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After lockdown, should your team continue to operate remotely?

11 Mar, 2021 Business management, COVID-19 Latest, PR management, WFH, hybrid work, Working in the office

Coronavirus-era lockdowns have forced us all to re-evaluate where we work and how we maintain a healthy work-life balance. As unlikely as widespread remote work might have seemed two years ago, this option now defines the work experience of PR professionals the world over.

But as lockdown procedures ebb while the vaccine rollout progresses, PR and other organizational managers will be asking whether to return to the office or not. The answer will depend on a thorough evaluation of the pros and cons as well as employee needs. To make the best decision for your operational effectiveness, use the following considerations as your guide.

Evaluating the remote pros and cons

While you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who can say they enjoy working fully from home or fully from the office, there are positives and negatives to both.These compounding factors require deeper analysis for individual PR groups, with input from staff and an openness to new solutions. Below, we break down the pros and cons of remote working  further. And we also consider hybrid operations for staff – a combination of office and WFH.

Firstly, the trend: Pre-pandemic, only 20% of American employees worked from home, according to Pew Research. By May 2020, that number had shot up to over 60%. A Great Place To Work (GPW) survey of Fortune 500 executives in 2020 showed a similar increase, from 16% to 65% of staff working virtually. Future WFH intentions? Obviously every organization’s decisions will depend on its own unique circumstances, but overall, three out of five executives believe up to 25% of their workforce will continue to work remotely full-time, according to the GPW survey results. The Pew Research survey found that many workers would like to work remotely after the pandemic is over: transition to WFH has been relatively easy for many:

Image: Pew Research survey, 9 December 2020.

Pros

Myriad benefits can come out of running a remote PR business or team. In fact, even before the pandemic, many groups opted to operate this way because of positives such as those listed below. Consider these merits in determining whether your PR work should remain remote or head back to the office after COVID restrictions dissipate:

  • Increased productivity in remote work. Working from home is just as productive as working in the office – possibly more so. A two-year study by Great Place to Work® of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies overall “found that most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home.” Around 50% of executives surveyed believed productivity was not impacted by remote work, 30% of executives believed teams were more productive while working from home, although 20% reported mixed impacts across teams and business units, with some improving while others suffering.
  • Better for families and working parents. Two thirds of PR employees are female – who are the hardest hit by pandemic ramifications in the workforce. Often stuck juggling childcare along with work responsibilities, as many as 14% of women have considered leaving the workforce altogether to strike a better balance.Fortunately, however, remote work can be a great way to maintain that balance for working parents in PR. At home, people have the flexibility to respond to child needs and even run quick errands when they would otherwise be stuck in the office. This can be a big plus when it comes to productivity. Plus, the time that would have been spent commuting can be used at the individual’s discretion, allowing people to focus on what matters most.
  • Lower overhead costs. Additionally, no office to manage means a host of business cost savings. No longer will PR business owners or organizations with PR departments have to pay to rent office space, and pay for supplies, power, water, waste, and all the other associated costs of a secondary work space. Remote working leads to savings on overheads so client and employee needs can be better prioritized.
  • Greater flexibility overall. Because of the flexibility offered by work-from-home (WFH) arrangements, workers can dedicate more time and attention to organizational needs than they can in an office. This may seem counter-intuitive; after all, isn’t the office the place you go to set all other concerns aside and focus on work? In reality, though, going into an office means a lot of time wasted.

From your commute to the time you spend chatting with coworkers, hanging out in the breakroom, or being interrupted by loud colleagues, remote working means time saved. Additionally, WFH options lead to fewer sick days and absences from employees. This saved time has been shown to increase productivity by as much as 13%, despite the distractions you might associate with working from home.

With benefits like these possible through remote work, PR firms and corporate affairs departments might feel better about continuing WFH policies indefinitely. However, it is also important to address the negative aspects of this situation.

Cons

WFH is not for everyone. While some workers might thrive with the flexibility this option offers, others may struggle with staying motivated and engaged with the work and the company culture. In addition, process changes will require innovative solutions. Even setting up payroll for remote workers can require the use of new systems and categorization techniques to ensure a smooth procedure.While the remote work experience is largely subjective, there are some objective factors that will present unique challenges for any PR firm or department. These include:

  • Working from home, we miss the personal interactions and camaraderie with colleagues, which can lighten the load. When we interact in person, we feel connected and part of something bigger than just doing our assigned tasks. Personal is what’s missing. It’s our connection and our humanity. It’s what makes us genuinely like and care for our colleagues.

Incidentally, experts say one of the most important ways of turning this around at the beginning of every virtual meeting is by making a point of “making it personal,” followed by “conveying warmth.” Encourage small talk and try to show team members’ expressions in video calls. This interactivity and engagement take more effort, but are totally worthwhile for lifting up the connection factor.

  • It is more difficult to onboard new employees. The first step for any new employee is the onboarding process. This stage of employment is when company culture is defined and work processes are detailed. For remote employees, this can be particularly challenging.

However, there are opportunities inherent in remote recruiting and onboarding, as well as challenges.This is a time to double-down on organizational culture, bring the team together for welcoming and socialization, and reinforce goals and expectations in a clear and friendly environment. The right remote onboarding process will offer training opportunities, leverage technology, and bring in co-workers for a shared educational experience that benefits the company as a whole.

  • Managing virtual communication can be a challenge. Like all team communication, virtual meetings require openness and transparency beyond what may be typically necessary. To feel consistently like a team while working separately, coworkers need clearly defined goals and a sense of feeling heard and valuable to the larger team. This means virtual check-ins, accessible chat communication, and a savviness when it comes to modern tech. Managing these virtual team meetings can be particularly challenging. They require pre-planning and a comprehensive summary of discussed items. It may be easy for people and items to get lost in the confusion of a virtual call, but good management can ensure that virtual communication remains effective. (Refer Cons bullet point 1, above.)
  • Work-life balance can be more difficult to maintain. When we work out of our homes, the boundaries between work life and home life may get skewed quickly. In fact, one survey found that 45% of respondents say they are working longer hours remotely than they did in an office, with working parents in particular now working more than eight hours a day and on the weekends. Prof. Lynda Grattan of the London Business School reported in 2020 that “for working parents, virtual work has specific challenging pain points,” and she said that in March 2020, 10% of 3,000 people polled said they were distracted by their families.

Remote work means a more finely tuned balance has to be struck in maintaining a separation between your professional and personal life. You can do this more effectively by maintaining a regular schedule and carefully setting aside personal time.

These challenges and more will have to be addressed should you choose to keep your team on a WFH basis. If you decide to move your staff back into a physical office space, you’ll have a different set of challenges on your hands, and miss out on the potential benefits of a flexible environment.

Every group will have different priorities and needs. Address these pros and cons with your employees and make a plan for accommodating employee needs in a post-pandemic landscape. Whether you decide to go back to the office or continue working from home, you can maintain a dedicated team with the right approach.

What about hybrid work?

When the COVID-19 precautions are reduced for employees, future working arrangements are likely to be more flexible. Staff will probably spend something like 3 days in the office and the balance of their time working from home in a hybrid arrangement. Some teams even commute to the office once a week for a team day of meetings and ideas, and they choose where they work for the rest of the week – home or office. This seems to work successfully, but has to be coordinated carefully.

Not all team members can adapt readily to working within a hybrid environment. Individuals who are strong at relationship building have an advantage in hybrid environments. This enables them to ask for, find, and claim resources they need for successful remote working. Employees with good network and political awareness can use their informal connections to keep up to date with their organization’s intentions and actions. This helps to reduce the gap between face-to-face and remote working. Best results from hybrid working also go to those who can show they are trustworthy when working largely out of sight.

On the other hand, employees who are less effective at building relationships, either in-person or remotely, may struggle to work with others who are successful in working this way. They may find they’re constantly out of sync with colleagues and managers.

Much of consultant time in PR firms is spent on the computer or the phone. This doesn’t require a specific location to work from – and so a standard office setting isn’t necessary. However, the management group would need to meet in the office to discuss operational, administrative and financial matters. And the consulting team/s would preferably meet in the office for creative sessions, brainstorming ideas as a group for their clients, as well as for new-business and review meetings, as noted above. Similar for PR departments.

Overall, the decisions on where to base the team will depend on each organization’s needs. For best results, these should be addressed in conjunction with the individuals who will be affected most by the decisions.

Image Source: Pexels Working from home in relaxed style

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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