The global coronavirus pandemic has forced many industries to adopt work-from-home operating models, but could this continue when social distancing rules are eased?
Social media giant Twitter believes so, and has taken the extraordinary step of allowing staff to work from home indefnitiely, if they decide they do not want to return to the office.
There have been several unexpected working patterns emerging in the communications industry, including anecdotal evidence of teams bonding more closely since lockdown began.
But is there an appetite for agencies to go down down the path of working from home indfinitely, which is how only a small handful of agencies, including The PR Network, currently operate.
PRWeek ran a Twitter poll (below) to get feedback on the idea. 60 per cent said 'yes', but strong reasons why it might not work include 'how do younger PR pros gain experience and simply that comms is an industry that 'needs' face to face.
Twitter is allowing staff to WFH 'forever' – is this something that would work in agencies/in-house comms? Pls reply with comments https://t.co/Qt29tAnfD0— PRWeek UK (@prweekuknews) May 13, 2020
Some were immediately in favour of the idea:
Yes. With balance of course. From my POV I’ve been amazed at how the younger generation have behaved + performed in LD. Seriously impressive and made a lot of people reassess what the future of the agency office looks like. I’d def not raise eyebrows if a. execs asked to wfh now.— Richard Tompkins (@RETompkins) May 13, 2020
Yes. However, it needs lots of work to make it work. Suspect agencies will be easier as works better if most people do it. Would be hard for an in-house comms team unless the rest of the company was doing the same.— Stuart Bruce PR Futurist ?? (@stuartbruce) May 13, 2020
Those opposed highlighted drawbacks of working in isolation:
Would work yes, but not sure it is the best way of working. We're three years old as a firm & started digital only. We integrated office time (though remained very flexible) because there were things we lacked keeping things digital only.— Tom Hashemi (@tomhashemi) May 13, 2020
One of these is 'how do young PR pros gain experience?'
I’d be slightly concerned about the next generation of PR people. Who will junior execs and managers learn ‘the trade’ from? Work experience placements, who will they shadow? If too many WFH where’s the ‘on the job’ training? Longer term impact could hinder PR talent emerging.— goodkind (@goodkind) May 13, 2020
How do junior colleagues learn? I remember senior colleagues being generous with their time, editing my prose to use more effective business focused language and explaining changes to me. So much more effective than track changes (which weren't a thing then anyway)— Paddy Blewer (@Padsky) May 13, 2020
Working from home is fine for more senior staff, but it's more difficult to blood a young graduate and get the measure of them over video conference.— jamescrawford (@jamescrawford) May 13, 2020
Home working is also fine for everyday job list tasks, but poor for culture and vision.
Its a young industry and a lot of PRs lived in rented cramped accomodation with just a bedroom to work in! They want an office environment to feel professional in (to learn, socialise, network). Companies will retain good talent by offering access to both home and office.— Muswell Hill Mum (@crouchendmum1) May 13, 2020
Plus I'm not sure where and how people coming into the industry would get their experience or training. So - would work for some but by no means for all.— Gavin Devine (@gavindevine1234) May 13, 2020
There are also concerns about a lack of human engagement and interaction:
I dont mind being the one who says "nope". Agree with all Rich has said & staff have been brilliant at adapting. But creativity is less good apart. For me anyway. Big parts of ideation require a shared and instant experience & where I think we'd miss out with full remote working— David Fraser (@DavidEFraser) May 13, 2020
Not forever. The industry is fundamentally a "people-business" that needs individual human engagement. The way PR agencies like mine operate will change - and we will see more flexible processing and smaller offices I am sure. But WFH forever is too impersonal and remote.— Kevin Hasler (@KevinOman2) May 14, 2020
Always being able to work some of the time from home/remotely: yes.— mynameisearl (@mynameisearl) May 13, 2020
Never going into an office environment for personal meetings and conversations: no.
Flexible working for all 100% (we’re intro’ing it permanently) - but working entirely from home, no. A PR agency’s team culture can’t be replicated at home (camaraderie, training, banter, speed, creativity, client engagement, wellbeing, fun etc etc).— Nina Webb CMPRCA (@NinaWebb) May 13, 2020
Good PR professional is being able to read humans and human behaviour. Emotional intelligence isn’t easily learnt over a screen and so for the sake of the edge PR has over other services, I hope that people don’t loose sight in the value of human interaction day to day.— Leila Willingham (@LeilaWillingham) May 13, 2020
...and there was no shortage of alternative views:
I think it should be rebranded WFA / Work from anywhere. Why not, we are all grown ups, now it seems the bosses/parents are realizing we can be trusted without constant supervision @PerveenAkhtar— brendoncraigie (@brendoncraigie) May 13, 2020
Depends on your stage of life. 30> you've probably settled down with decent place to live & family. 30< you're in shared accomo & want to be out socialising. Also lose serendipity of ideas WFH— Scott Guthrie (@sabguthrie) May 13, 2020
I had this conversation with the boss of my French agency today. He had always been reluctant to allow staff to WFH previously but now they’ve been forced into it he said he’s definitely changed his view. My view it’s about trust as you say.— Perveen Akhtar (@PerveenAkhtar) May 13, 2020
Matt Cartmell, whose agency Carta Communications is running a survey on PR industry attitudes to returning to work, told PRWeek: "From conversations with contacts, my anecdotal sense is that few in the industry expect to be blowing the dust off their screens until October.
"Even then, it wouldn't be surprising if many in particular smaller agencies remain in virtual, remote-working mode indefinitely. But, for the sake of their employer brand, internal culture and client proposition, they would be wise to pick a side rather than stay in limbo."
This period of social distancing and lockdown is likely to make several agency leaders pause and redesign how their businesses operate, and it is likely that remote working could become more common and certaily more socially acceptable.
However, a lack of on-the-job interaction, guidance and the social benefits of working in an office environment are likely to prevent any radical shifts towards working from home indefinitely.