It Is a Dream

The grand journey is complete. Five countries, fifteen states and nearly 50,000 miles over 11 months, beginning with a road trip through the Upper Midwest in July 2021 and concluding in Southern Portugal in May 2022. It was a deliberate cadence for work, professional development, play, exploration and self-reflection.

Three of the trips involved meetings with my partners in the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the world’s oldest and largest partnership of independent PR agencies. We last met in person in Vienna in 2019. For nearly three years we used online channels for knowledge sharing, professional development and networking. It worked, but it exposed the gaps created when any organization tries to function in an all-remote environment.

Our global meeting two weeks ago in London was attended by nearly every partner. Over the course of three days of formal presentations, outside speakers and informal conversations, I took away a wealth of information, including insights into these topics:

  1. “Return to Work” is about “why,” not “how” or “when.”

Virtually every Worldcom partner is struggling with the same issue facing our clients – how and when to get employees who love the flexibility of remote work to return to the office, particularly at a time when hiring qualified people is an enormous challenge. But the “how” and “when” must come after organizations figure out “why” employees need to return to the office.

Saying “This is the way it has always been done” or “We’re paying a lot of money for empty space” are not valid “why” reasons to employees. But leaders know “why” being re-engaged in-person matters so much. Young employees need to develop workplace and interpersonal skills. Mid-level managers need re-engagement in the conversations, ideas and teamwork that drive organizations forward. Teams need to address the cracks and resentment spreading between front-line workers who have no choice but to show up (on the assembly floor, the restaurant drive-thru) and professional staff who can email it in from the kitchen table.

If your organization is struggling with how to get employees back to work, make sure you have articulated to everyone the “why.” Then comes the “how” and “when,” which most likely will involve small operational steps. My counsel is to not drop employees into a boiling pot of water. Slowly turn up the heat. And for those folks who resist or push back too hard, let them go. At the end of the day, employees (at every level) come and go in organizations. Customers come and go. Clients come and go. The organization remains. Make choices that are in the best short- and long-term interests of your organization, communicate them clearly and then decisively act on them.

  1. Difficult topics will never be universally embraced.

Just as the return-to-work issue stirs people up, organizations face a host of other issues that do not have clear roadmaps to follow such as DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) and ESG (environment, sustainability, governance). In most cases, I find that organizations want to “do the right thing.” But on every one of these topics, there are different viewpoints as to what “the right thing” is and contextual issues that defy standard approaches.

One agency leader described how their organization was developing internal processes related to diversity, equity and inclusion. They assembled a diverse group of employees who struggled to reach consensus on plans, policies and even language. And once decisions had finally been made and shared with external audiences, even more dissension was raised.

While it is not quite as bad as the mantra “No good deed goes unpunished,” organizations need to take to heart the reality that sticky issues are not cleanly handled. It does not mean they should be avoided or hidden; but don’t expect gold stars and pats on the back from people who more than likely want to tell you these things should have been addressed a long time ago. As with return-to-work issues, make decisions that are in the best short- and long-term interests of the organization, clearly communicate them to all key stakeholders (and don’t stop communicating) and move forward.

  1. Learn about emerging technology, even if you decide it’s not right for your organization.

I listened in on multiple conversations in which I have limited knowledge – blockchain technology, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), establishing a presence for clients in the meta-verse. While many of these topics are related to finance or operations, they are also about communication and brand. Bring your communications’ team and/or agency partner into the loop (or seek out new ideas from them) to ensure your organization is not caught short in adapting to new technologies and realities. The choices you make on these fronts help define your organization. And as noted several times already, make decisions that are in the best short- and long-term interests of the organization, clearly communicate them to all key stakeholders (and don’t stop communicating) and move forward.

Last summer, at the conclusion of my 30-day road trip, I wrote a blog post  that reiterated my belief the United States is  an amazing country unmatched in the world. Having now added five more countries (Russia, England, Portugal, Costa Rica and Jamaica) to my overall list, I stand by that statement.

But don’t take my word for it. In every one of those countries over the past 11 months, I have heard the same refrain from waiters, hotel clerks, hairdressers, taxi drivers and countless others. When I ask if they have been to the United States, they all have the same reply. “No, but it is a dream.” Despite our challenges and shortcomings as a country, America remains a beacon in the world for personal, societal and political freedom.

I look forward to sitting at my desk, in my office, in the coming months and helping our clients make progress on many of the issues outlined in this blog post. If your organization needs a dependable partner to help navigate these issues as well, please reach out. We’d love to have a conversation with you.