While the PR community broadly embraces the benefits of a flexible work environment, both physically and creatively, how it is defined and the extent to which it is encouraged varies greatly.
An “always-on” culture, created by an abundance of mobile technology and businesses' operations becoming more global, has been instrumental in redefining the modern workplace.
As ways of working become more mobile, companies have to navigate the complexities this brings in a competitive marketplace. This is something Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer aimed to resolve earlier this year when she controversially banned telecommuting, reportedly due to low productivity.
The irony of a digital communications business deciding it would be able to operate more efficiently from within a physical office aside, Mayer's mandate ignited a debate that still continues. However, it should be noted that at the DLDwomen conference in July, Yahoo chief development officer Jackie Reses told an audience that the company's staff, many of whom staunchly opposed the ban at first, are starting to see the benefits.
Outside Yahoo, Mayer's mandate has drawn attention, particularly among PR pros, whose work is inherently mobile and doesn't require them to be tethered to a specific workplace environment.
PRWeek asked four leaders for their views on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's controversial edict earlier this year in which she banned telecommuting and how such a decision might play out in the PR world.
Steve Cody cofounder, managing partner, Peppercomm
I'm 100% opposed. I see it as a convenient excuse for downsizing. The best ideas come from happy, engaged employees. If I can keep talented people by letting them work from home a day or two a week, it's a win-win. The tech sector is notoriously dog eat dog with lots of silos. The investment in human capital isn't made to the same degree as it is in PR. [Large tech companies] don't all care if people burn out. We'll lose clients if they do.
Jake Basden publicity director, Big Machine Label Group
For our 60-person staff, I have no problem with telecommuting. For a company of Yahoo's size, though, I understand Mayer's move. Such a mandate, however, wouldn't work in PR. It remains a female-heavy sector and telecommuting is key to attracting smart, talented people who want both a home life and to be great at their jobs. Still, telecommuting can't make up for lost creativity of being in the same room to bounce ideas around.
Mark Raper president, PadillaCRT
To build and foster an enviable culture, it helps if staffers are physically together. If employees are telecommuting randomly without any guidelines, the soul of an organization and its culture can suffer. As such, I understand Mayer's sentiment. Can such a ban work within PR? Yes, as there are successful firms with very restrictive telecommuting policies. However, this approach is ill-advised if you want to address the fulfillment of each individual.
Richard Kylberg VP, corporate comms, Arrow Electronics
Tying PR pros to a specific location feels like asking them to perform unnatural acts. With my team, I don't care where your body is. With proper leadership, if you know what you're doing and believe in the vision and values of the company, you can work from the dark side of the moon for all I care. The best PR pros know how to find the proper balance between on-site work and telecommuting. The best managers know how to guide them to success.
Telecommuting is one definition of flexible working, which also includes fluid start and finish times and working out of the office a day or two a week.
As such, agencies and in-house leaders grapple with how to ensure they can offer teams the flexibility they need for a fulfilling work-life balance, while maintaining crucial in-person interactions and collaboration, which are the lifeblood of the industry.
“We work in a 24/7 global mobile environment, not 9 to 5 sitting at the desk,” says Alan Marks, SVP of global communications at eBay. “Mobile technology has given us the opportunity to rethink what being at the office means.
“I could be working at home, at eBay's office, from an airplane seat, or a hotel room. It shouldn't matter,” adds Marks, who travels frequently in his role. “My office is where I am at any given moment.”
At a time when budgets are shrinking, offering flexible hours can also reduce company overheads and cut commuting time. This means telecommuters have the potential to be more efficient.
“When I ran an agency, there was a fear that young people wouldn't conduct themselves responsibly or stay connected,” says Alice Chan, principal of virtual communications firm Bird PR. “That's the case with some agencies, but is the wrong assumption to make. In all the places I've seen where people are trusted to do the job, they generally work longer hours from the benefit of having a setup at home.”
Chan explains that offering flexibility helps build employee loyalty, which is key when competition for talent is fierce. Employees with family commitments are better able to juggle childcare with their work, meaning firms have less risk of losing them.
“I am a huge believer in flexible working,” says Zeno Group CEO Barby Siegel, who opts to work at home herself on Fridays. “We accept that we all have busy work and family lives. We can't separate the two if we want to attract the best talent.”
Siegel believes allowing staff to have a “stable and happy home environment” means the “productive energy” they bring to their careers is higher. Also, not being stuck behind a desk for the working day improves employees' creativity, she adds.
Zeno staffers are able to work from home one day a week, with requests for more days assessed case by case. Siegel says this is not a problem for clients.
“Many of our clients have the same issues and are working parents,” she explains. “There is a common bond. They respect we have that human side.”
Communications pros agree this crucial “human side” must not be disregarded when working virtually. They also emphasize how mobile and digital technologies allow employees to stay in touch effectively, while video conferencing tools such as Skype enable more human interactions than email and even phone calls.
Some PR leaders fear the subtleties of in-person communications can be lost if technologies are relied on too heavily. Among them is Laura Tomasetti, CEO and founder of 360 Public Relations.
“I love coming into the office and seeing all of our people,” says Tomasetti, who favors a “walk around” management style. “You certainly wouldn't see us transition to a virtual desk in the future.”
360PR offers flexible start and finish times and the opportunity to work from home one day a month. It considers requests to telecommute in certain cases, based on the staffer's role and longevity at the firm, but generally advocates the in-person approach.
“In an actual office, more cross-pollination opportunities exist,” notes Tomasetti, who also feels working in a physical space benefits younger employees because the impromptu meetings and collaboration can serve as learning opportunities.
“Chance learning is more likely to happen in a physical office,” she adds. “Rising stars, if they work from home, will have missed out on not being at the center of the action, which tends to be an office.”
In addition, Tomasetti does not believe her firm's preference for office working will discourage new talent. “When people come to our office, they really feel the energy,” she points out. “It might seem less flexible, but when they come here they are sold.”
Christine Barney, CEO and managing partner at rbb Public Relations, is a staunch proponent of flexible working arrangements who frowns on such opportunities turning into a “perk that is earned” solely based on time at a company or seniority.
“Most people see flexible working as something they have to provide as an HR benefit, not as a tool to enhance productivity,” she explains.
Her firm, however, takes a systematic approach, with a formal process for staff to request flexible start and finish times and telecommuting. It also uses cloud software that enables staff to log their location when out of the office, so if, for example, they are in traffic or at a dentist appointment, their team knows about it.
“It makes everything transparent,” says Barney. “There's no guilt if everyone knows where you are.”
The condition of creating a well-managed flexible workplace, in which work and home life blend, is that rbb staffers are reachable 24/7. “There is nothing magical about the hours 9 to 6,” she notes.
Drawing the line
While the work-life balance concept has given way to the more fashionable notion of “work-life integration,” some PR pros insist that everyone strives to maintain separation between the two.
“In a communications firm, you do need to be available and attentive,” explains Phil Carpenter, senior partner at Allison+Partners. “However, it doesn't help to be obsessed with your email 24 hours a day and leap as if you were hit with a cattle prod when the phone buzzes.”
He says his firm does not have a formal flexible working policy, but permits staff flexibility when it comes to their personal lives. In fact, that aspect of flexibility is among the most valued by Carpenter.
“If someone is not responding to me at 10pm because an idea entered my head, good for them,” he stresses. “I'll see them in the morning instead.”
Flexible working has become more prevalent on the West Coast, where the time difference means that PR pros often have to respond to enquiries before the “official” start of the working day. Also, the surge of startups has led to a rise in co-working spaces. Though Carpenter is based in Silicon Valley, he still says his agency prefers in-office working.
“At this point, Allison believes there is value in having all creative minds under a shared roof where we can collaborate more easily and understand the topic du jour,” he explains.
As part of Allison's view on flexibility, the firm offers a sabbatical program. Staffers are allowed four weeks off on top of their annual vacation package if they have served at the company for more than five years. Carpenter took his family to Australia and New Zealand for his sabbatical last year. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.
This policy helps attract and retain talent, he adds. It also generates buzz among employees for those embarking on and returning from their time off.
Marks, who went on a sabbatical himself this summer, similarly notes that eBay's sabbatical policy generates a level of excitement within the company and gives staff crucial time off to recharge.
“It sends a broader message that it is important that you figure out that balance,” he explains. “It also keeps people energized, focused, and engaged.”
Recharging is becoming an increasingly persuasive reason for companies to improve flexible working arrangements for staff, particularly in a 24/7 environment. Maggie FitzPatrick, former CCO at health insurer Cigna, says that as a health business, it fully supports flexible working because it is conducive to the health and wellness of its employees.
“Cigna believes in supporting and empowering its employees,” she notes, “so it takes every opportunity to minimize stress and help people get to the highest state of wellness. In the end, that's good for everyone.”
To achieve this, Cigna created a community support system for virtual workers to help them stay connected with fellow employees and ongoing projects to keep them inspired and productive.
“It's not where you work, but how,” suggests FitzPatrick, who now serves as CCO and VP of public affairs and corporate communications at Johnson & Johnson. “To get the best talent, particularly with Millennials, companies need to be open-minded.”
Bird PR's Chan agrees that flexible working, along with vacation packages and sabbaticals, should be seen as a health issue to prevent burnout. “The intensity of living in an always-connected work culture does call for down time and flexibility,” she says.
She points out, however, that the risk of burnout applies to staff working from home, too, as they often end up working longer hours. “It's vital to encourage people working from home to have down time,” she advises.
Chan also underscores the importance of arranging face-to-face meetings with clients and colleagues to help ensure optimum collaboration.
Encouraging volunteer work is another aspect of workplace flexibility that allows staffers to feel fulfilled. Waggener Edstrom, for example, allows full-timers to take up to 16 hours per year to volunteer for an organization of their choice. To inspire its workers to partake in this, the agency creates campaigns, sponsor teams, and office volunteer events.
“Many of our employees are passionate about giving back to their communities, which is why we create opportunities for them to have an impact on society through their work and our corporate citizenship efforts,” says CCO Jennifer Granston Foster.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexible working and every leader has his or her own take on what arrangements and offerings work best for employee and employer alike. However, the issue is top of mind for all agency and in-house leaders as more Millennials – along with their expectations of work environments – enter the workforce.
“The corporate safety net is not necessarily a career path kids will be taking,” says rbb's Barney. “They will be more compliant in an independent environment and that will continue to shape the workplace.
“However,” she adds, “it's not likely we will all be working virtually in 10 years. We still have a strong desire to work together. We are social creatures.”