Is the pandemic the death knell of the brick-and-mortar agency?

The COVID-19 crisis is going to change how business is done—but how profound will the changes be? One pro argues it’s time to change the office floorplan for good.

Will the pandemic be the end of the office?

The COVID-19 pandemic marks 120 years of the public relations agency—and, some fear, the beginning of its end.

(Though many people have referred to P.T. Barnum as the inventor of press agentry, the first more traditional publicity agency was founded by George Michaelis in Boston in 1900.)

I’m in the same boat as most freestanding public relations agencies when I wonder if I should continue paying rent for an abandoned space. Even prior to the pandemic, workplace psychologists and ergonomists alike had already predicted the death of the open-concept office. In hindsight, it’s abundantly clear that having a dozen people share a communal table, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in hard plastic chairs for eight hours a day, is downright inhumane.

I like to imagine that even the Edwardian-era bullpens of Michaelis’ day still allowed for each employee to have their own private workspace—and perhaps a handsome mahogany twin-pedestal desk with haberdashery drawers.

For the record, even during my agency’s startup phase, I never subscribed to the philosophy of the communal table or the trendiness of a WeWork space. And, coincidentally, my loft is naturally socially distanced. Even before COVID-19, visitors often commented on how “sparse” and airy our agency felt, with our vintage tanker desks—which we procured from the set of the Fox TV series “Gotham.”

But the question remains: Is the era of the digital nomad and the telecommuter solidified? With Slack and Zoom and no more unnecessary boardroom presentations, do we even need office space? Like the ancient Romans who discovered the efficiencies of working from wax tablets in the field, should l embrace innovation? Should I break my lease?

My answer remains “no”—but it’s time to give every public relations professional their own space in 2021. Looking back at my decades of occupying more than a few agency floor plans, there were exactly two times that I had my own office. I once fought over the only available enclosed nook at a midsize agency only to discover, later, that it was just a converted coat closet. I also remember an account executive quitting in frustration to go to a big agency that sounded like the promised land: “Everyone gets their own office with a view,” she gloated. “Even AE’s.”

This was mind-blowing to me at the time. I had to rise through the ranks to senior vice president before I finally had my own space with natural light and no roommates. And, of course, it was one of only about six offices belonging to the top brass. The coveted rooms surrounded a fluorescent cubicle land of about a hundred people. Spatially speaking, I was an agency one-percenter.

When it’s safe and sanitary to do so, I believe that the PR workforce will crave a return to human connection more than ever before. There’s a certain level of camaraderie and collaboration that only happens when you’re in the same room, even if it’s a larger, disinfected and air-purified room.

But every flack deserves their own perch in which to pitch.

Neil Alumkal is the founder and president of Stuntman PR.

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