This past February, the UK telecommunications company O2 asked almost 3,000 employees at one of its offices to work from home for the day. The results raise eyebrows: Employees saved almost $15,000 in commuting costs, got 1,000 extra hours of sleep, were more productive (36% of them claimed as much), and spent more quality time with family members (according to 14% of them).
Nontraditional working arrangements are also catching fire on this side of the Atlantic. Forrester reports that 34 million Americans telecommute at least sometimes, a number that should reach 63 million, or 43% of the workforce, by 2016. What does this mean for professional services organizations such as public relations firms? With more and more firms rendering their offices at least in part virtual, what best practices can ensure that clients, employees, and managers alike remain happy?
This is a topic that generates a lot of passion whenever we get agency executives together to talk about talent and /or work-life balance. According to industry executives and consultants we consulted for this post, firms can make a strong case indeed for allowing more employees to work outside the brick-and-mortar office. Cynthia Rude, Chief Operating Officer at Citizen Paine, relates that her firm allows all employees to work one day from home if they like and also to start and top their workdays at the agency in flexible ways. As her agency has found, “pitching, writing, and social engagement/community management tasks can be completed from various locations. There is a personal/humanistic benefit for employees when they feel that they have control of their workday and where it’s done. It can be a stress reducer on many levels, especially when employees have the option to program normal appointments around their workday from home or reduce a long commute.”
Because most employees appreciate telecommuting (a recent Canadian survey found that 94% of respondents were “interested” in telecommuting), virtual offices assist firms in retaining sought-after employees. Greentarget founding partner John Corey reports that his firm offers “flexible working environments to select employees on an individualized basis to ensure that we are attracting and retaining fabulous talent, regardless of where they sit.” The policy allows Greentarget to attract talent that “otherwise might not be attainable via the traditional agency work model.” In addition, the rest of the organization receives a message that the firm cares about work-like balance. “If positioned properly, this creates a sense of loyalty and goodwill that permeates the entire organization.”
Some firms are already deep into the virtual office. For those just beginning the journey, what are the best ways to proceed? First and foremost, be sure to trust your team members. Ken Jacobs, Principal at Jacobs Communications Consulting, argues that “if you don’t trust team members, if you assume they’re not working at capacity when working from home, if you anticipate that allowing your team to go more virtual won’t work, you doom the initiative to failure.” Rude agrees, arguing that, “agencies need to trust that employees will strive to make it work” and not “put all kinds of rules and regulations that hamper the original vision of flexibility.” And in fact, evidence suggests that employees working remotely do work more efficiently. Corey reports seeing “immense productivity” since employees working remotely experience “fewer interruptions” in their work flow.
Other suggestions for making virtual offices work include:
- Seek input from team members when establishing rules about telecommuting, and communicate these rules clearly.
- Realize that telecommuting isn’t always that answer; as Jacobs observes, “some agency functions, like idea-generating sessions, require the chemistry and energy of a group working together, so are best done face-to-face.”
- Make sure that team members working remotely make the most of their time when they are in the office to build relationships.
- Make sure that senior leaders operating remotely have the skills necessary to manage others from afar, including delegation and organizational skills.
- Invest in technology infrastructure, such as laptops and data security, to enable virtual offices to really work.
Done right, virtual offices can help public relations firms compete even more effectively and profitably in the 21st century. If your firm has any wisdom to share, please drop us a line in the comments section!