Why we should make a virtual workforce our ‘new normal’

Remote work should be a part of PR and marketing’s future, says one comms leader, no matter how fast we recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Side view of happy mother with her son using laptop at home

With most states under stay-at-home orders for nearly two months now, there are two side effects on many households and corporations that are beginning to surface:

  • Working moms are shouldering much of the weight of this order as they attempt to juggle careers with homeschooling and general household upkeep.
  • Shifting abruptly to a remote work setting has been a more seamless transition than expected for a majority of traditional companies.

While these topics are discussed separately, I’ve long known how related they are and believe wholeheartedly that the “flexibility” this crisis has extended to working families should remain permanent. Twitter is one of the first major corporations to catch on to this. Our recovery, productivity and morale will be better for it.

My business is one of so many that has been deeply affected by the pandemic. It will take us quite a while to recover from the financial impact. But in a broader sense, I am optimistic about the opportunity this current landscape presents us as we collectively contemplate what the next phase looks like.

I’d like to present this challenge to fellow business owners: Join me in making a remote, flexible work environment part of the “new normal” you’re shaping.

Where there’s motivation, there’s a way

Back in 2010, the convergence of two phenomena inspired me to launch a 100% virtual company. Emerging from the Great Recession, I saw the need for companies to reevaluate the way work had traditionally been done. Affected by costly overhead, I watched as businesses stepped away from their brick and mortar PR agency relationships, no longer able to sustain the expensive fees. Fancy office spaces and benefits packages can make up a large portion of those expenses, which are passed on to clients.

I was also at the stage of starting a family. I knew that I could continue delivering the same quality experience to clients from my home office, while prioritizing their investments on my expertise and the work.

It was a risky move at the time because the virtual and coworking concept was relatively new. People wondered how I would be able to build relationships and create a company culture. Like me, there were dozens of women I’d previously worked with who were at a similar crossroads. Do I keep plugging away at this career from the office, or is there a better way? One by one, these peers took notice and started to join me.

This year, we’ve reached our 10-year anniversary and were named a top 5 fast-moving U.S. agency. The virtual concept holds water.

But here’s why I want to encourage more companies to consider shifting to a 100% virtual operation:

A recent survey found that 14% of women have contemplated leaving the workforce during this pandemic. That number feels low, but it’s grounded in a crisis scenario. We know that under usual circumstances every day, moms across the country are facing similar decisions. Over 40 percent of moms do not return to work after giving birth. In a field dominated by women, public relations must adapt.

This is such a loss to the workforce and it doesn’t have to be this way.

I look across our team of 20, and most of them are VP-level women (and moms!) who have 15–20 years of experience. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have them alongside me and I know that in many cases, it’s because we give them a place to keep doing what they love on their own terms. I cannot imagine this talent being out of the workforce.

This proposition has been a win-win for clients who get to work with senior talent on a daily basis, and for our team who gets to skip out on the commute and archaic expectation that in-office face time is what gets you ahead.

How to make the shift  

Here’s how business leaders can plan to shift to a virtual, flexible approach so that everybody wins:

1: Look at what you can do without.As you look ahead, start to assess all of the overhead expenses you can cut. Start small. What are redundant services or subscriptions? Are you paying for memberships you don’t use? Are there perks you’re covering for employees that would be easy to replace and unmissed with the ability to work remotely? Then, move on to bigger things.

Do you absolutely need that expensive office space to do business? Same goes for premium parking spaces. It can feel comfortable to hold on to all these “things” – but that’s all they are. The people and culture are what truly makes a company.

2: Align on operational benefits. Will cutting overhead and going virtual also allow you to bring some people back to work? Will your organization be able to side-step hours and hours of operational meetings about establishing socially distant and sterile workspaces by allowing employees to permanently work from home? These elements will play a significant role in the “return” and will likely need to evolve over time. Just how important is it to return physically at all?

3: Create new expectations.Many companies have thick employee handbooks that specify hours of operation, attendance policies and parameters for career advancement. There are also many unspoken cultural norms.

As leaders, help to reset expectations for employees, which includes work hours and ways performance will be managed. Hint: It’s not how long the Slack or other chat tool is active during the day. Documented processes are key, but these are usually just helpful templates that maintain consistency.

4: Trust the process. Nobody expects a company to go from in-person to virtual seamlessly overnight. My company is 10 years in, and we are still adapting to meet the needs of our team and clients. This entails revisiting the tools we use and ways we can streamline meetings. Give yourself permission to experiment and optimize. Consider forming a “culture” team to brainstorm ways to transition in-person activities to remote teambuilding opportunities.

5: Support employee growth.Team members might worry that they’ll fall behind or their work won’t be recognized. This is far from the truth. Logging office hours should never be a measure of performance. Shifting to virtual is a way to encourage colleagues to step up and show how they can meet deadlines and expectations.

They can also find ways to carry on meetings and water cooler conversations in ways that work for them, whether that be through Zoom chats, Slack channels or in-person happy hours once restrictions are lifted. Be clear about how employee performance will be monitored. We host annual feedback forums just as we would if we had a traditional office. We have also offered team members the opportunity to join local professional groups and work periodically at a co-working space if they prefer to be around people.

6: Revisit the model annually.We bring our national team together once a year for an in-person retreat to spend quality time together, discuss ways we can work more efficiently and build camaraderie. We follow the Entrepreneurial Operating System model, which focuses on creating company values, clear goals and responsibilities and I believe this has contributed to our greatest growth. These elements are essential to any successful virtual organization.

We’re likely still several weeks out from any office returns. During this time, can your plans focus on how to follow in the “work home forever” footsteps?

Megan Shroy is the president and founder of Approach Marketing, a 100% virtual agency launched in 2010.


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