Mark: Well, Tina, now that most of the United States is free to go unmasked, what are the implications for public relations?
Tina: It will be interesting to see how companies handle the ever-changing guidelines from federal, state, and local agencies. And matters get extra complicated if you operate globally. Certainly, people will return to more conventional workplace settings, but others won’t as they shift permanently to work-from-home. Communicators will begin traveling more regularly for client meetings, new business pitches and the like, but I think we will see some adjustments to business travel. Nothing really beats face-to-face meetings and I hope that returns.
Mark: I think some people—like me—have adjusted so well to working from home that expectations for the office and in-person meetings have changed forever. Now that everyone is comfortable with virtual meetings, they are less likely to meet in-person. In my opinion, expectations for travel—especially when it involves billable time and reimbursable costs—will take a long time to return, if ever! Since agency clients are reluctant to travel, I think they’re less likely to require travel from agencies…what’s good for the goose and all.
Tina: The return to work will require a lot, especially from internal communicators, even around the most basic aspects: Does the organization require masks? Are vaccinations necessary? If vaccinations are strongly encouraged, but acceptance is low, how do you nudge the workforce toward vaccinations?
How do you ensure equity among employees when some show up to the office while others work from home? Are we creating two classes of workers?
Google is an example of a company reinventing their office space to account for this. In a recent Institute for Public Relations post, psychologist Dr. Coni Judge discussed how organizations are employing behavioral science strategies to help promote emotional resilience. I think these big picture questions about the overall impact on employees and society will be the most important to answer.
Mark: I agree. Companies must be careful and thoughtful for the general benefit of humankind but also to succeed in the marketplace. For example, the increased competition for top talent means companies who offer flexibility will succeed over their more rigid counterparts. Not only will organizations fail to attract talent but they will also fail to retain the talent they value most.
Research shows people want flexibility in the workplace but not for the reasons executives may assume. Employees want the option to work from home as well as work in the office, but they are motivated more by seeing friends at work than they are about seeing their bosses.
In January 2021, I joined Cognito, a research-based communications firm. While I knew two of my new colleagues, we hadn’t seen one another for at least 10 years and I’d never met the others in-person. That changed two weeks ago when we held an executive offsite in New York. I flew on a plane! I actually savored the food in the Delta lounge! I got an upgrade! I stayed in a hotel where I also got an upgrade!
Two years ago, this was the routine slog of business but now it’s an event. It was wonderful to meet everyone and refreshing to eat together at a New York restaurant. I felt like I’d taken a “zest for life” pill. I am certain others will feel the same way.
For me, the trepidation of travel transformed to excitement. I traveled because I was asked but I wonder if the fun I describe will provide sufficient motivation to pursue meetings when travel is required.
Tina, this may seem like a strange question but is there anything you’ll miss about “isolating?”
Tina: A restaurant? Sounds heavenly! I will definitely miss spending so much time with the family. My kids were home from school for more than a year and I wasn’t traveling. So there’s that. Mark, how has the work-from-home experience been for you?
Mark: Last February, when early indications emerged that COVID-19 would be a very serious epidemic, I read an essay about the “silver lining” of COVID-19 . In light of the death, illness and fear, it seemed like the most tone-deaf writing I’d ever seen. This was before vaccines and after I was hospitalized in the COVID-19 ward (turned out to be pneumonia. Even though both’ll kill you, imagine wishing for a pneumonia diagnosis—at least I could be treated!) In hindsight, and with respect to all the COVID-19 suffering that still exists in the world, I came to appreciate one aspect of the pandemic: I’ve grown to love how working from home “humanized” business.
In the past, a crying baby or a barking dog felt like a crisis during an at-home meeting. Now, we invite one another into our homes, unmade beds and all: The cat walks across the keyboard. The kids are screaming in the next room (or even in the same room). People take meetings in T-shirts—and everyone’s cool with it.
So what if every meeting includes a “you’re on mute” callout! What’s a meeting without technical difficulties these days! It simply signals that this meeting is just like any other Zoom meeting.
One McKinsey research study found companies became so adept at digitizing their activities—20 to 25 times faster than they did previously—that new efficiencies will favor our recovery now and will enable us to operate more successfully in the future. So, like so many challenging times, this one will yield unexpected benefits after all.
Personally, I’ve become more productive as a result of working from home. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of efficiency (I don’t think it is), and I can’t decide whether it’s good or bad for me, but I routinely work many more hours now than before. My office is just upstairs so I find myself working over breakfast and then again after dinner. This may not apply to everyone or every company, but organizations who can manage time, talent and energy remotely are 40% more productive than the rest, according to a Harvard Business Review article.
Tina: That is true! I gave my employees some mental health breaks and more flexibility; we will continue to offer this moving forward. You want people to love where they work, and employers have never been so focused on employee satisfaction as they are today.
Throughout the pandemic, I know people complain about “Zoom Fatigue,” but I always think what a privilege it is to be able to still connect visually with my colleagues—we wouldn’t have been able to do that as well a few years ago.
Plus, it helps with accessibility. I have hearing problems so this helps me to better listen to what my colleagues are saying.
The virtual environment has definitely changed us, though. In March, IPR published an essay on how virtual leadership can drive performance. IPR has always been virtual, but the video conferencing has certainly improved our team communication and our relationships with each another. Where do you think we’ll see change in the industry, Mark?
Mark: I think one under-appreciated aspect will be conferences and awards programs. People enjoy getting together at industry events to see and be seen. But it’s just not the same when everyone wears a mask. Awards are a great way to recognize excellence, reward staff and thank clients. There’s also a warm and glamourous feeling during these evenings. My favorite event every year is the IPR Distinguished Lecture. Now that our Roosevelt Hotel venue is closed, will there be an in-person IPR event this year?
Tina: I hope so, but it will be different, depending on CDC guidance. We are seeing more in-person functions this fall in the industry, but many are offering hybrid options. Most are starting in September or later. The biggest question we wrestled with is whether we require vaccinations. We are requiring them for our IPR Bridge Conference in Washington, D.C. in September. But I think people are ready for socializing.
I would love to start going to cocktails and dinners with friends and colleagues. Let’s face it: Human beings need contact with one another, and video conferencing just isn’t the same. Our social interactions are how relationships are built and the core of what we do. I can’t tell you how many of my successes are because of a lunch, dinner, coffee or happy hour. What about you, Mark?
Mark: I can’t wait. If the IPR dinner returns to form as an in-person event and if it’s safe for everyone to do so, I hope you’ll add music and dancing to the evening.
Tina: Yes. Something up-tempo!
Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for Cognito and the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights,” one of PR’s hot new releases on Amazon.com.