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Pros and Cons of a Remote Workplace with Nick Leighton
Episode 47th July 2022 • PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network • Public Relations Global Network
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How do you define your workplace? Is your team in one location or working in multiple offices? Has this impacted corporate culture?

Nick Leighton is the founder and CEO of NettResults, a results-oriented public relations agency that acts as a gateway for U.S. agencies/clients looking for worldwide media implementation. Founded in 1999 NettResults is headquartered in Dubai, with offices in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Newport Beach, CA and offers public relations, crisis communication, media training, and integrated marketing.

Your host for this episode of PRGN Presents is Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. With PR leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we service, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise and connections in markets spanning six continents. PRGN provides customized communication solutions that combine the scale and stature of an international PR firm with the deep insights and hands-on, senior-level service of a local agency. This offers our clients a unique competitive edge. Learn more at https://prgn.com/

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Transcripts

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to the Public Relations Global Network's 30th anniversary podcast. I'm Adrian McIntyre ...

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we service, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in market spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this "limited edition" podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They'll discuss such topics as workplace culture, creative compensation and succession planning, the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, and outside-of-the-box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Nick Leighton:

Hi, my name is Nick Leighton. My agency is NettResults. We're based in the Middle East, but we're kind of all over.

Abbie Fink:

And I'd want to talk a little bit about that. So the remote workplace, certainly because of the pandemic, has heightened all of our thoughts regarding being able to have people work anywhere from anywhere. But it has created some challenges and some things that as business owners and managers we have to pay attention to. But you've been doing it for quite some time, so talk a little bit about how the structure works.

Nick Leighton:

Well, it is true that we have been doing it for some time, and I think that when you have a lot of clients in multiple countries, you're moving around a lot so you tend to work out of hotels, and that was all fine. Originally we couldn't have remote workforce, particularly in Dubai were we're based. Just the structure wasn't there, the infrastructure didn't exist. We couldn't get great internet connections. So it was really a technology problem more than a desire to be wherever. But obviously as technology has evolved and then being brought to the forefront with COVID, we have more of an opportunity to do that.

Abbie Fink:

What are some of the pros? What makes sense now that you can do it this way? What are some of the positives?

Nick Leighton:

Well, the positives certainly are that there's a cost saving from an agency point of view or from a company point of view. We don't have to have so much space, so that's great. We now have low-cost technology that we can use to collaborate and communicate with very efficiently. So that's all a good thing. Also it gives us access to greater labor force. Previously it's been very hard to find employees in our region and I'm sure that's the same across many parts in the world. So now I have a greater workforce that I can tap into because they don't have to be living in the same city.

Abbie Fink:

And how are you connecting with your teams when you, physically, are based in the US?

Nick Leighton:

The biggest challenge is only the time difference. Beyond that, the technology is there. It's very simple to have Zoom accounts set up, collaboration software in place. Really it's not that hard. There are definitely areas which are affected, which are different from working in-person.

Abbie Fink:

As public relations practitioners we have that ability to be flexible and oftentimes do find ourselves interacting in the client space versus in our own. How do you feel this would translate to maybe the other types of businesses? We're advising clients all the time, many of them right now are grappling with this hybrid work from home, come into the office, should I, shouldn't I, what should we do? And they're coming to us with really that internal communications challenge. How do we do what we need to do? Keep everybody engaged. What kinds of advice could you offer?

Nick Leighton:

So, yeah, absolutely right. And we've been advising our clients and we had a client that came to us recently, they had about 80 people in their business and the owner said, "Nick, should we bring everyone back in? Is it time?" And I said, "Well, before you make that choice, maybe you should go out and survey everyone in the team and see what their desires are." And he came back about a month later and he said, "Okay, well, well we found out of the 80 people in our company, six people would leave tomorrow if I made them come back full time." So, that was a clear message. So now we're moving to that hybrid option and a lot of businesses moving that way right now. But what does that mean? Does that just mean you come in on Tuesdays and Thursday? Or does that mean you spend a weekend and the next week out? What I have found is that the companies that are bringing people in, they're bringing everyone in there and making that time meaningful. It's not just that you come to the office to work from the office today, as opposed to working from somewhere else or your home. You come into the office because there are things going on. We can have collaboration sessions, we're going to have group meetings, so there's a reason to be there in person.

Abbie Fink:

We're a smaller firm. We did a survey, and I also find generationally the differences in who wanted to return to a physical location and who were comfortable. I think for us as the owners of whether it's this type of business or any other is we have to have an elevated level of trust with our teams, that they are doing the work we have hired them to do whether or not they're sitting at the desk that we can see them at. And I think the conversation around what we are creating and what we really want from our own workspace, our own work culture, the positive impact of having this flexibility has benefited me as well. I mean, this wasn't just for my team, but I have a different way of operating as the business owner, and my own personal life has changed as a result of not having the daily commute and the other things. My weekends can be my weekends because I can throw the load of laundry in on a Tuesday and not save at all for the weekend. So, there's a lot of shifting that happened. In my view, it wasn't just an impact on our employees but on us as the owners and managers of the companies as well.

Nick Leighton:

Absolutely. You hinted on something there, the trust element, I mean, the elephant in the room is your team member going to be as effective or efficient when they're not in the office. Let's not kid ourselves, they're not, they can't be. That's why we had personal assistance and reception people in an office to make them more efficient and now they don't have those. So they go to the door to answer the door, they pick up their Amazon packages on the front door, they're probably go to the fridge, they're probably checking their social media. That's not to mention, they're probably putting in laundry in between meetings. And those are the people we trust, those aren't the people who are maybe watching a TV program on the side or playing a game or something. So let's be honest, if we could get everyone into the same space they would be more efficient. So now the challenge becomes, as business owners, how do we embrace this workforce that's remote? How do we make them as efficient as we want them for our culture? So for some cultures, maybe it's fine. Maybe it's kind of hands off, laissez-faire, it's relaxed. But for a lot of cultures, particularly fast moving businesses, we can't exactly be like that. So we have to look at and break down, how do we get this workforce being the most efficient and effective for us? I think there's probably three areas. The first is making sure the processes, the systems are in place. So if you're going to have someone remote, make sure they have the computers, they know exactly what they're expected to do, they've been trained in the right way. Because it's so much harder to train people who are remote if you haven't already had them in the work space and you haven't been with them. So your processes have to be absolutely right. That includes some arbitrary decisions like most people need coffee to work, it's like, so are we paying for that kind of stuff as well now? So let's get your processes right. Then we need to look at accountability because we know our workforce is much more productive if we can hold them more accountable. Now, that it's harder to do when you're not physically in the same place as them. So that takes a manager or an owner of a company to be a lot more meaningful. How do we hold people accountable? How are we going to do that and make that so it's not subjective, it's a little bit more objective? Because we know if communications aren't 100% clear, if we're not in front of people, if we can't see their expressions in our eyes, then it's easy to misconstrue what people are saying, but we have to hold people accountable still. And the last area is probably the motivation. How do we motivate teams we're not seeing them every day. That's harder, again, you have to be way more meaningful and intensive in motivating teams when you're just not with them and can't say, "Hey, how you doing? Good job. High five."

Abbie Fink:

Well, and that comes down to the important role of communication, and however you detail out what your company culture's going to be, what those processes are, what it means to us to be able to provide this sort of workplace. It doesn't change whether you're in the office or working elsewhere, being able to put all that information, put it in front of your people in a way that they understand it, they get it, they buy into it, they feel vested in the process, right? We've asked them, we've talked to them, as you said, six people said we're not coming back. How do we adjust to accommodate the others that do and these that don't and make sure there's room for both to live comfortably in this environment? But it all comes down to the communications.

Nick Leighton:

Absolutely. That's when you said traditional people might have different ways of dealing with this, people who have been in the workforce longer, because them used to communicating in a different way. Younger people in the workforce will definitely communicate with a screen rather than the written word. We can use far more video and video chats and things like that informally and formally. So, that's great. So that's where we are today. But let's look for the future how are we going to make that remote workforce more productive and more efficient in the future? And I think we're just going to go to the next level of communication. So we've gone from the written word, we've gone to screens on our mobile phones, the mobile world, where now we have enough technology for video to be instantaneous. That's fantastic. So next we're going to be looking at the Metaverse, this is what's going to happen next. We're going to be able to have virtual conversations. And while we're just sitting across the room from each other right now in the future, it will be holograms, it'll be as if you'll in that world. Today, we look at it through a screen but as we move forward and I think there's a lot of technology about to be released possibly within the next 12 months from companies such as Meta, which will allow us to feel like we're in the same room as someone when we're really not. And that feeling is part of the communication, it's the nonverbal communication, it's the eye contact, it's the face movements, things like that. And if we can really absorb that into the workplace, then it gets really exciting.

Abbie Fink:

That dates me a bit, right? I got to get myself a little bit comfortable with this new way ...

Nick Leighton:

Not at all.

Abbie Fink:

When these things first started, when remote ... We didn't even have the word remote or hybrid, you just didn't have that. But there was online classes, I mean, we saw how this was happening and my concern, and it still is to some degree, I'm afraid we may lose the one on one ability to have conversations, to go into a room where you don't know anyone and have to shake their hand and introduce yourself because we haven't had to do that and problem solving and some other things that just have to happen, whether, again, whether you're doing it because we're physically in the same space or we've picked up the phone and called each other to do it. So I think all the technology that we have is fantastic and it will evolve and will give us more access, but we have to work within it and still recognize there is a human on the other side of the screen or the microphone that we need to interact with and at some point we need to understand we don't all work this way and the comfort level around it has to evolve. But, I do believe that this ability that we have now has, at least for me, made conversations much more intentional, much more purposeful. They may be scheduled, I'm going to call you at two o'clock to discuss, but it's happening where it's not just a fly by as I'm running out the door to a meeting, I'm actually scheduling and coordinating and making that interaction much more meaningful.

Nick Leighton:

I agree with you. But I also think that the future holds better technology that'll allow us to have better interaction with people. So rather than planning that screen time with someone you're actually in a virtual environment, where you have to go over and tap them on the shoulder, and you'll be able to tell if someone's listening to you. Right now you get on a Zoom call and someone can turn off their camera, they're probably doing email at the same time. If someone is virtually standing next to you with our avatar, you're going to tell if they're listening to you, if they're looking at you or if they're getting sidetracked somewhere else. So I think the whole interaction of people is going to come around to this personal communication. We've definitely been lacking it in the recent past.

Adrian McIntyre:

Regardless of the technology, there's the human component, the wetware as they say, that social and emotional intelligence, which regardless of whatever pipes we're using is still going to be the water that flows through it. What had you had to confront for yourself? What have you had to learn? How have you had to grow as you managed a dispersed and diverse workforce?

Nick Leighton:

I think that's a great question. I think there's a combination of motivation for yourself and for others, but also the ability to really hold yourself accountable as well. Are you dedicated? Can you do this? You've got to stop yourself going doing the laundry or picking something up or being distracted. So that happens at the top and its got to filter all the way down.

Abbie Fink:

Well, I'm just looking forward to my avatar and maybe I can make her a little taller, I don't know, curly hair or something. I do think the workplace is and will continue to change. And as you know, communicators our role in helping guide those conversations with our own people, with our clients will become increasingly more important. Or I should say we have to make a bigger investment in our internal strategy in terms of communication in the same way that we do on the external side.

Nick Leighton:

Totally agree.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Public Relations Global Network's 30th anniversary "limited edition" podcast series.

Abbie Fink:

You can find all the episodes now in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website – along with more information about PRGN and our members – at prgn.com.