The pros and cons of flexible working in PR
18th October 2017
We may like to think of the PR profession as being forward thinking, but when it comes to more flexible ways of working, many employers are reluctant to encourage their staff to work from home. Discussing why some agencies struggle to offer flexible working conditions, Colette Brown, co-founder of recruitment consultancy Prospect Resourcing, says it could be because of client demands: “Agencies feel they are providing a service to their clients and there is a sense of being ‘always on’ – and although generally that can be achieved from anywhere, there is still a lot of value placed on face time.”
People resent part-timers
Brown also points out part-time working can breed resentment: “Flexible working is still predominately for people with caring responsibilities, usually parents – and those employers who are at times reluctant, may feel it puts pressure on the rest of the team, or it can be disruptive to team dynamics if someone is out for a few days working from home. To achieve true flexible working, it should be offered to all, not just a few.“
Amanda Fone, founder and CEO of F1 Recruitment, who has long campaigned for more flexible approaches to work, says the excuses she hears from hiring managers when she suggests they open a role up to flexibility are comments like: “‘The FD has signed off a five-day-a-week role, and we don’t want to lose the budget’; ‘They will be running a team and they need to be in the office to coach and influence’; ‘It’s a client-facing role and the client wants to be able to get hold of them at any time.’” But, she adds, “for all of those three reasons you can find a solution for if you really want to”.
“Normally we say ‘this is the job you need doing, these are the skills you need. If you have someone who wouldn’t be in five days a week why not consider them?’ That opens up the conversation.”
Offices boost creativity
Not offering excuses, but some explanations of why flexible working can fail in PR, Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director of agency Clearly PR and Marketing Communications, says one reason is that you need to work with other people to come up with ideas: “In PR, we work with ideas – it’s a creative business. You need to bounce your thoughts off people... to brainstorm things.
“Early on at Clearly PR, we trialled working from home. For a time, it appeared that it was working, but once the honeymoon period wore off, cracks began to appear – it became obvious that communication was hugely difficult. Getting the team together at the same time proved to be problematic. There were fewer opportunities to have essential ideas -generation sessions, which are often impromptu. Staff tend to avoid communicating spontaneous ideas due to the numerous additional barriers in place. I find that work produced by a team at the same place is far superior to that generated when working from home. Life tends to get in the way when you aren’t at a dedicated workspace.”
In complete agreement is Holly Ward, co-founder of agency The Forge: “What we do requires creativity, ideas and strategic thinking. Many people, myself included, work far better in an environment where there are like-minded people to bounce off as well as being stimulated by company. Being at home can sometimes feel isolating and motivation can suffer.
Inexperienced staff need offices
“So whilst we fully appreciate that sometimes working from home gives you the peace and quiet to knuckle down on some writing that needs doing, it’s not something we’d advocate regularly. People, particularly younger people coming into the industry, need to learn from other people, they lack the experience and confidence to work alone. I think this is where the flexible working argument gets a bit tricky. There’s a place somewhere between regimented working hours, in an office, every day with draconian leadership and a free-for-all of working from home.”
But Brendon Craigie,co-founder of PR agency Tyto, believes that technology overcomes many barriers of isolation caused by home working: “It is now easy to communicate, manage and collaborate remotely thanks to technology. Some of the fastest growing most exciting new businesses are building themselves based on a location-agnostic model.”
Technology solves everything
Craigie believes one of the biggest barriers to UK agencies becoming keener on home working is because of its focus on the South East: “In terms of why the UK is such a laggard, I think it has a lot to do with how geographically centred we are around a few regional hubs, with the South East being the biggest. In other countries like the US, PR agencies know they have to be much more flexible to address more dispersed economics hubs. More flexible location-agnostic models are much more widespread in the US PR industry.”
As far as the idea that working alongside others boosts creativity and productivity, not everyone agrees. Claire Thompson, freelance consultant at Waves PR: “says peace, quiet and work/life balance can genuinely add to productivity.
“There are issues, of course. It only takes one staff member to abuse the privilege for inexperienced or untrained managers to revert to supervisor behaviours and expect 'presenteeism'. Water-cooler moments become harder if people aren't co-located, and creativity can suffer if this is not well managed.
“The correct balance will depend upon where you are in a campaign, the need to collaborate, the consultant's experience and attitudes, and the manager's experience.”
Below are case studies of agencies that are succeeding in providing more flexible ways of working.
Not all PR employers agree that flexible working, including allowing people to work from home, is effective, but happy employees are always good for business, and what makes people happy when they work is different for everyone. So the first step in getting an engaged workforce is asking individuals how they like to work and making sure they are confident enough to tell you the truth, rather than what you want to hear.
Written by Daney Parker+, Editor, PRmoment.com