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What the new normal looks like in PR and how to make ‘hybrid’ working succeed

Following the lockdown, is it all change for PR offices or will everything eventually go back to how it was before? Agency heads discuss how companies are evolving, from having a more flexible workforce with many still working from home, to new ways of creating work that stands out in a changing media landscape.

How to achieve a hybrid office

Offsite and onsite working must be seamless

Tara O’Donnell, UK managing director at PR agency Hotwire: “Everyone is talking about the ‘new normal’ but was ‘normal’ ever optimal? Maybe normal was a problem? Ultimately, whether at home or in the office, all companies still need to compete for talent, ensure employee wellbeing and engagement, and run a profitable business.

“The benefits to working remotely such as flexibility to work from anywhere, no commute and time with family are now fully recognised by all employees. Company benefits from increased productivity to broader access to remote talent, have been cited in several global surveys. Therefore, it is likely that the future of the workplace will be a hybrid of seamless onsite/offsite working.”

Work in bubbles

Natasha Hill, managing director of PR firm Bottle: “We recognised that the way we worked in a matrix structure wasn’t fit for Covid if we were to fully return to the office. So we are moving from matrix working, to a fixed-team structure to allow us to work in bubbles. Each team member in the comms team could have worked with up to 10 account colleagues across four or five accounts. Now we are moving to a linear team where the same individuals work together on the same portfolio, led by their senior editor. This has reduced the cross team working by 66% and is providing a much safer working structure, and providing a lot of assurance to the team. Also following this time at home, we are adopting a three-days-in, two-days-out working model to offer the team a chance to extend the work-life benefits they’ve found during lockdown.”

Stay at home if you can

Jack Buckley, head of PR and content at video agency Sixty Seconds: “PROs the world over are used to working remotely. Our clients are invariably serviced from hundreds of miles away with no drop in quality. Distance from a desk just isn’t a factor.

“Jumping in with both feet and implementing a hybrid work strategy isn’t such a monumental step. As agency specialists, it’s been our de facto strategy all along. Focusing on the main goals of an agency – servicing existing clients and winning new ones – is not dependent on working from one centralised location. If PR specialists have met their KPIs effectively over the last few months, I see no reason to not continue.

“Provided employees meet their requirements, it’s a way to potentially downsize office space, and save money on bills. In effect, it would significantly streamline operations, whilst still holding space for strategy meetings or crunch time.”

James Kaye, co-founder of PR agency Big Ideas Machine: “I think people are still nervous and will want to be based mostly at home for the rest of 2020. There will be a hybrid of time at home and in the office for some agencies, but mostly at home. We've decided to go all-in and become a remote agency. It was a complex decision, and we even wrote a lengthy 'pros and cons' document for the team to discuss and vote on. The primary reason for us to become remote was never a financial one. We're passionate about work-life balance and think it's an attractive draw for recruitment and retention. This is why we're reinvesting the money saved from rent into staff perks.”

Offer choices

Rob Tomkinson, founder of agency Carrington Communications: “The lockdown revealed some good work-life benefits for our team that we're keeping long-term – fewer unnecessary journeys, less time commuting and more choice to work where we can each be most productive. We'll now be meeting safely as a team once a week for a team day of meetings and ideas, and then choosing where we work for the rest of the time.

“Giving your team the choice of where they work for most of the week is a challenge for small agency owners to get their head around. But people will work hard, or not, regardless of where they are.”

Keep it simple

George Coleman, joint CEO of communications agency Current Global: “‘Hybrid working’ should go straight on the PR BS bingo card. It’s just working. Most progressive agencies have offered employees flexibility over where and when they can do their jobs for some time now. The lockdown did lead to some restrictions in terms of physical place and space, but much of these are now tapering off. As such, it’s close to being business as usual.

“Those firms which have only recently discovered the ‘new world of work’, will find that technology and policies only go so far. Culture is by far the biggest predeterminate of success. That takes time to foster – and is perhaps more challenging in an industry, such as ours, which has such an endemic issue with presenteeism.

“My advice is to keep it simple: What do we need to do to create an empowered culture based on trust? Giving your employees the freedom and flexibility to manage their own work style is best thing you can possibly do.”

Move back gently to the office

Suzanne Griffiths, managing director of PR agency Whiteoaks International: “Flexible working has long been a buzzword (and contentious issue too) in PR – but the past few months have demonstrated that the industry is more than capable of making it work. That’s not to say there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, success will depend marrying requirements with the business needs.

“We have made the considered move back into the office, and anticipate that other agencies will follow this same hybrid approach. We reopened our office doors to anybody that wanted to make use of the office space in July alternating weeks in the office and home to restrict our capacity to 50% at any one time. And now we’re encouraging our whole team to return to work in the same vein; striking the balance between reaping the well-versed benefits and efficiencies of working in a traditional office environment while retaining the now established practice of working in virtual teams from our home office.”

How work practices should change

Step forward senior experts

Steve Earl, partner at communications consultancy BOLDT: “For the coming weeks and months, being able to collaborate with clients and in teams is the critical part. As more people go back to offices whilst others stay at home, that hybrid approach will be far more difficult than when we went wholesale into lockdown. Culture and understanding need to be the glue that holds teams together and keeps them focused on what needs to be delivered.

“Over the mid-term, so beyond the end of this year, there will be a need to bring senior expertise forward and apply those brains more directly to the big challenges that lie ahead. Too many agencies and departments saddle their most experienced people with too much bureaucracy, or keep them at arm's length from clients. Senior, experienced clients want counterparts with similar strengths in their agency partners, not to be palmed off with teams that are inexperienced.”

Invest more online

Alex Jones, PR director at agency Motive PR: “We have had to completely change the way we work. We’ve all experienced shared challenges, and it’s not a case of just flicking a switch. Focusing on the positives, the pandemic has forced us to accelerate our innovation. From introducing new technology, new communication channels, improving our efficiency, or trying new PR tactics, we have had to change the way we work.

“This period has also allowed us to complete tasks that will help us to push on post-pandemic. There are going to be rebound sectors, and for consumer brands, their audience is more present online than ever before. Web browsing is up by 70% and social media usage up by 61% since the coronavirus pandemic started. But brands still need to get in front of them, so there lies an opportunity for companies to invest in and grow their online presence.”

Focus on digital

Annette Harada, head of content communications at media production agency Sassy: “We've had to rapidly adopt more flexible working patterns, as well as immediately expand our digital offering for clients. The big brand launches, media days and global premieres have migrated to more live-streamed digital launches, media interviews conducted remotely via video, and a bigger focus on innovative and quality digital content. We needed to work harder to drive engagement in the absence of any physical opportunities that audiences and media normally have to engage with a brand or product.”

Collaborate with others

A recent study from independent agency network Pimento shows the UK creative sector has turned to collaboration in response to the pandemic – with 92% of independent agencies having either collaborated with another agency on a brief during lockdown, or would now be happy to, should the opportunity arise.

The main reasons behind marcomms companies favouring this joined-up approach, it seems, are to fill skills gaps their team doesn’t have (77%), provide the best client experience (44%), aid creativity (33%) and foster a more flexible working culture (17%).

Only 8.5% confessed to preferring to keep all projects in house.

CEO and founder of Pimento, Stephen Knight, says: “Harnessing the era of the specialist is crucial for agencies. Every business has a niche – something it’s really great at – and joining forces with other professionals to deliver clients’ projects, not only helps foster high-quality output, but strengthens the foundations of our industry as a whole.”

This pandemic has shaken up the way PR works, but many of the changes, such as working more flexibly, mean that people are happier, whilst the services that agencies offer are more streamlined, which can only be good for profitability.

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