More than 2,200 PR agency employees across North America took our Best Agencies to Work For survey back in February. But of course, the workplaces they knew in those days are now relics of the ‘before time.’ What makes an agency a great place to work — engaged and empowered employees, responsive and inspiring leadership, creative and stimulating work, a diverse and inclusive culture — hasn’t changed. But now amid a global pandemic, there’s even more to being a good employer.

For the most innovative and humane agencies, this crisis is a chance for reinvention, perhaps to fix what’s broken about the agency model. We talked to CEOs of many of the agencies on this year’s North American Best Agencies to Work For list — and a few from years past —  about the way they are managing this crisis and whether it’s making them rethink the traditional workplace. 

The Moment for Transformation 

Change isn’t new for the industry, but Covid-19 is that Black Swan event that accelerated transformation and will test organizations' resiliency. It’s more clear than ever the agency model isn’t rooted to one working style and is, instead, as adaptable and complex as the humans who power it. Most of the CEOs we spoke to were focused on navigating the current crisis and eventually returning to some degree of normalcy. A few, however, were taking this moment to build a blueprint for the future of work.

“We have become more efficient in our day and more creative in problem solving,” says Highwire principal Carol Carrubba. “This is a rare chance to think differently for our clients and use new techniques especially in digital and content to create value for the companies we serve.”

A recent EY report calls this the “transformative mindset.” 

Although there will be a tendency to amplify the now and focus exclusively on resiliency, leading companies will find a way to balance building recovery, readying the company for what comes next and planning for renaissance in the period beyond the pandemic. They’ll embrace the opportunity to reimagine the transformation journey in a way that puts humans at the center, innovates at scale and deploys technology at speed. In doing so, these companies will improve their agility and their ability to adapt and emerge even stronger.

M Booth CEO Dale Bornstein says she’s seen a shift into a “mobile mindset” among her workforce with employees becoming even faster to innovate and to adopt best practices.

In a recent blog post on this topic, W2O CEO Jim Weiss calls for the industry to use this moment to "step up and shape the future." He writes, "despite everything we’ve learned about organizational and individual behavior, Covid-19 is rewriting how business and government operates in a time of crisis." 

Back To The Future Office

As states, like Georgia, rush to reopen — are agencies hurrying back into their offices too? The Atlanta-based Jackson Spalding is not. The firm's leadership is taking guidance from the CDC and public health officials and has no plans to open before June 1.

“We’re fortunate because our team has been able to transition pretty seamlessly to remote work,” says partner Randall Kirsch.  “So we’re not feeling the same pressure to bring people back to the office as others might be, especially if health and safety is still a concern.”

Kirsch predicts this could ultimately change how the agency operates and how it invests in real-estate.  “My gut says we’ll work more from home when we need to, and the way we use our time in the office – and our square footage – will evolve even more to support the types of collaborative work that happen best in person,” he adds.

The workplace will also be starkly different from the places we all left in March. No more breezy open floor plans with communal seating areas and kitchens with shared snacks. Instead, the workplace will likely include staggered schedules, measured distance between employees, mask and sanitation stations and frequent temperature checks. For instance, when the time comes to reopen, Allison + Partners has developed a four-part plan that brings employees back in 25% increments.

“There will also be a more flexible work from home policy moving forward – we will not force any of our employees to return to the office if they do not feel comfortable or safe,” CEO Scott Allison adds.

ReviveHealth CEO Brandon Edwards sent care packages to employees during lockdown, which included branded masks. When things reopen, every employee will be responsible for cleaning their mask daily and bringing it with them. He plans to use an employee survey to figure out who wants to come back to the office, which will be limited to 50% capacity.

“Our goal is to set guidelines that reduce the awkwardness of some new practices we must adhere to,” Edwards says. “There is a spectrum of individual responses to Covid-19 – from relative nonchalance to fear. At our Nashville office we will all, despite our personal feelings, abide by the same protocol.”

David Zapata, CEO of Zapwater Communications, says he feels “strongly that our team will be back in the office at some point in June, but it will likely look different.  For starters, it will be a gradual return to our offices.  We will likely continue to work remotely for several weeks after the shelter in place orders are lifted. We will institute a staggered return to the office – only having half of the team return each week and alternating weeks with a deep cleaning in between, of course.”

Is the stress of returning to the office worth it during a pandemic? Is it possible the added anxiety around learning how to function in a totally new work environment might offset any perceived productivity boost?

“We are in no hurry to get back to the office,” says Highwire's Carrubba, noting the agency is being deliberate and methodical about its plans. “Frankly agency life will be permanently changed in the future."

Indeed, employee behavior has also permanently changed. A survey taken during shelter-in-place shows that 54% of employees say productivity has gone up since they’ve shifted to work-from-home, citing time saved from commuting, fewer distractions from co-workers and fewer meetings. Some leaders are noticing this — and the potential cost-savings around real-estate — and are planning for a more distributed workforce. A Gartner survey of CFOs showed that 74% expect some portion of their workforce, who previously worked in the office, to become permanent remote employees.

"I think all workplaces will have changed for ever," says Sabina Gault, founder/CEO of Konnect, adding that some employees will permanently become remote while those in the office will be spaced out. "I think that’s the name of the game for every business who plans to go back to an office. If you can do things remote then you should find a way. We have the technology to enable people to do their work from anywhere – so that’s definitely part of the plan."

Similarly, the current remote working experiment has also changed Edwards thinking about work-from-home.

“Ultimately, [work from home] has been far more collaborative and efficient than we expected, and we don’t feel compelled to rush back to the office other than to provide options for people who have difficulty working from home,” he says. “The Covid crisis has forced us to challenge long-held assumptions about working from the office and using that to strengthen culture.”

Hotwire CEO Barbara Bates implemented a “thoughtful working” policy long before the pandemic. This means that Hotwire's culture has long been anchored in accountability, rather than hours at the office.

“Thoughtful working means allowing our staff to work how and where they get their best work done—sometimes that’s in the office and sometimes it’s at home,” says Bates.  “This philosophy works for us because our culture allows for a lot of autonomy while making people highly accountable.” 

Redefining ‘Personal Time-Off’ 

Vacations, large and small, have been pretty much wiped out by shelter-in-place orders. This means people have been going for longer stretches without breaks, all the while stress has been significantly amplified. Most of the agencies we spoke to recognize that we're  going to hit a breaking point for this pent-up need for time-off and this has to be planned for now.

Many agencies, like Allison+Partners, have transitioned to unlimited PTO, which means vacations, sick leave, mental health days, and other reasons for taking time-off all fall under the same bank. For these agencies, vacations mostly evaporated this spring, replaced instead, by using these days to homeschool children, move to safe locations, take care of mental health, deal with illness, among other essential PTO.

“We asked our employees to avoid taking non-essential PTO in April and defer travel plans during the pandemic," Allison says. "We will begin to approve other PTO once things begin to normalize, using the same agency guidelines in place pre-Covid-19. We anticipate approving broader PTO requests in May.”

The firms that have retained an accrued vacation policy, however, have used this as a first defense against layoffs. 

“Since we are part of a public company and hold time-off on our books as a liability, we could avoid having to make more drastic cuts simply by people taking their accrued vacation,” says Bates. “We know it is not ideal because people are not actually able to travel, but it does allow them to take needed time off and re-energize”

Other agencies are amending their policies, while also trying to avoid a vacation traffic jam once travel ticks up. “We are encouraging people to take time as they need it, and will continue to do that during Q2 and Q3,” says ReviveHealth's Edwards. “We expect time-off to increase after stay-at-home orders lift.  We are also encouraging people to take the time they need, but also allowing people to roll-over unused time to 2021 if they don’t use it all this year, given the unusual circumstances.”

Likewise, Finn Partners recently changed its vacation policy to allow each employee to carry over up to five vacation days into 2021. GCI Health CEO Wendy Lund says the agency is encouraging employees to take vacation and “trying to avoid a glut of vacations later this year.”

“We're not looking to cancel anyone's grand summer plans and we've been pretty good in the past about shifting time off around to make everyone happy,” Walker Sands CEO Mike Santoro says. “ I expect there will be more challenges this year, but we'll figure it out.”

Several agencies, including Allison+Partners and Walker Sands, have implemented Summer Friday schedules a month early. Meanwhile, Method CEO David Parkinson is asking teams to take at least one long weekend by June 1. 

“As for later in the year, we will honor existing time-off requests first and we'll also continue to encourage folks to plan and request time off,” Parkinson says.

The crisis is also redefining personal time-off. The relentless demands of work, parenting and crisis survival have forced employees to reimagine what routine looks like and some agencies are supporting this with adjusted flexibility. 360PR+ CEO Laura Tomasetti has been working with managers to encourage people to schedule breaks into their day to make “sure we’re not assuming it’s just another normal ‘9 to 5’ day.”

Agencies have been taking mental health more seriously over the past few years but this crisis has accelerated action. W2O Group is offering employees 45-minute tele-counseling sessions and meditation/mindfulness coaching; GCI Health has a mental health therapist doing group stress management sessions; Allison+Partners is providing employees with subscriptions to Calm, a meditation and relaxation app.

Employee Communications Comes To the Forefront 

Nearly all of the CEOs we spoke to are prioritizing employee communications, including consistent updates about the business and making sure people are connecting with their colleagues. In the early days, over-communication was the gold standard, but now, as people settle into their pandemic routines, the cadence of communications has shifted.

“From the day we decided to shelter in place, I've been sending daily emails addressing the news of the day — from new business and client news to agency updates,” says Santoro. “As we start to settle, those emails have been reduced to three times each week instead of every day. They are more boring lately (which is good), but I believe it’s important to continue communicating what we see for the future.”

At PAN Communications, CEO Phil Nardone implemented an anonymous email system so employees could freely ask management questions.

"Transparency is the sincerest form of support for your staff at this time," Nardone says. "I also make time to meet with our executive team daily and set up a bi-weekly 'town hall' all-staff meeting to connect with our agency."

Finn Partners CEO Peter Finn has also maintained regular communication with employees to let them know "I’m aware of the added stress that Covid-19 has placed on them and their families and that I’m working every day to help offset some of these pressures," he says.

‘Continuation of Employer Benefits is Key’

As the US economy shatters, CEOs of several companies, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Carta CEO Henry Ward, have taken care to be especially kind to departing employees. Both companies offered generous severance packages, and for US employees, are paying for healthcare through 2020 or beyond. Some PR agency CEOs are also forging a more humane way to handle layoffs.

Allison, who has no plans to lay-off or furlough any employees, offers best practices for agencies who are in a different position.

“Continuation of employer benefits is key,” he says. “For any furloughed employees, agencies should consider covering 100% of the benefit premium cost during the furlough period and employer-paid Cobra benefits for employees who are laid-off during this period."

Similarly, ReviveHealth’s Edwards has not done furloughs, pay cuts or layoffs, and has none planned. For agencies not in such a fortunate position, he also recommends helping employees keep their health insurance and provide other vital information.

“Ultimately, we need to treat people the way we want to be treated, in good times and bad,” he adds.    

A Chance to Lead

Among so much uncertainty, only one thing remains clear: the world — and the workplace — will never be the same. Leaders who try too hard to simply recreate the world before 2020 will likely only frustrate themselves and their employees. Those leaders, however, who innovate and invent the agency for this moment and the future will likely thrive.

“If there was ever a time for all of us to stand up and engage fully in shaping the future in a positive manner, it’s now," says Weiss. "There is no room for complaining. No room for indifference.”