As quickly as the PR industry transitioned to remote work in March 2020, many agency leaders were anxious to pull employees right back to their desks. As early as June 2020, there was chatter about bringing employees back. From there, it’s been moving goal posts that are still in motion — with many agencies remaining adamant that in-person is essential.

But over the past 18 months a few other things happened: the PR industry became more serious than ever about diversifying its workforce and finally took actions that were decades in the making. Also, the industry has faced staggering attrition and there's no immediate relief to the talent shortage — making the case for diversifying more urgent than ever. Yet, so many leaders are overlooking the interplay between remote work and diversity.

The research, however, is clear: flexibility now ranks second only to compensation on what employees care about. We found this to be true in our 2021 Best Agencies to Work For data that surveyed over 3,000 PR professionals in North America — and it’s reinforced in recent research from Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first world. Future Forum’s data is based on research from more than 10,000 knowledge workers.

To explore what this means for the PR industry, I recently spoke with Helen Kupp, head of product strategy & partnerships at Future Forum and Naria Frazer, VP and head DEI at Praytell. The full conversation is in the video and podcast below.

According to Future Forum data: 80% of Black, 78% of Hispanic, and 77% of Asian respondents want a flexible working experience, either through a hybrid or remote-only model. This compared to 74% of white employees. This race breakdown paints a stark picture for an industry that’s both focused on bringing employees back to the office while also pledging to increase diversity at all levels. It's also clear that as agency leaders eagerly nudge employees back into the office, they should not underestimate the exhausting toll code-switching and microaggressions take on employees of color. 

“If you are ever part of an underrepresented community and part of a workforce that’s majority white — you are going to feel a bit like an outsider,” said Praytell’s Frazer. “You’re going to feel like you have adapt and constantly think of ways to make sure that you’re not outing yourself as ‘other.’”  (continued below video & podcast)

03:00  The Future Forum survey
  What it’s like to be a racial minority at a PR agency
08:14  Re-skilling managers around inclusion, especially in remote environments
09:13  Subtle ways in-office networking can be exclusionary
11:22  Normalizing flexibility & not making remote workers ‘second class’ employees
16:38  How Praytell manages remote talent and its 4-day work week
19:58  It’s not just about remote work — it’s also asynchronous work
24:41  The “office is necessary for culture” trope is a myth
32:52   Advice for the industry

Kim Sample, president of the PR Council, says many of the Council's meetings since the pandemic have been singularly focused on return to work policies. She’s advocating for the industry to look at the bigger picture, especially when it comes to the intersection of ‘back to the office’ and diversity initiatives.

"Given the labor shortage, talent holds the power right now. It’s true across all industries and we are feeling it keenly in ours," says Sample. "Mandated returns to the office may not deliver the hoped for culture boosts because employees value their new-found flexibility. Beyond that, we have to listen to our BIPOC talent’s anxiety about returning to corporate conformity, microaggressions, and professional and social isolation."

Moreover, Black professionals — the group that is most underrepresented within the PR industry — are more likely to say that working remotely is better for their sense of belonging, while the opposite is true for white knowledge workers, according to Future Forum. The research also points out: "Black knowledge workers also have lower satisfaction scores across the board. They have consistently lower satisfaction with their relationships at work, are less likely to believe that they are treated fairly at work and are more likely to believe they need to justify their work to their manager.”

What’s the outcome of this? Black employees are even more likely to be looking for new opportunities in the coming year — 72% of Black employees versus 51% of white employees.

Kupp says to address this, organizations must normalize flexibility for everyone across the company. Additionally, she calls traditional management training “outdated — more focused on process and managing the work rather than managing the people and the empathy required.” Also, companies must be intentional about breaking down systemic barriers within their ranks — including not creating a remote second class and ensuring equal access to information and opportunities.

"The positives of being able to make distributed work successful as a team are all there," Kupp said in a post last year. "Asynchronous not just remote increases flexibility. Flexibility with structure creates focus and work-life boundaries to keep me sane. Diversity and equality creates an environment that supports and promotes rich, varying perspectives that unlock new ideas."