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The long-term impact of lockdowns on PR office culture

For an industry that is all about communicating, the move to remote working is not ideal as it is harder to properly interact with people when you only see them remotely. We asked PRs how the lockdowns have impacted their office culture now and the likely long-term effects. Themes related to this issue were discussed in a recent "We're all busy but we're not happy" PRmomoment Podcast.

PR offices during lockdowns  

Business as unusual
Poppy Lewis, creative director at agency Aduro Communications: “I don’t think there’s a chance things will be the ‘same again’ or ‘back to normal’. We are living in the new normal and this is a huge opportunity for companies to adapt and pivot to serve their employees in a way that is continually inspiring whilst working from home. We’ve coined the phrase ‘Business As Unusual’ as being one to live and work by, indicating that we can swiftly adapt to changing environments and circumstances now more than ever. 

“Whilst it’s been a difficult time for many, and we can’t deny that, there have been a number of benefits to the new normal that can’t be ignored, and also can’t be used as an excuse to sacrifice a company’s culture. We have welcomed two new junior staff members to the team in the last six months and can attribute the success and ease of this transition to focusing on a great induction and onboarding process; team activities such as bake offs, quizzes and catch-up drinks; and maintaining lots of connection points to ensure they feel part of the team. Many and varied team activities in particular have served as a wonderful tool to boost morale and maintain mental health, importantly for those who may have less support than others at this time.”

Better work-life balance
Nick Braund, founder of Words + Pixels PR agency: “We launched in January 2020 as a remote-first consultancy. We took some co-working space, but predominantly used the space of our clients as a way to collaborate with them better, as well as minimising costs as a start up.

“Having grown significantly in the past year, we’re looking forward to a blended approach where our extended team all get together on a weekly basis, but are provided with the flexibility to remain working from a location that suits them best.

“Undoubtedly, being forced apart physically has created challenges, especially for those with less experience as not being together reduced the opportunity to learn through osmosis. However, we all must view this as an opportunity to create a better work-life balance for all and create ways to ensure that training and support, both with work and also on a personal level, remain constant regardless of locations.”

Our culture has remained strong
Sarah Moloney, managing director at brand strategy and PR agency KWT Global (London): “Whilst working environments have changed significantly, I’d like to think culture has remained a strong focus for every agency leader. There will be agencies like us that are immensely proud of how people have adapted to new ways of working and supported one another remotely ‘on screen’. If you had a strong culture pre-pandemic and have actively committed to keeping it solid virtually, then you’ll find that your culture has evolved positively.

“Whilst quizzes, coffee mornings and Friday drinks keep people connected, there are younger people that find working remotely challenging. However, with good collaboration and communication in place, everyone has the chance to excel. I’m confident that the autonomy and flexibility we have encouraged has been helpful in striking a positive work-life balance for all. Although we look forward to returning to the office, we will carefully navigate the transition, because much has been learnt from our new ways of working.”

We miss the office
Becki Wiper, co-founder of agency PR and digital marketing agency Pretzel Group: “Whilst most agencies have gone fully remote, some with little plans to ever return to an office, we really miss being in a physical building. Teams, Zoom and daily updates have kept us connected and on task, but we’re all longing for a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face week in work. I think it’s the energy I miss from having everyone in one room, getting creative and delivering clear results – it's something that’s hard, but not impossible, to replicate through laptop screens.

“We’ve onboarded two new members of the team whilst being in and out of the office for the past few months and they’ve still managed to settle in well and hit the ground running, it's just about having the right support in place. When we return to the office, we’ll have flexible working in place to keep everyone safe, but we’re very much about running our agency from an actual bricks and mortar office. We envisage returning as soon as the government allow us to – I miss our Starbucks runs!”  

It is harder to monitor mental health
Holly Legg, associate director at PR agency Alfred: “We will return to the office when we can, but there is no doubt that things have changed. Pre-Covid, we had a flexible working policy, this gave us a strong work-life balance. Whilst at first working from home every day offered greater freedom, there have been challenges.

“Team coaching has been impacted; it is much harder to give guidance on day-to-day situations that you can’t now see. This affects all levels, those younger coming into the business, or working up the ladder, and those who have been in the team for years. When in the office you can see if someone is struggling, at home it’s harder to monitor your team’s mental health and spot sooner if there is a problem.

“There are benefits to being at home which we want passionately to keep, from having balance, time to take up new hobbies, be with family, and less commuting time. We know that sitting behind a Zoom screen can’t replace in person human connection. From the daily chat, to interactive brainstorms, and team socials, we need these activities in order to thrive. It is also important to remember, that for some, the office can be a place of refuge from home, it’s another place to go. To foster a positive culture, we need to have both, a balance of time at home and in the office, and our return to the workplace will reflect both. “

Case study  

How one agency has coped through lockdowns and its future plans
Lucy Mart, communications director at marketing agency PrettyGreen, describes the effects of the pandemic on office culture.

The office is still open
“We have followed government guidelines throughout the pandemic and advised all of our employees to work from home where possible. The building where our office is based has remained open and so we made the decision early on to make our office Covid-safe (daily cleaning, clean-desk policy, separate entrance and exit and deep safety clean) as many of our team who live in central London walk to the office and prefer working in this environment to being at home. 

Working practices are different
“I think everyone agrees the Covid pandemic will change the way we work forever. PR agencies were probably slightly ahead of the curve in terms of adopting flexible working practices, however, as a client servicing industry we’ve often found that we’ve had to align with client ways of working. For example, pre-Covid it wasn’t unusual to spend a large chunk of the day travelling to a client’s office for a meeting, but the playing field is more level now that client businesses are also reviewing their own ways of working. In the future, I think we’ll see greater flexibility and less mandatory in person attendance. Offices will exist but they’ll be more adaptable for collaborating and working sessions. The days of rows and rows of desks are in the past. 

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to continue recruiting over the past year and so adapting our onboarding processes to ensure that new team members are fully immersed into our agency culture even when they haven’t stepped foot into our office or met anyone face to face is another way that we’ve had to pivot. 

Our people come first
“We’ve always said that our agency is only as good as its people so it just means that more than ever we’ve become a people-focused agency. Everything we do is driven by whether it will have a beneficial impact on our employees or not – if it doesn’t then we don’t do it. 

“Remote working is affecting all levels of employees in many different ways as everyone has faced challenges depending on personal circumstances. On-the-job learning, creativity, socialising, mental wellbeing (the list can go on) are things we’ve always focused, but we’re finding that we’re continually reviewing and learning as the restrictions continue.  

Working from anywhere
“We have adopted WFA (work from anywhere) which means that we’ve been able to recruit people from far and wide in the past six months and now have an account executive based in Birmingham, another in Eastbourne and an account director based in Rome, which is just great. We’ve also seen existing team members relocate out of London over the past six months to the North West and East. I hope a legacy of lockdown will see the PR industry become more open-minded about their recruitment processes to enable us to continue driving greater diversity and inclusivity.“

PR offices after lockdowns

There will be more WFH
Laura Westmacott, founder and managing director of agency Mercury Communications: “We are playing it by ear as to when we will all be back in the office – in lockdown number three I think we all feel the same, as communications specialists we like collaborating with other people face-to-face, therefore we cannot wait to escape the confines of our homes.

“I think when we come out of this lockdown, our team will choose to come back to the office soonest, but I expect there will be some sensitive discretion involved on both sides. Plus, I anticipate that we will start offering one day per week (or fortnight) WFH as we expect staff will come to expect this and we know it provides a healthy balance.

“Our team has been excellent at working from home, but our overarching concern is that we are spending an inordinate amount of time on Zoom and Teams calls (both with external clients and on internal matters).

“Although this technology is helpful, we are finding it is now time-draining and starting to become the enemy of execution and real work. Nothing can replace in-person interaction, water-cooler moments, good office culture, and nurturing younger team members.

“Let’s reclaim a time when we are off conference calls to imagine, create, and inspire – and can you picture what we could achieve if we gathered together for team brainstorms once again?”

The office as we know it is dead
John Quinton-Barber, founder and CEO of integrated agency Social: “Our colleagues have said that they want to continue to work from home for three days a week and then go to the office for two. But the office as we knew it is dead. The future is a ‘clubhouse’. And that’s what we are creating. A place where our colleagues can meet, collaborate and socialise. A space to drop in for team meetings and one-to-one catch ups. But not the place for head-down work, which can be done at home.

“We have had 12 new starters join Social in lockdown, including some in the their first or second job. And whilst they have all done brilliantly in the remote world, it’s important for them that we create this physical space to enable them to fully onboard into our culture and learn from our more experienced colleagues.

“We are itching to move into our clubhouse. And as soon as the restrictions are lifted and it’s safe to do so – we are in!”  

Some remote working is key
Beck Dawson, communications associate at marketing and communications consultancy Hard Numbers: “As Hard Numbers was launched during the pandemic, we’ve always worked from home and there have been many positives for wellbeing, costs and productivity. Therefore, when we’re eventually allowed to return to offices, we plan to still work remotely one or two days per week to get the benefits of both. “Time gained from not commuting, when dedicated to our hobbies, loved ones and health, allows us to feel refreshed and ready to do our best work, without relying on the weekend break. On the other hand, sharing an office space is crucial for company culture, skill sharing and socialising. “There’s no denying that starting a new industry from home is tough. Whilst Hard Numbers adapted quickly to deliver a great virtual onboarding experience, it’s difficult to replace the non-verbal education graduates receive just through being in a professional office environment, so I think PR office culture is a long way from extinction."

PR is a resilient industry, so it is not surprising it has risen so well to the challenge of having more people working from home. Many PRs are keen to get back to the office, and it will be interesting to see if the future ‘new normal’ is very different from the ‘old normal’.

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