From the Editor-in-Chief: Disillusioned workers make bosses wary of jabs mandate or a quick return to work

As the media and comms business heads into the vital autumn season, the economic climate looks strong, with consumer brands turning the marketing taps on – but employees appear more unsettled by the pandemic than at first realised.

PRWeek Editor-in-Chief Danny Rogers
PRWeek Editor-in-Chief Danny Rogers

Marketing services businesses of all stripes – from international giants such as WPP and Interpublic Group (IPG) right through to boutique PR agencies – are already reporting big revenue growth compared with 2020, even slightly up on the pre-pandemic 2019.

This growth in organisational and brand spend is being driven by wider economic recovery and particularly the booming sectors of healthcare and ecommerce; explained by more health- and lifestyle-conscious consumers who are keen to make purchases from the comfort of their homes.

However, this 'post-pandemic' (not that it’s over, of course) effect is also causing employers major problems.

Last month I wrote here about concerns over staff wellbeing and the war for talent. But as we go into September, bosses seem genuinely shocked by the hesitancy from their employees to return to offices, a growing reluctance to abandon home-based routines, and even mass disillusionment with careers.

This latter, longer-term trend is perhaps the most worrying. In the US it’s been branded the ‘great resignation’, with about one-third of employees apparently looking to change job or career. 

And UK employers are reporting similar trends. A report last week by recruitment firm Hanson Search shows one-third of PR workers are eyeing a career change.

Could it be that, like health or hospitality workers, those employed in any ‘service’-sector organisation have been traumatised by the experience of living and working through the past 18 months?

David Fraser, founder of PR agency Ready10, thinks so: “There is, for sure, some post-pandemic PTSD that is manifesting in existential crises for many. I’m surprised it’s as low as one in three [considering a career move], to be honest.”

Even if they don’t change career, it’s becoming very clear that employee attitudes have shifted.

When the Hanson Search Report asked nearly 1,200 comms employees to rate the most important elements of a job package ‘competitive salary and bonus structure’ have fallen down the list of priorities. Instead, 45 per cent ranked ‘team, people and culture’ as most important, followed by ‘flexible working’ (39 per cent).

But the shorter-term challenges are acute. Employers are really struggling to get their staff back into offices this autumn. This is perhaps not surprising with COVID-19 infection rates increasing again in the US and UK, and fully vaxxed rates seemingly stuck at 60-70 per cent of the population.

Employers in the comms and media sector, therefore, are adopting a carrot-and-stick approach to try to get workers back to the office – a move generally considered to be ‘a good thing’ by bosses, thanks to the more creative and collaborative culture that tends to result.

One of the carrots being used is more attractive office environments – virtually every boss one talks to is “excited” about new office refits and tech – as well as implied financial and career advantages for office-based staff. 

Some firms, although not many media/PR businesses as yet, have even gone as far as to say they will reduce the pay of staff who have moved to cheaper, non-metropolitan locations and are refusing to come back to the office.

Indeed, another stick being wielded by some firms is a refusal to allow non-vaccinated staff back into these improved offices. 

IPG announced this policy earlier in August. 

But many businesses are reluctant to be so heavy-handed with employees, some of whom may have good reason not to be vaccinated.

Sebastian Mathews, managing director for EMEA at Cognito Media, is sceptical of the mandatory vaccination approach. “It depends what they are looking to achieve,” he said. If it's avoiding spread among offices, then it's not sufficient. If it's to ensure, in general, a more healthy/safe workforce, then maybe. But that then opens the door to 'what else' do they want employees to do/not do in life.”

The boss of one large UK PR agency confided: “The advice we’re getting is that mandatory vaccination may not even be legal in the UK. In any case, with talent so tight, the last thing we need is to annoy staff further. I’m more focused on finding incentives to actually get people back to work. 

“So no, we won’t insist on vaccination, but we are asking for all staff to come in a couple of days each week from mid-September and to do a lateral flow test before coming in each time.”

This seems to be most common approach being employed by media businesses in early autumn: a softly-softly treatment of staff, lots of voluntary testing, and little in the way of hard enforcement measures. 

It remains to be seen, however, what the next steps will be should infection rates spike further in September, causing the fear/disruption factor to be even more heightened among the industry’s workers.

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