Those were some key points made by industry experts on a special edition of the PR Show (below), PRWeek's podcast series, featuring three judges from the PRWeek UK Best Places to Work Awards – click here to read about the winners.
The podcast features Alison Clarke, business consultant and mentor; Jane Fordham of Jane Fordham Consulting; and Peter Bowles, chief creative officer at Clarity PR.
On the issue of mental-health support, Fordham said there is a "massive, massive difference" in provisions now compared to about 18 months ago. While bosses previously paid "lip service" to mental health, they are now "walking the walk and really believing in this stuff".
Clarke pointed out that Mental Health First Aiders, which were "few and far between" just a few years ago, are now prevalent, and noted "how pleasing it is to see agencies are putting really effort into the policies".
Bowles said the best agencies are now approaching the topic is a "more nuanced way".
On COVID-19, Forham stated: "Those shortlisted that were ahead of the curve on mental health and wellbeing, flexible working, employee communications and – specifically [for] organisations that are very much values-led – lockdown, remote working and COVID has simply been an iteration of existing working practices.
"It was a joy and delight to hear that most of the agencies I spoke with simply extending pre-existing ways of working."
Panelists agreed that while mental-health support had become 'mainstream', the same isn't quite true of flexible working.
On the latter topic, Fordham said: "I think the pendulum is going to swing to an extent." However, she also said there's still a degree of "flexwashing" in parts of the industry, where employers don't truly deliver on flexible working.
Clarke said she was "disappointed" by the lack of progress on ethnic diversity. She said "not many [consultancies] have changed, to a significant degree, their recruitment processes and programmes" to attract more non-white talent.
On gender diversity, she said: "I'm still dismayed that, of the proportion of women who enter the profession, still far too few make it to the top, and that's something that we… need to keep banging on about, frankly, because it needs to improve."
The panel were asked how employment practices would be different one year from now.
They agree that home working would become more prevalent, and Clarke predicted a move away from business trips "that frankly don't achieve more than a great Zoom call can".
The trio were also asked to identify some of their favourite policies from the Best Places to Work finalists.
Clarke highlighted FleishmanHillard Fishburn's "shadow board", the peer-elected group of next-generation leaders who co-create the agency's business strategy.
Fordham's picks included Hotwire's flexible working policy and two from Manifest: a £1,000 bonus to the person who makes a new starter feel the most welcome during 'on-boarding', and its equal approach to parental leave and other parental policies.
Listen to The PR Show
Looking for a new podcast to dive into during lockdown? Check out all our past episodes of The PR Show. Each episode we invite a panel of experts and industry leaders to debate the hottest topics in PR and communications.