Agencies are rightly concerned about how and when staff come back to the office, but what if they don’t?

COVID-19 has made virtual agencies not only acceptable but hard to argue against.

Agencies are rightly concerned about how and when staff come back to the office, but what if they don’t?

A thoughtful piece appeared in PRWeek last Friday, explaining the deliberate and well-considered ways agencies are planning to welcome staff back to the office. Agency managers offered smart priorities backed by data. 

But what they failed to explore was what if staff don’t come back? 

If most shops are like ours, they have weathered COVID-19 reasonably well with some client attrition, but mostly able to retain both clients and staff. We even see some good growth in the offing. Everyone is working remotely with a few isolated trips to the office to break the monotony, while we all wait for vaccines to inoculate us against this nightmare. 

But once it’s over, we don’t expect a full office again, and new data forecasts a similar scenario. A soon-to-be-released survey from Mursion, a virtual reality platform for the workplace, found that only 13% of workers plan to return to the office full-time in the next six months. Let’s face it, distributed workforces are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and it is doubtful we will see a routinely full office ever again. 

That has significant implications on large, multi-office agencies that have relied on office footprints to calculate operating costs and ultimately profits. And it has potentially very positive implications for smaller, boutique agencies. 

Distributed workforces disrupt traditional ideas of offices, and they also diminish the reliance on geographic proximities for both staff and clients. There are obvious concerns about taxation and bureaucratic rules for operating in various states, but COVID has made virtual agencies not only acceptable but hard to argue against. We have employees in four states already. We have issued policies for where staff can live and work because of the taxes and paperwork, etc., but we’re embracing a well-received hybrid environment and have been shopping for new, post-COVID office space to move our Denver headquarters. 

And the implications of distributed workforces will provide new opportunities for clients, too. Geographic preferences were once well-entrenched. But with workers spreading out, how long before clients shop for expertise without worrying about where the agency teams are located? We have all become so accustomed to distributed teams internally, it seems only natural for clients to care less about where their agency partners are and care more about who they are. This situation may already be true for larger accounts and agencies, but COVID is going to drive the practice farther out on the tail. 

How the pandemic will affect business practices may not be fully felt for several years. But typically, societal evolutions don’t progress and then simply snap back to previous conditions. We change a lot and only revert some; we keep a lot of what we learned. 

Communications has had the good fortune to react pretty well to the last 12 months or so, and we’re not going to discard all that change. That will certainly decentralize workforces and it may disrupt traditional major metro concentrations of agencies and their clients, too. 

Patrick Ward is CEO and founder of 104 West Partners, a Denver-based agency with “offices” in San Francisco and Austin/San Antonio.

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