From the editor-in-chief: ‘I want my staff back in the office by September’ – the divisive question of the Big Return to Work

For 16 weeks we’ve been working from home. For nearly four months we’ve been glued to our laptops, switching between email and Zoom, valiantly reinventing our work routine. And now, somehow, we are in July.

From the editor-in-chief: ‘I want my staff back in the office by September’ – the divisive question of the Big Return to Work

We’re kicking off the second half of 2020 (it’s a tough match, isn’t it?) And for many people – those who still have jobs anyway, during what is proving to be a redundancies bloodbath – it’s a return to the office. 

Whether it’s a welcome return seems a highly divisive question.

I spoke to the CEO of New York-headquartered global agency network earlier this week and he admitted he hadn’t even ventured into Manhattan since March. Few executives in that COVID-19-devastated city have.

Yesterday, Google told its 100,000 North American employees that they should work from home for another two months, as it delayed the reopening of its US offices until 7 September.

A few stout-hearted UK agencies went back to their London HQs last month, but most bosses are only now making their first forays into their mothballed offices.

Edelman is one: “We are excited to get back and are doing so very safely and in line with government guidance," the agency says in a statement. "From this Monday those who want to return to the office can do so, however, we continue to encourage employees to work from home if they would prefer to.”

The reopening of British offices in July – along with the reopening of restaurants, pubs and some international travel this weekend – is an important chapter in the recovery phase of this crisis. A return of proper desks, face-to-face contact and real live networking over a coffee or a drink is starting to resemble what we knew as ‘public relations’.

“I’ve been back in the office this week. And suddenly the fog lifted,” one CEO of a large London consultancy confides. “It renewed my energy and focus. Now I need to get my staff back. We officially open our offices this week and I want to get everyone back by early September.”

It’s a controversial conversation, because many PR professionals remain decidedly apprehensive.

A recent PRCA survey of agency and in-house leaders showed a majority favoured a return to office life, but with 42 per cent either ‘reluctant’ or ‘with mixed feelings’.

Some agencies have polled their staff on the looming return, only to discover about half are keen.

Other bosses are less keen on this democratic approach. One agency head told me: “I’m not even asking my staff about this, because it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. There are certain business imperatives here.”

Another agency chief said: “It is controversial, but I’m expecting everyone back by September. Of course we’ll allow more flexible hours and some days working from home, but it’s important to get that energy back for our teams. People have worked well from home, but they have become a bit institutionalised. It’s just not the same; there needs to be a clear line drawn between work life and home life.”

Talking to agency leaders, there’s a growing concern many younger staffers have moved back to their parents’ homes, outside of cities, and in some cases have given up the leases on rented flats. As such, they’re slow or reluctant to resume city-based working routines.

There is particular fear about the use of public transport. Some London agencies are giving their staff generous cycle allowances to provide options to avoid that dreaded London Underground experience. The same applies to any other city, however, having talked to bosses in Manchester and Leeds.

Some are turning their back on the capital altogether. One corporate comms consultancy has already reduced capacity in its central London office to a bare minimum and is now considering a new base outside London, to which its staff will be able to drive.

One of the founders told me: “We all got together outside of London recently and the younger team members were so relieved to have a bit of human contact. But there is little appetite from anyone to commute into town now, so we’re seriously considering an out-of-town base.”

Larger agencies are tending to take a softly-softly approach to the return to the office.

“We’ll let the small number who really want a break from WFH to come back in [the] second half of July. Getting all the kit takes time right now,” says the co-founder of a London-based shop. “Then we will do a rota system, starting in September. Most people don’t want to use public transport. No one is expected to come into the office this year if they don’t want to.”

Another boss says: “We’re gradually opening up our offices from next week. It’s totally optional for people to work from them. About 25 per cent will be returning for a couple of days a week. We are mainly opening up for those who are desperate to get back and are struggling for motivation at home. I can’t see us enforcing office attendance before the end of this year.”

One senses, however, that the pressure to return to offices will gain real momentum over the next few months. Of course, this very much depends on whether we see further outbreaks of COVID-19 in certain cities or, even worse, a serious second wave of the virus.

But on the assumption that the UK manages to avoid this, it’s likely that people, particularly millennials, will tire of working from home with all the pressures this brings. And it may be that agency leaders who do manage to get most of their staff back together may start enjoying competitive advantages in terms of greater productivity and creative firepower. 

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham says: “At some point soon, we need to shake off our individual and collective shock of the past few months, and return to something pretty close to the old normal. For sure, this means embracing more home working. It means sensible and rigorous measures to protect the health of ourselves, our families, our friends and our colleagues. 

“But the simple truth is that for the majority of PR professionals, working from home indefinitely is not a sustainable option. Physical proximity, meeting clients and colleagues, daily interaction – these are normal parts of life and we need to re-embrace them, for the sake not just of our business practices, but also, quite frankly, for the sake of our mental health, which is taking a hammering right now.”

And of course offices will look very different, if/when we do get back to them. Senior executives at every British company, regardless of size, have been spending recent months getting their heads around the new, and changing, guidelines.

One travel PR agency boss tells me: “The office looks amazing now, but as long as the Government advice is [to] work from home we will not go in there. But when this changes we have a completely new setup in terms of all the rules and social distancing. Only 25 per cent of staff can attend each day and we’ll rotate this 25 per cent around during the week." 

She adds: “No staff will be expected to go in ever if they want always to work from home, but my team is really looking forward to going back if they can, even if just for a couple of days each week.”

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