Nothing has tested the symbiotic relationship between employer and staff like Covid-19. Since March, the pandemic has unpicked the fabric of working life, with the ONS reporting that 49.2% of UK employees have worked from home, while our recent PR Week survey revealed that one in five agencies plans to downsize its office – and one in ten to leave its premises entirely.
Whilst pivoting to remote working has helped companies weather the storm, the evidence suggests a punishing flipside. Since the outbreak, 28% of firms have reported struggling with remote hiring, 27% with onboarding and 13% with training, while senior HR executives have spoken of the challenge of attracting talent to roles that exist in a vacuum. As for the promise of an office-free utopia, in fact, a five-year study of 20,000 staff across 50 global companies found that remote employees were markedly less motivated, while a survey by the University Of Warwick noted that unhappy staff are 10% less effective than colleagues.
How can agencies protect their culture and nurture staff, when global events are forcing teams apart? The solution might lie in the trailblazing approach of WA Communications. The Westminster public affairs and strategic communications agency won PR Consultancy Of The Year at the CIPR Excellence Awards in June, not only in recognition of recent campaigns like Cycle To Work, but also for its people-first ethos. “That award felt good,” says Managing Director Dominic Church, “because it was about the intrinsically valuable side of running a business, which is seeking a win-win for the company and our people’s development.”
Since WA’s formation, the independent agency has broken with conventional wisdom while posting continuous growth. “Our continuing growth, even during the pandemic, has come down to our sensational team and a commitment to preserve our way of working together. When it comes to our people,” says Church, “instead of just looking at metrics like how much profit they bring in, we focus on our intrinsic goals: things that are valuable and important to do, not just for the sake of rewards or recognition. Of course, it’s about doing excellent work, building strong teams and a spirit of endeavour. But it’s also about fostering a culture that’s sceptical of hierarchy, allowing everyone in the business to challenge the status quo. Often, the most experienced people benefit from having more junior people contribute their insights to the strategies we develop for clients. And that means we have high levels of candour, challenge and feedback within the team.”
While the pandemic has forced many companies into a holding position, WA’s commitment to training means the workforce has continued to upskill and is in constant motion. “We have a rigorous professional development process,” says Church. “We set professional development plans and budgets for absolutely everyone across the business. Anyone joining from university gets a three-month block of graduate training and all the consultancy essentials for their role. There’s a lot of on-the-job feedback and clarity on performance through appraisals, in which our people choose the most important metrics. We also invest heavily in executive coaching and mentoring. We decided that this had to continue although we’re all working from home - investing in our skills and knowledge is more crucial than ever.”
During the pandemic, WA’s mental health provision has also paid dividends. “It was pretty seamless to go from the office to working from home,” says Church. “But you can’t just take the culture for granted. So we have invested a lot of time and energy into creating fantastic work socials on Zoom. They have been incredibly engaging and a lot of fun, and this social ‘glue’ is valued by everyone. We were also very conscious of the potential impact of the pandemic on the mental health of our team, and so we ensured that we reiterated our mental health policy, where anyone can talk confidentially to our two Mind-trained mental health first-aiders, who can then signpost them either to professional support or to their line managers for any workplace adjustments.”
This people-led approach, stresses Church, isn’t an afterthought, but the heart of an enlightened workplace, feeding into everything from WA’s culture to client experience. “You can’t just talk about ‘people focus’: you have to live and breathe it. It requires focus, consistency and a lot of investment. But it’s really important to create conditions in which people feel psychological safety, so they can do more expansive, open-minded, creative and critical thinking. That way, it’s much more likely we’ll help clients overcome their commercial obstacles and prise open opportunities. That’s the environment we create here.”
Discover more about WA Communications’ work here.