On Monday, PR Week published an article; Do PR agencies really need an office? Virtual working takes off in comms. Written by Sam Burne James, the story looked at the spate of agencies now operating virtually, with staff working independently, separated at times by oceans rather than desk dividers.
There is a clear financial benefit to operating without an office, whether that translates to cheaper costs or higher profits, but are agencies losing something more than a large operating expenditure?
The cheapest (approximate) office space in London is Camden at £40 per square foot, a year. The industry standard for efficient (i.e. cheapest) use of space is 75 square foot per employee, so a small(ish) agency of 10 would expect to pay £30,000 a year in rent. That is before you add in the price of business rates, insurance and the costs of equipping and running an office.
But what does an annual cost of £40k or more bring to an agency? For one thing – a hub for people to meet, work and collaborate in. The best client work is not done in isolation, but is the product of collective minds. It can start with groups brainstorming pitch ideas and end in account teams delivering results as a unit. Working side-by-side and under one roof encourages people to share ideas and approaches – and to take pride in each other’s successes. I guess if you get a great result while working in your kitchen you can always paw bump the cat.
With people comes structure. In an office you will have managers and the employees they are charged with developing working side-by-side. They will meet regularly to assess performance and ensure plans are in place to help individuals progress at a rate that is right for them and the business. This is more than just altruism though, it is a way of collecting and sharing best practice across a company, and is in many ways the IP of an agency. By pooling this knowledge you create an ethos or a way of working that can define your agency. For example, at AprilSix Proof we work exclusively in technology, science, engineering and innovation. Our clients work in complex industries and need a tailored approach to communications that balances the need for technical accuracy with the need to articulate their work in a way that is easily understood by target audiences. We have an approach to help them achieve this, a process we have honed over the last 12 years. The approach was devised by our founders and has been refined through the input of our people since then, and will continue to grow in this way.
An office is also important to clients, to the point that some public sector tenders will automatically be closed to agencies working virtually. It is more than just a procurement tick box though, offices providing a recognised space to meet in and even provide an area for clients to work when away from their own buildings. As an agency with a global footprint it is no surprise that the majority of our clients are not London-based. So when clients travel to the capital for meetings or conferences it is great to be able to offer them a “home from home” to use as a base when they are in the area. As an agency we benefit greatly from travelling to clients in regions from Glasgow to Geneva, Belfast to Berlin. By spending time embedded in their operations we can find out so much more about their work, their people and their principles, which only improves the work we deliver for them. This applies the other way round – by opening your doors to clients they can get to know your whole business, and not just the account team that works with them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, an office provides a hub for your people to gather, work and even socialise. People are happier if they work in environment where they respect and like their colleagues, regardless of whether they are junior or senior to each other. Enforced corporate fun (paintball – argh!) can send a shiver down the spine of even the most cheerful employee, but creating an atmosphere where fun happens organically, where colleagues are given the space and encouragement to get to know each other and socialise without feeling it is a chore creates a great working culture and atmosphere. At AprilSix Proof this has even resulted in two couples, one marriage and three children – not that that was part of any official policy!
Home working should always be encouraged where possible, providing an option for people if planned in advance. Giving people the time to get their head down away from the phones and inane questions of senior management (“Remind me, what was the PO number for the work we did in Grenoble last August?”). At AprilSix Proof we encourage our people to work from home up to once a week, giving them the time to concentrate on specific tasks like long form writing, or just providing the flexibility to get the plumber over to fix that leaky tap. For those of us with children, it also helps with the mad dash of the school or nursery run and anyone using the rail network needs a break from the regular transport chaos to abate their rising rage.
Those of us who work in communications are usually friendly and inquisitive sorts, the type of people who like to mix, mingle and meet people. We all need some space now and again, but in general we want to be around others to collaborate, catch up or just gossip. That will always be easier to do in person than through social media channels whilst sitting in your box room at home. The office is safe, for now.
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