The big return to hybrid work has many nuances

As "le grand retour" looms on the horizon for the people business that is PR, employers and employees alike are working out the full implications of the new normal.

Hybrid work environments post-COVID are top of mind for business owners. (Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Hybrid work environments post-COVID are top of mind for business owners. (Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Everyone is getting set for the big return to work as the percentage of the U.S. population who are fully vaccinated increases and towns and cities start to open back up.

Some organizations have already returned people to physical environments, others are working out what the new hybrid workplace will look like. The consensus among many PR teams is that we’ll all be back in the office in some form or fashion after Labor Day in September.

Employees who have been working overtime from home for the past 14 months are facing a mixture of anticipation at getting back to communal activities and seeing people in person again, and trepidation about having to endure the commuting process that was already a chore but now has the added fear factor around public health and reinfection.

Many staffers have relocated from big cities to more affordable and lifestyle-friendly locations. They will have to decide whether they return to their previous urban hangouts. And their employers will face decisions about whether to continue to allow remote working.

That’s a more nuanced dynamic than it seems on the surface.

For example, if companies agree their workers can continue to work remotely far away from their former HQ, who pays for those inevitable trips to the office that will be required? Or client visits that might involve longer distances and higher travel costs?

Do those staffers still benefit from their big city cost-of-living salary inflation now they’re based in, for example, rural Indiana? Will companies be prepared to set up tax jurisdiction in areas they haven’t previously had to, in order to cater for remote employees all over the country – or even the world?

And what about those staffers who stuck it out and stayed local to their offices but still face the prospect of expensive commutes to work? Will they now demand compensation for that if their remote colleagues are getting it?

While CFOs and CEOs have had to deal with the problem of managing their real estate portfolios that have lain empty for over a year, they have also grown to like the much lower expenses associated with a remote workforce that has been tied to its home.

This week, the Mark Penn-helmed MDC Partners reported a decrease in organic year-over-year Q1 revenues of 6.9%. But profits were up and the holding company stated the lower revenues were "more than offset by a reduction in expenses [as well as the favorable impact of foreign exchange]."

Last December, WPP CEO Mark Read said the agency holding company would save £600 million ($815 million) by cutting travel by a third, a 15% to 20% reduction in office space and moving to shared services for finance and IT in a post-COVID world.

Companies have essentially been able to increase their margin without having to do very much.

That was a theme alluded to by Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill in an op-ed this week for The Washington Post that seems to have backfired.  

She mused that: “While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20% of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — ‘extra.’ It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture.

“If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’ Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics.”

She followed up with a further point that staffers took as something of a threat: “That would also mean not having to pay for healthcare, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15% of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.”

Editorial staff who have no doubt been toiling away beyond the call of duty to get their work done during the tough COVID-19 hiatus protested and they will not be publishing today.

One thing the last year has proved is that organizations can indeed function perfectly well with remote workforces. PR professionals have stepped up admirably: in-house to keep their brands and organizations afloat during terribly difficult times, at agencies to help service those clients’ needs.

But as my colleague on Campaign Alison Weissbrot this week pointed out, this hasn’t come without a cost. People are tired and burnt out. The Dunkirk spirit of us all being in this together and being lucky to have a job we can do from home is starting to wane. Stress and mental health issues are becoming all-too-common.

Many genies have been let out of the bottle in the 14 months since we walked out of our offices last March and I don’t believe they can all be put back.

The war on talent in the PR and marketing businesses is still intense. And conversations around workplace environments, where people are situated and how they conduct their day-to-day work will take on increased importance in negotiations around new hires.

As always, communication is everything and, while she did actually make some relevant points in her op-ed, it’s fair to say the tone adopted by Cathy Merrill was probably not the right way to approach it.

*We’ll be discussing these and other issues at PRWeek and Campaign's Marcomms Club on Clubhouse on Monday at 1:00pm ET, so do join us to listen in or ping me if you’d like to be part of the conversation.

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