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Does flexible working work in PR?

It seems common sense that offering staff the option to work in flexible ways will make for a happier  workforce, yet around one fifth of comms agencies do not offer flexible working according to a recent survey conducted by PRmoment with the help of research agency Question and Retain (Q&R)

Is flexible working part of your Agency's DNA?

Sarah Hall, president-elect of CIPR, says that considering the always-on nature of PR, it is surprising that PR business leaders do not always champion flexible ways of working. She describes why offering different ways of working makes sense: “An obvious observation is that flexible working offers an excellent way to retain skilled hires returning from maternity leave. We know the retention of senior female practitioners is a significant issue.

“Research shows that productivity soars when organisations have an engaged and motivated workforce. Whether it’s to look after children, elderly parents or just to enjoy a regular hobby, employees deserve some flex over their hours where this is managed properly.

“It’s also a potential means of curbing presentism, burn out and staff churn.”

Removing pressure points
Further emphasising how important it is to remove stress points for your people, Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, says: ”Anyone working in creative industries, such as PR, knows only too well the challenging nature of the job. We hear from many people who tell us that despite being hugely rewarding, the combination of high workload, tight deadlines, relatively low wages and long hours make for a workplace that’s not always conducive to good mental health.”

Discussing how offering a range of working practices helps both employer and employees in PR, Mamo says: “Many employers offer wellbeing benefits such as confidential support lines and flexible working hours, which allow staff to more closely match their work hours to fit in with their out of work commitments. Organisations that don’t have in place wellbeing initiatives risk losing good staff to a competitor that better looks after their mental health and gives them a work/life balance.”

Flexible working is not always less stressful
But does flexible working always help to prevent burn out? There is a downside to allowing people the option of being able to work where, and when, they can, and that is that it can actually increase their workload, stress levels and make it difficult for them to switch off. As Rassami Hok Ljungberg, director of agency rassami, says: "Flexible hours should come with a health warning and the right to ‘turn off’. In many ways ‘working flexible hours’ is a misnomer for being always available and required to work at all hours. With smartphones constantly in our hands and all the various messaging services nowadays mean that we can always be reached unless the phone and laptop are both turned off. 

“When was the last time you turned your phone off? Exactly my point. Working in a corporate nine-to-five environment might not necessarily mean that one works strictly nine to five, but it does indicate that there is a cut-off point for when one is expected to be available and respond to queries and messages, whereas when working flexibly, this is most often not mentioned in the deal. And it can be a problem. 

“We all need time to ourselves, to tend to our own life, interests and loved ones, as well as to enjoy the quiet peace of bird-song and a sunset. For those working flexibly it means having the discipline to turn off and ignore incoming calls and requests, and the guts to negotiate with clients and/or employers that there are times where one does not respond in a Pavlovian manner to everything. The more we manage to do this, the more it will be part of what is considered normal for flexible working."

However, giving people the option to work in ways that suits them has to be a good thing, even if some people then find it hard to switch off. After all, being unable to switch off is a universal problem these days. In the panel below, agencies describe the flexible options they offer their staff.

How flexible working works for us
Heather Power, associate director at communicatins agency CubanEight: “Benefits such as flexible working are an increasingly strong differentiator in the competitive world of PR and is definitely something that we find candidates look for when they are considering us an agency to work fora. Our approach helps us to attract the strongest candidates and retain them as they progress their careers and their personal circumstances evolve.

“As a working parent myself and main breadwinner in my household, flexible working is an invaluable part of my professional life. It has enabled me to continue to progress my career over 20 years whilst bringing up a family. I was able to work part-time after having my two children, then return to full-time work. Now, at director level, I work from home one day a week, which enables me to deliver effectively as a senior PR professional whilst fitting in family life and being there for school runs when my partner is working away.”

Susan Venables, founder and client services director at agency Highland Marketing: “Being a marketing and communications agency specialising in healthcare and technology, the experience of the staff that we recruit is absolutely key to our success. Although we have offices based in central London and Scotland, allowing a degree of flexibility in our recruitment process is crucial as the individuals that we choose to work for us should be based on their ability, knowledge and skills, not where they live. Because of this, a number of the team are based virtually, meaning that they work remotely from their homes, travelling to and from our offices, customer sites and events as and when required.        

“We believe this approach is important as not only does it provide the business with the opportunity to recruit talent, but at the same time gives individual members of the team a chance to have a rewarding challenging career, whilst still maintaining a good quality of life by choosing where they live and their work surroundings. Companies with restrictive, inflexible recruitment policies, in my mind, are creating barriers to growth and may be missing out on employing good people”.         

Kavita Shergill, head of talent at marketing agency Octopus Group: “A key focus area for retaining our talent is making sure they feel like coming to work is a home from home. A big part of that is ensuring a healthy work/life balance where ultimate flexibility is the norm, rather than an occasional treat or just reserved for management.

“We appreciate personal time doesn’t stop during work hours so we don’t ask staff to take holiday for important appointments such as doctor, hospital, dentist, mortgage advisor, etc. to ensure they don’t have added pressures to look after themselves.

“We’re very flexible in our working practice so if staff need a change of environment or would prefer to work elsewhere, we allow it with minimal approval. 

“From the first interview, we make it clear our hours are 9am to 5.30pm, with no secret brownie points for staying late. Most staff will have left their desks by 6pm and the last person will typically shut off the lights at 6.30pm. Like every agency, sometimes you may need to stay later but at Octopus Group it’s rare, and we're proud of that. Key to this is setting the right targets for the campaigns our people are working on, and setting clients’ expectations properly around scopes of work and timelines.”

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