Working from home permanently? Not so fast.

There’s been a lot of chatter over the past few months speculating about what the “new normal” will look like in our post-pandemic work life. One idea that has been percolating with extra big bubbles is the prospect of making more permanent the ability to work from home.

Twitter was one of the first big companies to float the possibility. The tech giant’s CEO sent an email to staff letting them know that, if they wanted to keep working from home after all was said and done, that would be cool with him. Just how many of Twitter’s HQ staff would be willing to trade their free breakfasts and lunches and in-office yoga and pilates classes for the convenience of working next to their cats is anyone’s guess. But there’s a sense that younger workers will jump at the chance.

Even the most traditional workplaces are warming to the idea. Consider the Social Security Administration, a sprawling bureaucratic behemoth with 60,000 employees spread across the country. SSA reports that some 53,000 of its staff are currently working remotely, and guess what? They have found the arrangement increases efficiency, that they are able to get checks to folks “faster and quicker.” Its backlog of pending cases is now down 11%. Hmm, are we onto something here?

Among PR professionals, there seems to be a strong sentiment toward telecommuting. According to a survey recently conducted by the industry trade publication PR Week, a strong 61% of PR people responding to the poll professed to being in favor of making work from home a more permanent fixture.

At Hodges, we’re not so sure. We put together an internal committee – our New Normal Committee – to develop plans on our return to the office, plans that today have more contingencies than certainties (and that’s without even involving any attorneys). But here’s what we know so far:

Telecommuting works for us

We are able to maintain high levels of efficiency working remotely, and truth be told, we have had some experience with particular employees over the years whose husbands took them to Seattle or Charlottesville. There are just really long hallways between our computers and theirs. The fact is, neither clients nor reporters really care whether our folks are sitting behind their desks in the office, on their patio in Bon Air or in a Starbucks in Prague. Most importantly, we have been able to maintain high levels of productivity, and to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve missed a beat on that front. Even the new business pipeline has not suffered from being out of the office.

Sustaining a sense of cohesion and unity can be a challenge

Like so many organizations, we are employing the tools that allow us to keep connected. Our weekly in-person staff meetings have been replaced by Zoom calls three times a week. We run down our assignments for the day, share goings on with our lives outside of work and pass along program recommendations from Netflix or Hulu. We also use Zoom for our virtual happy hours and employ Kahoot! for some online games with each other.

Our internal comms platform – Slack – also lights up regularly during the day. People post interesting articles (which spur comments from the group), recipes or general “did you hear about…?” news of the day. It’s our online equivalent of the watercooler. And we mostly follow each other on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter where we can see photos and videos of the staff’s family members, pets and latest meal.

Still, it’s not the same

Despite our use of proxy technology, there is really no substitution for the magic that comes from shared gatherings. No, we haven’t suffered from any lack of productivity by all accounts, but we don’t really know what could have been. Jon likes to roam the office (in the vein of the HP “managing by walking around” mode), and who knows what ideas he could have shared as he popped from one desk to the next? Perhaps someone would overhear a pitch to a reporter, prompting them to suggest another reporter that they suspect could be interested in such a story. Zoom or online brainstorming just don’t have the energy that in-person idea sessions do. Is the pandemic reducing our level of collective creativity somehow? Is it diminishing our sense of connectedness, despite our best efforts? We participated in a survey recently of business and nonprofit execs around Virginia, and the results lamented much of the same – what they called the “Culture Conundrum.”  You can read more about it here

There are sound reasons for instituting a policy that gives employees the latitude to work from home. As for us, we’re counting the days when we’re all back under the same roof.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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