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Is flexible working the future?

How adopting a flexible approach allows access for senior talent

lightbulbAs the gig economy (a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) takes hold and the demand for a better work-life balance is soaring among staff, many healthcare communications companies are reviewing their approach to flexible working. But the question remains among the doubters whether this virtual model actually works for clients? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ from Angie Wiles, the founder of healthcare’s first ‘virtual’ agency that has broken the mould and is blazing a trail for agile working in communications.

The PR profession, by its very nature, is creative, innovative and forward-thinking. But when it comes to offering flexible – or agile or virtual – working, it appears this progressive industry is, well, failing to progress. Even though the majority of workers are now demanding the ability to work flexibly, the reasons given for PR to not embrace it vary.

They include that it should only really be an option for ‘helping’ mums return to work, or that, because a service is being provided, clients have the expectation of round-the-clock provision or even that strategic thinking, the brainstorming and sharing of ideas with colleagues so vital in a creative industry, is no longer possible.

So what is the reality? Can flexible working ever work for the PR industry – for a business, for workers and for clients? According to PR heavyweight Angie Wiles, who last year set up The Difference Collective, the first ever, virtual healthcare communications collective, the answer is “a big yes”.

Wiles, the founder and former joint CEO of Virgo Health, who is set to celebrate the first anniversary of the Collective in June, says: “We are proof that the communications industry is ready to embrace this change.

“Our members, both men and women, have made an active choice to work differently, for a whole host of reasons and the Collective allows them to be life-flexible, however they want that life to look.

“Some are training for additional qualifications, others want to work overseas, others want to fit work around family life, some just don’t want to work in a corporate, agency, 9-5 environment anymore. That does not mean they are any less productive, in fact it is quite the opposite and it in no way means a compromise on the quality of the work they love to do.”

The rise of working differently

The idea of the eight-hour working day was first suggested more than two centuries ago, when child labour, 16-hour days and six-day working weeks were common. Yet it is still ingrained in us that the definition of ‘work’ is being present – at a desk, in an office for those eight hours.

But in 2018, this proscriptive working regime, the idea that presenteeism is the only, and the right, way to work, no longer feels necessary. Particularly when what should not be in doubt is that flexible working is not a second-class service, a concession put in place simply ‘to get mums back to work’. In fact, far from it. Agile working keeps highly talented, senior specialists from being lost to the industry, which can only benefit the communications industries as a whole.

A glut of research in recent years has already busted this ‘mum myth’ being perpetuated by those who fail to see the obvious – that the majority of Britain’s workforce now demands flexible working to get a better
work-life balance.

In fact, a study of 3,000 UK adults, the largest and most focused review of Britain’s permanent workforce, released by the Timewise Foundation in September last year found that a staggering 92% of Millennials, 88% of Generation X and even 72% of Baby Boomers said they were working flexibly in some way or wanted to.

The main reasons for wanting to work flexibly included more control over their work-life balance, reducing their commute, allowing more time for leisure and study, and more opportunities to care for children

and other dependents.

The ‘sandwich generation’ are also now finding they have parents to care for as well as children, adding an extra level of demands which a traditional job just cannot cater for.

A report from Upwork and the Freelancers Union published in October last year revealed that almost half (47%) of US millennials are freelancing, with predictions that freelancers may outnumber other workers by 2027 or even sooner.

Is flexibility just a fallacy?

Employees in the UK have had a legal right to request flexible working since 2014. Yet while companies like to emphasise their flexible working policies, they still have a long way to go when it comes to making them a reality. In April, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee highlighted that 96% of employers say they offer a level of agile working. But the Timewise report found that just 9.8% of job vacancies paying over £20,000 full-time equivalent are advertised as being open to some kind of flexibility.

A survey released in January by the charity Working Families, found that fewer than half of those questioned (44%) felt that flexible working was a genuine option in their place of work. Of those who were working flexibly, nearly a third (31%) said their  employer restricted where they  could work and a fifth said they had no control over their start and finish times.

Yet we forget that work is  an activity, not a place. Bricks and mortar don’t bind people together but rather shared knowledge, passions,
beliefs and values do.

While it may seem radical to strip away the physical structures and onerous processes intrinsically linked to PR agency life, what it actually does is free talent and clients to connect and engage with one another at a much more meaningful and senior level.

Wiles says: “I am proud to be leading the way as a force for change within an industry renowned for its rigid and often antisocial working hours. The response from members and clients has been overwhelmingly positive and demonstrates that the desire for  change is real and that this is only  the beginning.”

Why flexible working really works

The benefits of flexible working to the employee or consultant are self-evident – autonomy, empowerment, personal and professional fulfilment. But what about the benefits for clients? There still seems to be an innate belief that people working from home or remotely are not doing the hours they should be or working as hard as they would be in the office. But the opposite appears to be the case. A recent report from Stanford University showed there was a 13% increase in productivity when employees worked remotely.

Measuring performance based on hours or days present is outdated. People should be trusted to manage their own time and outputs in a way that best suits them. When working flexibly, you are only as good as your last piece of work, with your entire livelihood and reputation depending on it.

Just because people sit at their desks from 9-5:30 doesn’t mean that they are productive and effective or indeed engaged, particularly when you add in the myriad distractions of traditional agency/office life: the chit-chat, endless – sometimes pointless – meetings and mountains of admin.

Client budgets are also under unprecedented strain so, across the board, the PR industry needs to be working smart. An agile workforce in communications can be transformative for clients using that flexibility to ensure they get an exceptional service. For example, The Difference Collective only signs up highly skilled senior experts from the health communications world, creating hand-picked, purpose-built teams for each piece of work. This ensures only the staff with the right skills are on the brief, ensuring clients get the senior input so often missing in traditional agency-led projects.

But agility is also about delivering the highest quality outputs by getting things right first time where expectations are not just met but often exceeded. There are obvious frustrations, not to mention the expense, to clients of multiple rounds of edits often associated with junior-staff-generated materials.

Clients and managers simply want a job done well and to deadline. They should be focused on the end result, not about where people were geographically to achieve it. This is the mindset shift needed if the PR industry is to attract and retain the best talent and stay competitive.

Is flexible working the brave new world?

We are now logged-in to technology 24/7. It’s how we communicate, shop, think, live and socialise. This has not only completely changed how we work but how we think about work.

PR has never been about sitting at a desk – it’s an industry crafted around people, communication, brands, ideas and events. Technology now dictates this is also done across a whole range of platforms and channels, none of which is in just one place.

If technology has transformed what  the actual ‘job’ of PR is, why can’t it change how people work in the industry too?

According to Wiles, the virtual communications model is an obvious development in PR.

She says: “I am excited about the prospect of a brave new world in healthcare communications. With the recent glut of agency mergers and brand integrations, and the rise once again of the specialist boutiques, it’s clear that times are changing.

“Flexibility is the way forward. There is a massive desire for it from consultants, and clients are quickly seeing the benefits in terms of quality, agility and economies in an industry that is undergoing significant change.”

With 20% of UK workers set to be part of the so-called ‘gig economy’ by 2020, adopting a flexible approach to resourcing can allow access to senior talent without the long-term commitment. It seems to be a win-win formula that a progressive PR industry can embrace.

Jo Willey is former Daily Express health editor, freelance media consultant and collective media maestro at The Difference Collective

26th June 2018

Jo Willey is former Daily Express health editor, freelance media consultant and collective media maestro at The Difference Collective

26th June 2018

From: Marketing

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