"Challenge and adversity are meant to help you know who you are. Storms hit your weakness but unlock your true strength."
- Roy T. Bennett, Author, The Light in the Heart
One fall day, I took the train to Chicago to meet a good friend who served as an executive leader with a prominent public relations firm. After a short walk from the station, I arrived at their new offices in a nearby high-rise. The elevator quickly whisked me to their main floor, and when I walked into the lobby, I noticed how empty it was. Eerily, it reminded me of the mise en scène from the epic Citizen Kane, where a vacuous Susan Alexander complains to Kane of boredom, their empty words echoing off Xanadu’s cavernous walls.
My friend came to escort me to his office. Beyond the lobby, I saw that the inner hallways and offices, too, were empty – a stark contrast to the hundreds of employees I would have encountered in this very agency in earlier days.
As if on cue, my friend said, “I guess you’ve noticed no one is here.” I nodded and asked if people were still working from home, two years on from the pandemic. “They’re at home on Mondays and Fridays. Tuesday through Thursday, they’re expected to work here, at a client location, or from their home office.”
Facts and Figures
According to a survey by Global Workplace Analytics in 2021, approximately 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce was working remotely multiple days a week. PRWeek's 2021 Agency Business Report highlighted that many PR agencies adopted flexible work arrangements, allowing employees to work remotely part of the time.
How is it possible, I wondered, that arguably the largest public relations firm in the world can thrive when its people seldom come into the office to collaborate, co-create, and celebrate who they are as an agency brand?
A CCO of a major client organization asked the same question after a visit to another global agency in New York. “How are they making money? Are they making money?” he wondered.
An emerging leader with a New York boutique agency believes his high-flying firm has foundered post-pandemic. “I think we’re having real financial problems but it’s hard to know how bad it is because we’re not meeting with the senior leaders.” Entitled colleagues at this agency have openly fought to maintain work-from-home as their right rather than a privilege. Executives are now wrestling with staff professionals to regain a sense of equilibrium.
Research from Gallup shows that remote workers often face challenges related to engagement. In 2021, only 31 percent of U.S. remote workers were engaged in their work, compared to 37 percent of on-site workers.
Another friend working in-house in Chicago was downsized by his private equity employer. The bloodletting resulted in the elimination of hundreds employed in U.S. offices.
In the throes of the post-pandemic era, this colleague had worried for months about the potential for a reduction in force, spurring him to return to the office while others languished elsewhere. Most every day, however, he was the only person in the office and found it demoralizing to join Zoom calls from that location with Chicago and California colleagues working from their homes.
“You join a company to learn, to grow, and to interact with leaders,” he said. “How can you progress in your job when no leaders are around; no one to mentor and guide you?”
Impact on Company Culture
An executive leader at another global firm extolled the benefits of WFH during COVID-19: “There was no commuting time, so our people were able to start work earlier, work later, and clock more billable hours. We also found it easier to utilize fewer people on more accounts because clients had no way of knowing who might be working on their account.”
In the end, the firm has paid a heavy price for WFH: The absence of in-person interaction has deeply affected cultural practices. Employees speak of missed team-building events, the lack of face-to-face celebrations, and the challenges in maintaining a sense of camaraderie. Their storied agency culture has diminished as people are unavailable to honor teams and individuals delivering exceptional work, or to celebrate the agency’s values and beliefs, or to brainstorm and ideate together, or to simply be with the men and women who help affirm who they are as professionals.
Hybrid Work: Balancing Benefits and Costs
A significant challenge faced by many agencies during the pandemic and in its aftermath has been the burden of their real estate holdings. As remote work became more prevalent, office spaces were underutilized or largely vacant. Organizations faced major financial challenges, lease agreement constraints, and the need to adapt their real estate strategies to align with evolving work patterns. A survey by PwC found that 87 percent of executives anticipated a shift to remote work, with many planning to reduce their office footprint.
We know that certain agencies have ditched pricey, expansive offices in favor of more basic space near transportation centers (train stations or airports), in industrial parks or in coworking space (WeWork being a well-known example). Or they’ve downsized: One specialty agency with 16 office locations in 2021 today has nine.
What have we learned about the effects of remote work on employee satisfaction and company culture? Studies show the following:
The data points provide insights into the varied experiences and perceptions of the impact of remote work on employee satisfaction, company culture, collaboration, and innovation. These effects may certainly differ from one organization to another and may change over time as companies adapt to new work arrangements.
Where do we go from here?
Few are willing to return to long commutes into New York City or Chicago or Boston, for example, when they can begin work at home at 7 am, log onto Zoom calls from there and work productively for hours. “Dude, why do I want to get on the train and fight my way into Manhattan when I can get coffee here and get to work right away, when I want to work?” asked a close colleague.
Fewer still are willing to sacrifice the work-life balance they’ve now created for themselves. “Now that we’ve opened the door to working from home, you can’t go back,” said another colleague.
How might the landscape continue to evolve, and what challenges or opportunities might arise?
Storms like the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately hit our weaknesses, but they can unlock our true strengths. High on the list must be how we lead and manage others.
It’s essential that we learn new management skills for directing and guiding remote teams. The following list, gathered from our conversations with front-line leaders, captures the core skills and behaviors necessary for effective remote team leadership.
Setting the Example
In September, an aerospace CEO was roasted in major publications for his frequent travel and reported absence from the headquarters office. While the company’s governmental affairs team had largely returned to work in Arlington, Va., its head of communications was reportedly working at his home in Orlando when not traveling to visit distant colleagues on the corporate jet.
During the pandemic, I had the privilege of meeting with and interviewing hundreds of front-line managers and hourly workers in food plants across North America. While COVID-19 posed a constant threat, these dedicated individuals continued working tirelessly, ensuring the uninterrupted production of essential goods. In stark contrast, their colleagues in office roles transitioned to remote work, highlighting the resilience of those who kept our supply chains running.
As leaders, we must recognize the influence we can have as role models for our teams. In times of change, employees look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance. When leaders confidently adopt and advocate for the hybrid model, it can instill confidence in the team that this approach can work effectively.
“We have to show the way,” said my former executive colleague in Chicago. “How can we expect colleagues to come back into the office when we’re not there ourselves?”
In summary, the pandemic has reshaped the way organizations work, with remote and hybrid work becoming more prevalent. The key lessons learned emphasize the importance of adaptability, effective leadership, and the need to balance the benefits and challenges of new work models. Leaders must play a crucial role in modeling and guiding their teams through these changes, fostering resilience and growth along the way.
An old African proverb tells us, "Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors." Adversity like the public relations profession has faced in recent years, is essential for the growth of current and emerging leaders. For it's through challenges that we acquire valuable skills and wisdom that will indeed unlock true strength.