Most agency heads around the world expect less than 50% of their teams to have returned to the office by the end of this year, according to the third wave of PRovoke Media research into the impact of Covid-19 on the PR and communications industry.

The survey – conducted by Stickybeak and in partnership with APACD and ICCO – asked a new set of questions around returning to the office and found that, globally, 59% of respondents expected less than 50% of their staff to be working from the office by the end of 2020.

Of these, just over 42% said they expected less than 25% of their team to be back, while 17% said they expected 25-50% to return to the office. A further 17% said they expected between half and three quarters of their staff to be back this year, while just under a quarter (24%) said they expected 75%-100% of their teams to return before the end of the year.

There are some regional variations: taking North America alone, 68% of agency heads said they expected less than 25% of their team to be back in the office this year, compared to 35% in the UK and Europe expecting less than a quarter to be back.

The survey also asked agency leaders what the optimum working from home/office ratio was optimum for their business – notwithstanding that their employees would likely have their own views. Globally, only 7% said they would prefer that all staff work from the office, and at the other end of the scale, only 11% said all staff working from home was the best outcome for their business.

The biggest share – 44% – of respondents said the optimum ratio was in the middle of the scale, with an equal mix of working from home and working from the office. Either side of this, 23% said they would prefer the balance to be more on the side of working from the office, and 15% said they would be happy for this balance to be more in favour of working from home.

In terms of the challenges of being a virtual manager, by far the biggest issue keeping agency leaders awake at night was social interaction and team culture, cite by over 65% of respondents, while employee health and wellness was in second place (42%). Team management was the next biggest concern, mentioned by 35% of in-house and agency leaders, followed by professional development (31%).

The quandary of the return to the office (23%) and working from home (21%) were also seen as among the biggest challenges. Upward management – managing their own boss – was seen as one of the biggest concerns for nearly 11% of respondents, and only 10% said there were no challenges at all of being a virtual manager.

Digging deeper into specific challenges around the return to the office, the biggest response (55%) was hybrid work support – helping employees work from home as well as the office. New health, hygiene and sanitation protocols are also pre-occupying 49% of agency leaders.

Other dominant concerns were re-skilling around mental and emotional health (28%) and challenges around what to do about real estate (21%). Change management in general was seen as a challenge for 17% of respondents, while a notable 18% said one of their biggest concerns was staff refusing to return to the office at all.

Since the ongoing precautions around Covid-19 mean less face-to-face contact, the survey asked which audiences and activities were likely to be most negatively affected. The biggest concern here, not surprisingly, was client relations, cited by over 56% of agencies. Second was journalists and media relations, where 36% of respondents thought there would be a negative impact from less opportunity to meet.

Less face-to-face engagement with politicians and legislators was thought to be problematic for 21% of agencies, and influencer and celebrity engagement for 16%. But 20% of agency heads said they didn’t think there would be any negative effect on relations with specific audiences because of less face-to-face contact.

Finally, we asked if there were any benefits to agencies of a more dispersed workforce and less face-to-face contact. The overwhelming response globally was less time commuting and travelling, mentioned by 87% of agencies as a benefit. The next highest benefits were seen as less time in client meetings (34%) and – bad news for landlords – real estate cost savings (31%).

Other benefits of the “new normal” in agency working life included more productive employees (29%), overall business efficiency (28%) and less time entertaining clients, journalists and influencers (24%). Nearly a fifth (19%) of respondents also said happier employees was a benefit. Less than 5% said there were no benefits at all to the current situation.