There’s a new trend at PR industry events I’ve started to dread.
Inevitably, someone from a big organization self-importantly stands up and makes the case for “returning back to the office.”
“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work,” one speaker exalted, as if working from home wasn’t work, or depended on whatever we did with our sleeves. The insinuation was that work-from-homers are not productive and just a big bunch of crybabies for not wanting to return to the biological hot zone more commonly known as “the office.”
When we first launched Bospar, we encountered several doubters about the efficacy of the work-from-home (WFH) model. But we weren’t deterred. After all, we have encountered doubters about the efficacy of cloud computing, big data and even mobile phones. We thought we could jettison the money pit that was the modern office and say goodbye to commuting times, our contribution to greenhouse gasses, turf wars over corner offices and indecent bathrooms with zero privacy.
We took a page from our playbook and became “pound for pound” the most awarded PR agency in North America to show that working from home could not only work, but in many cases it could work better.
Five years after Bospar launched, COVID-19 forced many of us to embrace the WFH model. As we know, major corporations from around the world changed their workplace environments overnight, with the help of products like FaceTime, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and, of course, Zoom.
What companies learned from this massive, forced experiment is that working remotely does in fact work. Productivity gains during the pandemic were well-documented, and workers came to enjoy the flexibility and autonomy that remote work provides. In fact, some 98% of workers want to work remote at least some of the time, and processes like interviews have shifted in large majority (93%) to remote, according to McKinsey.
Of course, certain jobs required being in a physical workplace during the pandemic. You can’t change the brake pads on a Buick or hammer nails into a house via video conference. But there sure are a lot of things that you CAN do remotely. And even those pandemic-era jobs that required office work were heavily adapted to social-distancing requirements, and we somehow adapted and made it work. Think of remote work use cases like telemedicine, which has shown conclusively that people don’t need to drive to a doctor’s office to tell someone that they need more allergy medicine, for example.
Commentary from Deloitte reflects the positives around WFH, stating “The flexible working environment, that most employees experienced during COVID-19, has changed our understanding of work-life balance. Working from home has allowed employees to do their work whilst also attending to personal needs (e.g. taking care of children, elderly and pets and errands) simultaneously. This has served as a reminder to managers that there are a number of non-work related factors that can affect an employee’s mindset and therefore their engagement.”
Here Come the Anti-WFH Crusaders
Yet with all of this success, there have been some recent and well-publicized “return to office” (RTO) mandates from large companies, resulting in lots of broad generalizations.
Internet Brands, the parent company of WebMD, recently released a video, putting its own spin on getting employees to RTO. The internal video features executives encouraging employees that teams work better when everyone is together and ends with employees dancing, expressing their excitement about RTO. Despite the video’s intent, it didn’t go over well with the public — so much so Internet Brands had to update the video to address the criticism!
National Public Radio led with “The evidence on remote work is changing.” Yet its own reporting concedes that the data cited was about police dispatchers in Manchester in the United Kingdom. Talk about a ridiculously small sample of a highly specialized skillset! What’s more, the authors of the same study suggest that hybrid work is the real path forward, not 100% in-office. Similarly, reporting from CNBC about Meta’s much-hyped RTO policy includes a significant asterisk in the form of a comment from Mark Zuckerberg about the need for junior engineers to be in the office.
Measurement of productivity and engagement is tricky at best, and anyone viewing the situation with just the slightest bit of nuance can tell that WFH may not work for everyone, all the time.
Real Benefits and Common Sense
Back here in the real world, we actually have some direct, personal experience with this issue. Remote work benefits – particularly for PR – far outweigh any negatives, while enabling me and my leadership team to create a more robust, positive and inclusive culture.
I spelled much of this out during a recent interview with journalist Jane King, for her “Innovators” program. Since our first day back in 2015, Bospar has been a WFH company, and our staff is more dedicated to their work. The awards we’ve won have shown it – including just being named Best Midsize PR Agency by PR News.
We have different people in different parts of the world, which helps us always “be on,” while avoiding time-wasting commutes. This is especially helpful to young families, and even new pet parents, because they can be there for their loved ones (and pets).
Commuting is among Americans’ least favorite things to do – and many workers are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a shorter commute. In addition to keeping cars off the road, a typical WFH employee saves about $6,000 per year in transportation-related costs.
Other positive downstream impacts of remote work include a reinvention of our cities, as office space transforms into housing. This change may not be easy, as cities like San Francisco and New York embrace a greener and more fiscally responsible mixed-use real estate model, but it’s overdue given the nationwide housing shortage. Even cities like Dallas (my hometown) are getting in on the game by converting office space to residences. This and other forms of creative re-use will have beneficial effects on the environment.
Companies that offer remote and teleworking options can also achieve competitive advantage. They can attract the smartest, best and most diverse workers in the market, while saving on office rent. This approach enables companies like mine to support activities that advance our culture and provide our people with the best tools to do the job. More often than not, creative people need their own space to think, and giving workers some privacy helps us cultivate great ideas.
Remote work also enhances self-esteem and autonomy. Control over one’s workday and life is more important than physical location, and Deloitte suggests that well-being comes from empowering leadership behaviors, “design of work” and ways of working – not from physical location or pizza parties in the conference room. While pizza is great, allowing people to live where they want (or can afford) is even better!
In the end, I am not contesting the occasional need for actual, in-person work. Certain professions absolutely do need to be on-site. Importantly, I believe that people should have choices, and blanket statements about RTO really don’t add to a constructive dialog.
Companies like mine are all about advancing technology, and using the latest tools to bridge the miles between people, which is the next phase of WFH. New tech like Apple’s augmented reality products will enable eye-to-eye communication between people in a virtual space, making for even more engaging remote teamwork.
All of these developments continue to excite me about the future of remote work and collaboration. I’m personally thankful about working remotely. And for communications and PR pros, operating as a global “digital nomad” or just working from your house in the city or the ‘burbs, will become an even richer experience as time marches on. Ultimately, remote and hybrid approaches will make the workplace a more green, productive and inclusive environment for all.