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Implications of PR Training and Working From Home

I can guarantee one topic that’s come up at your senior staff meeting, your family dinner table and that recent social event you attended. It’s “working from home” and what part it will play in our lives over the next five-to-10 years.

Our own team has now moved back to the office, but with increased flexibility compared to pre-COVID-19 days. There’s more than enough evidence to suggest that some aspect of WFH is here to stay. For example, here are some stats from Ivanti’s 2022 Everywhere Workplace Survey:

  • 71 percent of employees would choose to work from anywhere over being promoted.
  • 64 percent of employees would even take a pay cut to be able to work from anywhere.
  • Only 13 percent of employees would like to permanently return to the office full-time.
  • 42 percent would prefer a hybrid model.

The top benefits of remote work were cited as: time savings due to less commuting (48 percent), better work/life balance (43 percent), flexible work schedule (43 percent) and saving money (40 percent).

That works out to 87 percent of respondents saying, very clearly, that they don’t want to work in an office full-time. Some agencies have responded with 3/2 hybrid schedules. Some are on eight-day-a-month schedules. Others have ditched offices altogether and have no plans to return to a physical office any time soon. As much as it might pain some of us, we have to accept this new reality, rework our team structures to keep A-list employees on the A list and keep doing quality work for our clients.

How does that translate into our industry’s training agenda? There are account executives working today who graduated from college in 2020 and have never set foot in an office. Do those employees have the same skill set as their predecessors? Can they field questions from journalists, present themselves well at a new business pitch and figure out what to do when Cision doesn’t have the correct email address? Long-distance training is a whole new ball game.

The Great Resignation contributes to this problem by forcing agencies to promote people in order to retain them in a difficult labor market. This results in a nightmare loop scenario that’s difficult to get out of once it begins: those who might not otherwise have gotten a bump get one. Maybe they aren’t quite up to snuff in terms of managing people; maybe their client interaction isn’t where you’d like it to be. Now your “promoted-too-soon” account director is in charge of the professional development of a newly-promoted account coordinator and neither of them are particularly skilled writers. You’ve built a reputation on serving clients in a particular way and now your ability to do that is in jeopardy.

So, how do we cope? Our industry has risen to the occasion remarkably well, by all accounts. We’ve amped up our IT. We made sure our servers are secure. We dithered over what kind of video call software to use. Zoom? Teams? Google Meet? We’ve sorted through all the fundamentals of distributed work. Now it’s time for agency leaders to put a real focus on professional development. It’s always been key to a successful—and profitable—team, and now, it’s more important than it’s ever been. It just needs a bit of an update. Here are a few ways to re-introduce professional development into the hybrid workday:

  • Take an hour each week and leave Zoom on—I know—while the team works together on a task. It could be writing or refining a pitch or putting together a press release. The more seasoned members of the team can explain what’s worked for them, and why.
  • Take a walk “together” while having a check-in conversation. This will relax junior staffers and they’ll be more likely to open up and talk about issues and ways to resolve them.
  • Make the most of asynchronous feedback. After all, students have preferred it for quite some time. While a lot of conversations happen in real-time, they don’t have to. Giving team members time to think will almost always result in more thoughtful contributions. For example, take a recent press release or pitch letter and ask junior staffers to approach it from a different angle. Give them a deadline of 24 or 48 hours and then discuss the results on camera.
  • Make sure that team members don’t feel overwhelmed by the combination of WFH and the sheer number of meetings each day. Remind everyone to take the time they need to do their jobs and stay sane. Encourage staffers to use all of your messaging app’s available features. Use the meeting icons; add info to names to indicate lunch, a walk, an appointment and the need to focus on a project. Tailor at-home days the same way that office days were tailored.
  • Gamify! Learning management systems like Moodle can turn chores into, well, something a little more entertaining than chores. Pricing varies but some are quite doable, even for small shops.

Working from home also comes with its own set of parameters. Revisit the apps that you use to ensure that they’re still working for your teams and use those apps to their full capabilities.

Most messaging apps have a stand-up meeting feature. You can set one of these for the entire agency once a week, for teams each day, etc. The time input is minimal and it’s a great way to keep people focused and informed.
No-Zoom Fridays. Have one day each week with a guarantee of no on-camera meetings. Use a creative stand-in instead; have a contest for the most creative/funniest image or background.

Add a #watercooler channel to your messaging app. It will encourage creativity and interaction. If you see that things seem unusually quiet, toss up an oddball question. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Will the DH make a difference in this year’s baseball season? Add other channels that mimic office life; #whatIdidthisweekend, #realityTV, etc.

It’s easy to let staff training fall between the cracks. We tend to amp up marketing efforts in advance of a new business push. COVID and its aftermath mean we have to keep professional development top of mind so that we can continue to serve our clients consistently and well.

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