PR Week: We found a hybrid work solution. Don’t do what we did

Written by

Erik Smith

Founding Partner & CEO

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Three years ago, the workplace changed forever. Some say the pandemic hastened inevitable trends. Others hoped it was a momentary adjustment followed by a return to the old normal. Either way, PR and advertising agencies have been forced to adjust to the evolving rules of the workplace and remote work.

Our team did an extraordinary job adjusting to fully remote work at the onset of the pandemic, but when it came time to plan a transition out of the pandemic, we looked very different. Despite a retention rate of 70% between 2019 and 2022, 51% revenue growth during that period meant that half of our employees were new hires working remotely. Not only had those new employees never experienced our unique office-based culture, but 20% of our team was made up of young people who had never worked in a professional office setting before the pandemic and had no frame of reference for the way things “used to be.”  

We returned to the office almost a year ago with a new employee-centric hybrid work policy in place. While I’m proud of the successful model we developed, don’t do what we did. Our solution won’t work for you. Every agency must follow its own path but I’m confident the lessons we learned can help your practice successfully adjust to the modern workplace. 

Accept reality

First, acknowledge that the relationship between employees and the workplace in our industry has changed forever. If you are trying to engineer a return to 2019, it won’t work. There is no going back, only going forward.

Avoid the herd

It’s tempting to simply copy your competitors’ remote work practices to remain competitive. But if you have created a strong culture that retains employees and attracts talent, you did that by going your own way and not being a carbon copy of your competitor. The same is true in defining the new workplace for your organization. 

Ignore demographics

The simplest way to make decisions about the new workplace would be to make assumptions about broad groups, such as “employees in their 20s” like it one way while “employees in their 50s” like something else. In truth, the remote work decisions each member of your team makes are based on personal concerns such as commute, family responsibilities and quality of home workspace, to name just a few. The key to having a successful hybrid workplace is understanding that every individual can’t be grouped into a demographic class and policies need to be customizable for the individual.

Know why you’re in the office

After almost two years of working from home, the old workplace and habits are a distant memory. Coworkers will return to a sparsely filled office with colleagues still dialed into Zoom instead of each other. Being in the office without a clear purpose will make people wonder “why am I here?” Create face-to-face meetings, mentor sessions, professional development and social opportunities so that time in the office is well spent and not just an opportunity to do remote work from a different desk.

Always be listening

If you’ve built a strong culture, you know that the key is constant dialogue with your team. We doubled down on internal communication during the pandemic by using public opinion research tools. In our client work, we always want to start with smart research to understand the landscape and refresh it during the project to ensure we’re on the right track. Making major decisions affecting your business shouldn’t be any different. Our internal polling group, Insight, used its public opinion research tools to engage colleagues and ensure we designed an approach that was thoughtful, responsive to their needs and durable over time.

The only constant in life is change

Your new policies must be clear and understandable, but ultimately nimble. If something doesn’t work, change it. If policies can be improved, update them. As we start a new year, we have adjusted our policies based on feedback from our team. We’ve learned that the team will understand if your first or second attempt isn’t perfect and that they will appreciate efforts to refine and redesign policies to better suit their goals and needs.

We used these lessons to find the right balance

Our culture is evolving and we’ve created a vibrant workplace balanced with the opportunity to work remotely. We’ve even signed a new lease to expand our office footprint by 40% with the comfort of knowing we’ve got a plan in place to ensure our colleagues continue to get value out of sharing space with each other.  

Erik Smith is founding partner and CEO of Seven Letter.