without sacrificing attention to clients

Once Memorial Day hits corporate America, offices begin to thin out on Friday afternoons.

Many staffers delight at the onset of summer hours, when employees are given the opportunity to start their weekends early. However, with news constantly breaking and many PR professionals expected to be on call 24-7, the PR profession might seem at odds with the concept.

But summer hours can be a morale booster and a recruitment tool, so many agencies are attempting to fit them into their plans - without sacrificing clients' needs. The concept is simple: to make sure employees don't burn out during the warm weather months. But the application varies from agency to agency.

Some agencies give their employees extra days off during the summer rather than a shortened Friday.

Texas-based Stevens-FKM created "Summer Fun Buck Days," which allows employees to take one personal day a month during June, July, and August, with a stipulation that it must be taken on a Friday or a Monday and must not be used in connection with a pre-existing vacation or a holiday.

Edelman instituted companywide "summer balance days," which, like Stevens-FKM, gives staffers three days off between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The firm first considered shortened Fridays or biweekly Fridays off, but realized it wouldn't fit the agency mold.

"Some employees have clients who are still busy during the summer," says Jennifer Reberger, SVP of HR on the West Coast. So Friday-only summer hours wouldn't be fair to employees who had to remain in the office to service clients. "The fact that we maintain flexibility gives everyone the benefits."

An Edelman employee needs to clear the summer balance day with a manager to ensure that at least one team member is available for clients.

Dushka Zapata, SVP, Silicon Valley office, added, "Everyone wins this way because it ensures that someone on the [client] team will be there."

But others find they can implement shortened Friday hours and still serve clients well.

The entire office at DBC Public Relations Experts closes at noon every Friday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but the seven junior staffers rotate one person, who stays behind to answer phones. Kelly Fredrick, COO at DBC, says the arrangement works out nicely, as each junior staffer only has to perform that task twice.

Toronto-based Maverick closes its offices at 1pm in July and August, but continues to service clients after the closing. Julie Rusciolelli, Maverick president, and her CFO usually take their clients to the golf course for quality time.

"We like to get our clients out to the course and let the staff enjoy a few hours of reprieve," Rusciolelli says.

In addition to its client-focused activity, the firm has a strict rule to ensure clients' needs don't fall on deaf ears.

"The big caveat is that if one client complains that he or she can't reach the staff, the whole system is abolished for the year," Rusciolelli says, adding that the agency has yet to invoke this clause in its six-year existence.

And French West Vaughan alternates early Fridays, closing one week at 1pm and the next at 3pm.

In order to leave early, employees have to pick up their workload during the week and ensure that clients are still happy with the level of service they are receiving, says CEO Rick French.

"Clients know we close early," French says. "They think it's a great idea, and some of them have told us they want to mimic it."

But French is quick to point out that such a policy is only possible if employees realize that leaving the office does not necessarily mean checking out if a client emergency comes up.

"When we introduced it in 1997, summer hours weren't that widely done," French says." But now companies realize their employees can still be productive out of the office."

French recognizes that summer hours are much more feasible for a PR firm with up-to-date technology.

"It's a wireless society where it's pretty easy to stay in touch," he says. "Part of the criteria is making sure [staffers] check e-mail and voice mail."

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