THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Telecommuting helps PR firms keep their top talent at home

Telecommuting has become a popular solution for firms looking to keep staffers happy and PR execs who wish to stay with their agencies while accommodating the changes in their lives.

Telecommuting has become a popular solution for firms looking to keep staffers happy and PR execs who wish to stay with their agencies while accommodating the changes in their lives.

As PR is a service industry, the tools of the trade are rather mundane and easily accessible. A phone, a high-speed internet connection, and a personal computer are pretty much all the hardware account executives need to do their jobs today. This has led many agency AEs to ask their bosses an obvious question, "Why can't I do this at home?" And there seems to be at least some anecdotal evidence that many agency bosses are responding, "I guess you can." "Telecommuting" is one of the few silly-sounding, late-1990's buzzwords that not only meant something, it has also survived well into the next decade. Six years ago, it seemed like a novel idea when Kyle Potvin approached her boss Robbie Vorhaus, CEO of New York-based Vorhaus & Company, about becoming a full-time telecommuter. She had been with the firm for three years, but her husband and she had decided to move closer to their families, which meant relocating to suburban Boston. Yet she enjoyed working at Vorhaus, an agency with 14 staffers and revenues of $2 million in 2002, and wanted to keep her job there. "I loved working at Vorhaus and didn't want to leave," she explains. "So I proposed the idea to Robbie. He was receptive, and said that we should at least give it a try." Today, Potvin is on the firm's leadership team and heads up some of Vorhaus' most prominent accounts, like Domino's Pizza, and also manages a team of employees from hundreds of miles away. She says technology has allowed her to maintain a strong presence at the firm despite the distance. She also manages to come into the office about twice a month and visit client sites as needed. "I don't feel like I'm all that removed," says Potvin. "I'm always on e-mail or IM [instant messenger]. So it's like I'm in the office." Her boss says the fact that many of his firm's largest clients are also often a plane ride away from Vorhaus' New York office makes Kyle's telecommuting less apparent. "Our clients aren't in the office with us either," explains Vorhaus. "Kyle's in New York about once every week-and-a-half. It's very funny, but you don't realize that the person isn't there if you've got a firm that has your people traveling and moving around with other clients much of the time anyway." Since Vorhaus allowed Potvin to start telecommuting, the firm has expanded the program. Currently, each member of Vorhaus' leadership team is allowed to telecommute to work once a week. CEO Vorhaus says that his embrace of telecommuting for his staff is about attracting and keeping top talent. "We wanted to be known as one of the best places to work in the industry - the best work-life balance," says Vorhaus. "Many of the most talented and experienced people in our industry are women. Therefore, much of your senior counselors are probably going to have families. With that in mind, you need to demonstrate that you value them." Coral Gables, FL-based RBB Public Relations has allowed several senior members of its staff to telecommute on a consistent basis for about seven years. Firm CEO Christine Barney says that RBB has adopted a rather liberal telecommuting policy, but has put in place some basic guidelines for staff with telecommuting privileges. "We rely on an [erasable] white board in the office to keep track of who is where that day," explains Barney. "We're pretty open to it, but people have to plan ahead as to when they are going to do it. It's not like they are allowed to wake up in the morning and decide not to come to work that day." Other managers echo these sentiments. And despite the fact that the labor market is not nearly as tight as it was a few years ago, there still appears to be a willingness by firms to be more accommodating with their proven talent, especially in the case of the full-time telecommuter. "I think the people who are the most successful as telecommuters are the most seasoned professionals," says Kimberley White, MD of Ogilvy's New York office, who has managed several full-time and part-time telecommuters. "I just believe strongly that you have to accommodate talent. And that often means putting up with where that talent decides it wants to live." ----- Telecommuting trends
  • Many firms offer both full-time and part-time telecommuter programs. These programs are often tailored around staffers' needs. Reasons often given for telecommuting include birth of a child or relocation for a spouse's career.
  • Telecommuting is often restricted to the most senior staff. Firms tend to be more accommodating to seasoned and proven talent. Managers say that such staffers are less likely to need much supervision, thus making the transition easier.
  • Full-time telecommuters often prefer the stability and professional development opportunities afforded by being part of an agency. The unpredictable nature of freelance work is considered a detriment by many.

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