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Return to the Office: 8 Predictions from the Pros

by Anne Wainscott-Sargent, FiscalNote

As government affairs and advocacy firms prepare to return to the office this fall, the new normal may not be business as usual.

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COVID-19 ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of employed people that isn’t likely to fade as full economic activity resumes. As government affairs and advocacy firms prepare to return to the office this fall, the new “normal” may not be business as usual, if recent surveys prove accurate:

  • A Public Affairs Council survey finds that two-thirds (66 percent) of government affairs executives say their staff can do their entire jobs well while working remotely. Some 87 percent of government affairs executives say it will become increasingly common to use video conferencing for lobbying. 
  • Morning Consult found that 82 percent of current remote workers enjoy working remotely, with 7 in 10 reporting that they are more productive, and a similar share saying they are more likely to apply for a job that offers a remote work option.

FiscalNote and CQ Roll Call asked a panel of advocacy leaders to weigh in during this unprecedented time, sharing eight predictions of how advocacy and government relations work will evolve, post-pandemic. 

1. Productivity Will Look Different

Tonya Saunders is a principal at the Washington Premier Group, a legislative and public policy firm in Washington, D.C. that represents more than 3,200 members of the lobbying group Federally Employed Women. During the pandemic, “we have been connecting on all fronts” – communicating over video calls and holding larger political dialogues online, said Saunders.

This was especially true during the election cycle when Saunders published weekly e-newsletters to ensure that members had the right context on issues to make informed votes on topics such as federal employee paid leave.

Kevin O’Neill, partner and chair of the Legislative Practice Group at Arnold & Porter, an international law firm in Washington, D.C., described his firm’s policy work as having “no more than one degree of separation” from the pandemic and its related economic effects. In fact, the firm has grown significantly during the pandemic, with new staff being onboarded virtually. “I think everyone has learned that they can be productive without being at their desk.”

For Joshua Habursky, head of Government Affairs for the Premium Cigar Association (PCA), the pandemic resulted in significant staff cutbacks since their major tradeshow event, which helps fund the association’s operations, was canceled due to COVID-19. As a result, Habursky had to wear multiple hats to keep serving the mission of the organization. Fortunately, PCA has now staffed back up. 

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2. Collaboration Tools Are Here to Stay

2020 was a pivotal year for workplace culture and collaboration due in large part to the sudden shift to remote working. Video conferencing technology was, no doubt, a big player in keeping business going but collaboration tools have emerged as a staple for government affairs and advocacy teams, even beyond COVID-19.

“The firm has devoted more resources to making sure everyone has the technological tools to communicate and understand how to operate,” explained O’Neill. “We've had to spend more time working on communicating together through shared apps and other ways, since you can no longer walk next door to Josh's office or Tonya's office and say, ‘hey, I was just up on the Hill and here's what happened.’ An email doesn't necessarily capture all that. So we put time and effort into that, and I think people have become better teammates as a result.”

3. Hybrid Will be the Law of the Land 

“We’ve turned a corner, especially this year, in terms of some of the staff and members of Congress and their willingness to meet in person,” said Habursky, noting that his team is gauging the comfort level of members and Congressional staff and representatives doing small group in-person meetings. “The new norm will be a combination of both in-person and virtual,” he said.

O’Neill agreed, noting that there are times when people will want to be in the office for client meetings or for trips to the Hill, but plenty of other instances when flexibility and virtual work make sense. “We know from the last 15 months we can have extraordinary productivity and extraordinary success for clients doing that,” he said. “I don't think we're ever going to return to a five-day-a-week expectation in the office.”

Nevertheless, O’Neill said his firm is expecting many employees to return to the office in that hybrid capacity by mid-September. He anticipates the need to “identify time for culture-building activities, for sharing information, for sitting together and strategizing” – activities he contends are more effective in person than over video.

“The plan moving forward is for job roles to dictate whether staff come onsite or remain remote,” said Habursky, noting that “relationship-driven” roles such as government affairs or membership communications would be onsite.

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Saunders was more cautious, predicting it would be another six months before in-person meetings become more of the norm.

4. Virtual Fly-Ins Will Continue to Prevail

Will business travel resume to pre-COVID levels? Not everyone thinks so. 

O’Neill expressed doubt that there would be a fall fly-in, noting that the economics don’t support hopping on a plane when you could do a meeting on Zoom. Plus, there are some other benefits beyond economic. “Everybody is getting the undivided attention of the people they're meeting with, and I think we shouldn't throw that away while we have it,” he said.

But not all travel will be lost. “Some is going to come back because clients really value you walking the factory floor, seeing their business in person, and understanding how it operates,” O’Neill said. 

Case in point: Habursky’ said he intends to increase his in-person retail site visits from 75 in 2020 to 100 this year. The meetings, he explained, are critical to maintaining advocacy as a key association member benefit.

5. Boundaries Will Need to be Redefined

The pandemic forced people to work from home, which frequently resulted in their business and home lives bleeding over. O’Neill experienced this firsthand, recalling how throughout last year, and into the fourth quarter “it wasn’t unusual for people to have Saturday and Sunday conference calls and to be calling at eight, nine, ten o'clock at night. Everyone needs to redraw the boundaries of their relationships,” he said. 

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6. Digital Engagement Will Remain Core 

Asked if there were any silver linings to their work during the pandemic, Habursky pointed to an increasing level of engagement, from petitions to letter writing, given that “advocacy was at the forefront.” 

Advocacy pros embraced new digital advocacy operational models that emphasized responsiveness and grassroots engagement during the pandemic and should continue to focus on digital engagement as people return to normal work routines.

7. Organizations Continue to Strengthen DEI Focus

Saunders noted that there was a temporary halt to certain diversity and inclusion training programs that federal contractors were supporting for the government late last year, but those efforts have since resumed with an increasing number of organizations looking at how to include diversity and inclusion in their workforce training programs. 

There also has been a renewed focus on issues of most importance to her group – from equal pay to equal rights to violence prevention and protection. More than anything, COVID-19 was a unifier for women regardless of their backgrounds, said Saunders.

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“The pandemic allowed us all to see we are in this together,” she said, “Whether you are in a community of color or not, our concerns and needs as a gender are the same and are still on the table.”

8. Getting it Done: Speed as the New Benchmark 

O’Neill observed that during the pandemic hundreds of new entities flooded Washington, D.C., from individual companies to ad-hoc coalitions to associations, all with “extraordinary needs.” 

“One thing last year has done is warped our sense of what’s possible and how fast it can be done,” he said, pointing to the trillion-dollar stimulus and COVID-19 relief bills. “Clients understand why they need to be in the government relations space now more than ever. People feel like they need to be engaged or they’re going to miss out,” he concluded.

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