The pros and cons of flexible working in PR

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.

Case studies 

How flexible working works for us

Lee Cullen, director at PR agency No Brainer: “We’re strong advocates of flexible working arrangements and allow our staff to work from home or on the go as and when they need to.

“We invested very early on in MacBooks for the agency so that everyone in our team can work from any location – whether that’s within a client’s office alongside their team, on a train, in a coffee shop or at home on the dining room table. We’re a fast-growing agency juggling multiple priorities, but we’ve found that giving staff the opportunity to work from home or a location of their choice can really increase productivity across the business.

“There’s also the benefit of team morale and job satisfaction – we sit down regularly with our team to listen to their thoughts and ideas for the future of the business, and the feedback we often get is that the opportunity to work from home is a benefit they really value. As a service-based business, we think it’s essential that we create a workplace culture that means our staff want to stay with us for the long-term and the region’s top talent want to join us, and there’s no doubt that flexible working has a big part to play in that.”

Paul Davies, managing director at PR agency Firstlight: “Our view is simple and it all starts with trust.  We’ve hired talented and committed people and built a culture which empowers people to make the right choices to help them contribute to their clients and the agency. We know that people’s circumstances change and we want to find creative ways to help them work in a way that works for them and we always approach any request with a ‘how can we make this succeed?’ philosophy.

“Technology has made this infinitely easier than even five years ago, but the organisation has to have a culture of flexibility in its DNA.

“We have people who work in the office two days a week and from home on the South Coast for three. We like everyone to have a presence in the office so four years ago we bought a Double Robot – ‘Jenkins Steel’. People can log on from anywhere and drive around and interact in a surprisingly lifelike way. It helps to connect people with the office in a way that a speakerphone could never manage.

“And anyway, we expect people to work flexibly for us – out of hours, on call for clients facing a crisis – it’s only fair that we keep our end of the bargain.”

Gavin Loader, managing director of PR agency Mantis: “Mantis was conceived on the principles of flexible working and career progression. We are a ten-strong team – 50% deliver part-time hours; eight of us are parents and we make allowances for school drop offs, pick-up times, and school holidays.

“We have an office in Paddington, but largely work from home, coffee shops or, actually, anywhere we’re happy, engaged and productive. We currently live in 10 UK counties and have worked through over 20 home moves. One of the team worked throughout a five-week family road-trip around France and Spain last year.

“We have consistently chosen continued flexibility for our team over all other considerations, including client fit, office location, the types of benefits we offer, and most importantly, what we commit ourselves to. We actively recruit specialists who have a need to combine their focus on their families or other passions that require flexibility. Our staff retention rate is 100% for the last three years.

“Our clients see nothing but benefits from our ability to mobilise, listen, create and achieve, fast and flawlessly, from wherever we happen to be. Our team is 100% energised and focused on work, because Mantis affords them the ability to not have to put themselves, their wellbeing, or their families last. Our oldest client has been with us since our inception.“

Richard Stone, managing director of Stone Junction: “At Stone Junction we don’t work from home because we have a strong team-oriented ethic. We work in small teams of up to four people, each team being dedicated to servicing a different group of clients.

“We value our company culture and this is reliant on each of our vibrant, enthusiastic individuals coming to the office every day and collaborating with each other.

“We do, however, operate a flexible working policy that means staff can complete their contracted working hours by starting at any time after 7am and finishing at any time after 4pm. This gives them the opportunity to fit work around their social lives, hobbies and other commitments.

“Stone Junction has a number of international clients in different time zones to GMT. So flexible working also helps us to service these clients by contacting them at suitable times.

“Giving staff flexible working hours shows them that they’re trusted and in control of their own working day. This increases staff engagement, productivity and motivation.”

Kate Logan, account director at agency Active PR: “As a new mum, the benefits of working from home for me cannot be overstated. I’ve actually worked for the same north-west agency, Active PR, for the past 10 years and over that time have enjoyed a balance of being able to work both remotely and in an office. Whilst the office is great for bouncing ideas around and the social aspect of work, I find I’m able to get so much more done at home, where I can really tune out from any distractions and focus.

“I recently returned to work three days a week after having my daughter. Having worked full-time for so long there’s always the temptation to try to squeeze in extra hours so by working at home and avoiding the daily commute, I’m able to spend more time at my desk rather than stuck in a car or on the train.

“Aside from client meetings my company allows me to work from home every day. With a small experienced team, it’s an approach that works for us. We all meet regularly for brainstorming sessions and group project work and make the time to arrange monthly social occasions so we still have the camaraderie and creativity of working together.”

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.

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