Company Health (Beyond Profit)

Discussion Series, Episode 2: youdo talks about all things company culture

Luke - Welcome back everyone to the second in our discussion series on all things company culture. Today's guest is Ollie Lane, Managing Director of PR agency, PLMR. Prior to working at PLMR, Ollie worked in journalism and in government at the Department of Education. Ollie can start by telling us a little bit about what you do at PLMR?

Ollie - PLMR is a full spectrum communications agency. What that means is that we do all the different bits of comms. So we do PR and media relations, crisis comms and reputation management, public affairs and stakeholder engagement, and lots more. And we have a brilliant digital unit, who run social media & SEO campaigns, build websites, make great films and do motion graphics, design and so on.

We work across all sectors; transport, technology, health, social care, energy, sustainability and education. We do have some specific specialisms (education, sustainability, social care & health are especially strong) but the principles of comms means that we work successfully across all sectors. We are a business of 90 people and almost all of those are client facing consultants. We have offices across the country, in London, the East of England, the Midlands and we have a team in Scotland as well.

Luke - You're helping companies shape their brand & their message audiences across many channels. If you look back over the last 10 years, what's changed about the way companies need to present themselves? Do they need to say different things? Do they need to have different priorities or display different behaviours?

- I think there has been a shift and 10 years or so ago sort of marks the start of that shift. You’re getting organisations wanting to make clear their position on certain issues, whether that is on diversity and inclusion, or around gender balance or whatever it might be. I think one of the reasons they are keen to do that is the changing nature of the workforce. Younger people have a view of the type of organisation for which they want to work. I think this has accelerated even in the last year or so, when we now have what is very much a market for candidates. They can pick and choose who they work for. When I was younger, I was delighted that anyone would give me a job! I think younger people have greater confidence, not just in themselves, but also in the knowledge that there are jobs available. And that's a good thing. But I think it's also a good thing for organisations, because organisations have had to up their game on that front.

Luke - It's clear that companies are facing challenges as they adjust to hybrid working. Is this an area where you’re being asked to bring your skills to bear?

Ollie - We haven't given a huge amount of advice on how organisations arrange their working conditions, because it's not specifically a communications issue. But it is a culture issue and it is an organisational issue. What we at PLMR have done in terms of the post COVID work environment is have a fairly loose arrangement, whereby we ask colleagues to come into the office at least twice a week. But we haven't made it compulsory.

What we saw through the pandemic is something that surprised a lot of people, particularly among those over a certain age, and that is that it’s perfectly possible to do really well, as an organisation while working remotely, You don't need to be in the office, you don't need to be with colleagues every single day, to do a great job. But equally, lots of people like coming into the office.

One of the things we've tried to stress is that collaboration, community, culture and creativity, all of those things can only really be done if you're in the same room. So we do like people being in the office - but we also respect their wish not to be in the office all the time. There’s a balance to be struck.

I think that the hybrid model is good for colleagues, good for organisations and good for retention. For us, it’s also been really good in terms of recruitment. If you have a London office, you tend to recruit - and people would only apply - if they were in London, or close by it. We've just hired somebody who wants to live in Scotland, they live in Glasgow at the moment, they want to carry on living in Glasgow, and we said, that's fine. We do want them to come to the office a bit so they can meet people and work with their colleagues. That’s still really important. But this is something that can be done now, whereas before it almost wasn't on the table.

One of the reasons for that is that it isn't just our outlook that’s changed, but also that of our clients. Face to face meetings are far fewer than they used to be. The days of jumping on a train to Swindon, say, for a one hour meeting, and then racing back for another in London, are gone. We still do it from time to time, but it's much less often. It's still really important to do those face to face meetings with clients, terrible phrase, but the face time you get from that, and the time spent in person with someone is, I think definitely better than doing it remotely. I think a balance is crucially important. And if you can get that balance right, then that's good for your organisation internally, it’s good for your people. And it's also good for the work that you can do for other people. It’s also great for your people who have kids or who for instance are coming back off parental leave: the flexibility that COVID has brought, and the understanding we all now have of that - or should have of that - is a really great thing and I think it’s especially positive for parents of babies wanting to come back to work and being able to work out a schedule that fits with their home lives.

Luke - There are a few things to pick up on there. So first of all the fact that you say to your people we'd like you to be in the office a couple of days a week but we're not mandating it. I think that shows a high degree of trust in your people, which is a great thing. I tend to agree with you on the ‘in the same room piece’ for culture, for connectivity, and so forth.

Ollie - The thing is you can't prove the counterfactual. I think it's been a happy surprise to a lot of people that remote working has worked really well, and we have done really well through the pandemic - but maybe we'd have done even better in that period if we'd all been working together. Who knows. But we certainly did very well, and it has allowed that level of trust to flourish, which I think is really positive.

We could do more than we do, you could always do more. I think leaving it up to people has been a good thing. Because it makes sure that people take responsibility on their own, which is important. We've also done some things to support it. We do regular all staff days, when we get all of us together and we make a bit of a day of it. We have external speakers who are interesting and worth people's time.

We're now 90 people, five years ago, we were 25 people. With 25 people, everyone knows each other really well. And it's easy - or easier - to do an away day, because all 25 people can do the same thing at the same time. It's much harder to have 90 people going out for lunch, for instance, or 90 people on an excursion. But you just have to think a bit more laterally about it and accept in a way that you can't do everything at the same time with everybody. So you learn to do things differently. And that’s a good thing in itself and it still works really well.

Luke - How difficult has it been to maintain PLMR’s culture as you’ve grown?

Ollie - The growth of our business has predominantly been through two routes - through organic growth and through the acquisition of other strong agencies who can add to what we already offer. The first two agencies who joined us arrived in 2017, two brilliant businesses that have really added a huge amount to what we do and can do. In both cases, the colleagues in those businesses came into our London office. So we integrated them within the office and we all got to know each other by working together side by side every day.

The two agencies we bought last year, one was in the Midlands, and one was in the East of England. Asking them to join us in London would have been self-defeating because it is their regional expertise that excited us about them. So they didn’t move to London and of course that's been a good thing in terms of those guys in those businesses being happy and settled. Equally the integration piece is a bit more challenging because we aren’t sitting next to one another in the same office. Inevitably it takes longer to get to know those colleagues as well as those who came to the London office five years ago. So the all-staff gatherings and away days have been really important because it gives an opportunity for everyone to see and meet one another and spend time in the same physical space together.

One of the challenges that I think almost every organisation is facing in the new world of hybrid working is office space. I'll use us as an example. We have an office that has capacity for 60 people. It is rare that there are more than 30 in there on any given day. And sometimes there are 6. That means we're paying quite a lot of money for per head.

Some organisations have decided to get rid of the office altogether. That's fine - their choice. We've decided not to, because we think it's important to retain it so that people can work together, but in particular for those colleagues who actually really need and want to work in the office. I think it's really important that we keep our space open for people. Not everyone has chosen to do that. We could downsize to an office of say 30 but then what happens on those days when everyone wants to come in? So I think keeping that flexibility is important. And although it's expensive for us, it's something that is important to a lot of colleagues and it's crucial that we listen to that.

Luke - What's your take on how the government is approaching hybrid working?

Ollie - We have a government at the moment, which is very clear in its public pronouncements, including in the media, that it wants civil servants to be back in the office and working and present. And they're making a big thing of that. I think it’s partly driven by the government's political agenda, and there's a sort of culture war element to it. There's also an element of them wanting to reduce the size of the civil service. So they criticise civil servants for not coming in to the office and being lazy and they try to make their point that way.

But it's also driven by the fact that they want to get people back on trains and commuting and on tubes because of the revenue that that gives to train companies and TfL. And it also involves wanting to get people back into city centres and using shops and restaurants and cafes.

The government's position on that and trying to get their departments full of civil servants every day is very different to what is happening generally outside government, where most organisations have adopted a hybrid working culture and in many cases it’s quite a loose arrangement. So where the government has been quite hard on this topic, lots of private sector or non government organisations have been quite flexible and are leaving a lot of the decision making to their employees. The civil service isn’t a very happy place at the moment so perhaps that tells its own story.

Luke - Switching back to your role as a communications agency - do you sometimes find that the messaging that you're being asked to look at is at odds with the external perception of the company

Ollie - I think it's important that organisations are true to themselves. Working with clients who approach an issue with openness and a proactivity to want to do something is much easier than when an organisation is being pushed into it. So for instance, you might have, say, a university where students are making it clear that they want the university to adopt a certain position around a particular issue. And if the university is sort of feeling that it's doing it because it has to, then that makes it a little harder. Ultimately it comes down to whether it's voluntary, or whether they're being pushed into it.

Sometimes you have organisations who might be very progressive in their outlook, but another issue will come along and blindside them. If you take an example of the Blair Partnership, in the world of publishing, one of their authors is JK Rowling. When she made her comments around the trans issue, that was really challenging for them, both among their staff and their customers. So it's not the case that an organisation is proactive and voluntary and is front-footing its position on every single issue - occasionally something comes along that they need to be reactive to.

Luke - You represent different companies in different sectors. Are they all at slightly different stages in terms of their focus on social issues, environmental issues and employee well being?

- It depends. If you're a bigger company, you are expected to take a position on something much more than if you're a smaller one. Also you're more likely to be asked for your position. Smaller companies don’t often get asked to comment on issues.

Luke - Do you think that companies care more about their people and the wider environment that they operate in than they used to?

Ollie - I do and I think there are two reasons for that. Firstly out of pragmatism. If you want to hire, if you want to retain, then it's important. And you want to hire good people, and you want to retain good people, because then your organisation can do better.

But I also think there's been a shift to caring more simply because it's the right thing to do. I think both are equally valid. And I don't think one is driving change more than the other, I think that they're both doing it equally. I started my career in newspapers 20 plus years ago. I don't know exactly what the culture of newspaper offices is today because I don’t work in them and I wouldn’t presume. But 20 plus years ago when I worked in newspapers they certainly operated in a certain way. And they weren’t always gentle, friendly places of work. That is a far cry from where I work now. And that is a very good thing.

Luke - That's a great point to end on! Ollie thank you so much for your time and insight.