Opinion: WfH a culture-setter not culture-deterrent

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THE pandemic kicked almost everyone out of the office and fundamentally challenged the perception of how one should want to work, writes Michael Collins. While some organisations have embraced the working from home revolution, others have been resistant to its incredible potential.

Why? There are many reasons – some valid and fair – but the loudest counter seems to be rooted in the belief that remote working will rip apart a company’s culture and shape a generation of disconnected workers. 

Acclaimed non-fiction writer Malcolm Gladwell delivered the case passionately on the Diary of a CEO podcast recently:

“I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees. If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point? If it’s just a paycheck, then it’s like what have you reduced your life to?”

Gladwell received fervent backlash on social media, which of course, is to be expected when you take on the laptop-class. So, what is the point of trading in the long commute and office banter for Zoom calls and pyjama-bottoms? My view is that for the first time, in an era where work has become the centrepiece of one’s identity, we have an opportunity to shift the work-life paradigm for the better.

What if, after years of declining wellbeing rates, culminating in a period of pandemic-imposed isolation, we’ve suddenly stumbled on a tonic to improving not only our own lives but also workplace culture? Last year’s joint PRCA and CIPR mental health survey, which benchmarks the UK industry’s progress on mental health, revealed 90 per cent of PR professionals reported poor mental health at some point in the previous twelve months. 

This isn’t a surprise especially with the pandemic as the backdrop. But we’d be brave to suggest this doesn’t also speak to a deeper issue of our collective failure to find purpose and meaning away from work. The good news is that working from home has the ability to disrupt the idea that community, purpose and status can only be obtained in the physical setting of an office. 

Today, it is fair to say that PR professionals are some of the world’s leading workaholics, toiling longer hours for clients. However, working long hours don’t make practitioners more productive or creative; they make people tired, stressed, and cut off from the world.

True, working from home has the potential to morph colleagues into hermits, which is a concern for an industry that thrives on face-to-face interaction. But not from my experience. Despite struggling at first to establish clear boundaries between work and home-life during the height of the pandemic, I’m now far more engaged at home, keener to call family back in Australia, and more enthused to strike a conversation with neighbours. I enjoy lunch breaks with my wife – who also works from home – and have been energised with an extra hour of playtime with my two young boys in the evening due to the absence of the commute home. I am still an ambitious PR professional with hopes of a long, successful career. Except, my work is no longer the only place I derive my sense of accomplishment and purpose in. I’m convinced the WfH phenomenon paved the way for me to find new connections away from the workplace.

What does this have to do with company culture? Simply, most people are happier when they spend more time with family and friends, which in turn, empowers them to bring focus, creativity, and energy to their daily work – all key ingredients to a high-performing, happy company culture. 

Of course, I recognise my experience isn’t shared by everyone. Company surveys often suggest the office plays an important role in building social capital, building a reputation, and gaining adoration from peers. This is especially important for people early in their careers. And don’t get me wrong: We need face-to-face interaction with colleagues and clients, and a hybrid model seems the right approach. 

No one knows where the working from home era will take us. The future is not set despite the click-bait headlines. Still, leaders and communicators have the opportunity to position WfH as a culture-setter rather than a culture-deterrent. It seems counterintuitive in a business sense to openly promote the idea that work shouldn’t be the central theme in an employee’s life, but in doing so, we might just unlock a healthier, more productive workplace culture. One that is more grounded in community beyond the PR bubble, and more ready to embrace diverse perspectives.

Michael Collins is the head of content at the world’s largest professional PR body – the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). Originally a journalist, he has over five years of international PR experience working across government, sports and public sector.