With apologies to Art Vuolo for today's blog post title, Elon Musk is potentially becoming radio's newest ally – as unlikely as that may sound. That's because he and every broadcast radio CEO in the U.S. and the world would love for workers everywhere to return to the office.
America's WFH situation continues to be more of a head-scratcher with each passing month. In the early days of the pandemic, it was an imperative many do their jobs fom their home offices, spare bedrooms, or garages. In the case of radio, many personalities earned the art of doing shows – even with ensemble casts – from multiple locations. Others came into work, but were pretty much the only people occupying the building.
Before there were vaccines, most workers were legitimately concerned about their personal health, as well as the safety of those around them, especially family members. And if you and/or someone near and dear to you was immuno-compromised in some way, the risk factors became even more precarious.
But now, 27 months past the onset of COVID, the Wall Street Journal reports the situation keeping workers away from their offices isn't fear of infection, or that sales rep in the next cubicle who always says inappropriate things, or the traffic director with the incessant cough.
It's the commute.
The Journal's Konrad Putzier cites a Gallup poll taken last summer where a majority of those who prefer WFH pointed to commute time as the smoking gun. It's orange barrels, jack-knifed semis, and rude drivers who make the trips to and from work so torturous. And now that gas prices are in the $5 range in most big cities (always higher in L.A., of course), you'd expect the “commuting complex” to present an even greater barrier to RFH – or Return From Home. Many employees have discovered they are every bit as productive working from home, not to mention family time that's been carved out because of the disappearance of the commute.
Obviously, there's a ripple effect, especially in the nation's big cities where commute times extend more than a half hour each way. Whether its office occupancy or all those retail businesses that depend on commuters, there are economic implications that seriously impact the economy.
The Journal reports the longer the commute time, the more those downtown skyscrapers and office buildings remain sparsely occupied by worker bees. And according to Kastle, a keycard company, “swipes” in the nation's biggest metros were down an average of 57% since the coronavirus changes our lives.
Many of those WITP (working in their pajamas) have become accustomed to avoiding the highways and byways every morning and afternoon. And while many point to the importance of office culture, the conventional wisdom among workers is that the long, tiring commute “was tradition more than necessity,” according to Mark Dixon, chief exec at IWG PLC, a hybrid working firm.
Not surprisingly, the commute now plays a role in the interviewing process. Private equity firm, Golden Vision Capital's chief, Eli Boufis, says “The first thing (prospective employees) ask about is how often do I have to be in the office.”
Not about whether there's free beer, ping-pong tables, or at-work child care?
Perhaps American bosses can take some consolation in the fact that it's not just a workforce issue in the U.S. of A. The Journal article confirms that big cities around the world – London is a prime example – are facing the same struggles attracting workers back to their cubicles.
Some experts believe relocating offices closer to neighborhoods and suburban communities could be the remedy. They point to cities like Copenhagen where housing is affordable, the infrastructure is solid, and the locals can reside closer to their jobs. Perhaps, but these kinds of solutions require much planning, great expense, and considerable time.
None of this is good news for radio, the one medium most dependent on those two tiresome commutes each day for time-spent listening. Sure, satellite radio and podcasts are also closely tied to in-car listening. But broadcast radio is still the most-listened to medium when people are on four wheels. The longer the commute, the more chances for consumption, even in “connected cars” where infotainment options abound.
We saw confirmation of this basic truth in this year's Techsurvey 2022 in a question series originally written by Signal Hill Insights maven, Jeff Vidler. He posed the same queries in his native Canada in a study called “Radio On The Move,” done in concert with Radio Connects (similar to the RAB). This year, we added these same questions to our survey.
The series helped us better understand the “need states” and “activity matching” common to four platforms: streaming audio services, podcasts, personal music, and of course, AM/FM radio.
It was when we zeroed in on those accompanying activities that go best with each medium, we started seeing fascinating connections. Below is a hierarchy of the things people do most when listening to AM/FM radio:
You need not be a research guru to understand the implications of this graph. The top two activities most associated with broadcast radio listening are heavily car-related. They both underscore what I often call the peanut butter and jelly relationship between driving and turning on the car radio. None of the other media has these two auto-centric activities in their top five rankings. Additionally, broadcast radio's levels for both commuting and shopping/running errands by car top the other three media platforms. And broadcast radio's 81% connection for “commuting by car” is more than 30 percentage points higher than the other platforms.
So, when workers decide they're simply not going to participate in the daily trek to work, or they'll only do it on occasion, there's no question broadcast radio stations and how they perform in the ratings are the biggest losers. (OK, and we should include talent bonuses here, too.) We certainly saw cratering ratings at the beginning of the pandemic. And folks who delay their return to the office continue to have a damping effect on ad-supported radio stations, especially in some of the nation's biggest markets where commutes are excessively long..
If radio could wave the magic dipstick, workers would return to their cubicles and offices in hordes. But alas, employers are stuck with making the most persuasive argument to employees, and then hoping for the best. All radio broadcasters can do is pray they come up with an effective solution.
Of course, that's assuming the boss is still trying to corral the workforce back to the office. Strangely enough, it seems like ad agencies might be the type of business most impacted by WFH – and least likely to exert a whole lot of effort to reduce the trend. Their workers have stayed home in droves, creating much consternation and hand-wringing.
But more than two years into COVID, and there are signs the ad world may be adopting a new mindset. In fact, a story in Marketing Brew by Alyssa Meyers suggests marketing firms and agencies are especially like to have thrown in the towel in favor of VR goggles.
Meyers lists several ad agencies attempting to generate some degree of lost camaraderie with meetings and creative sessions that take place in….wait for it…the metaverse.
Mediahub is one such company, offering “a very flexible stance” on allowing staffers to work from home. And in the process, they are teaching them about the benefits and inner-workings of VR that can apparently foster a sort of artificial affinity.
Some agencies view the metaverse as a playground suitable for educating their clients. That's apparently Mediahub's playbook. By learning how to function and create in the virtual world, they can teach these sksills to others.
Meanwhile B2B marketers, the Starr Conspiracy, learned that while its staff despise the commute, some are “feeling disconnected from colleagues and feelings of isolation,” according to Bret Starr, the agency's founder and CEO.
Ultimately, he purchased Oculus headsets for each of his 80-something employees, a place where they do “anything from meetings to trivia nights to baby showers” – all in the metaverse.
The Wistia agency's CEO, Chris Savage, says it's all about letting your “people experiment with how they spend time together and how they connect.”
Somewhere out there Elon Musk is reading about these efforts to finesse employees to re-engage, and he's laughing…loudly.
He recently sent ripples through America's workforce with his ultimatum. In an email to his vast Tesla team, Musk wrote that “to be super clear,” employees must spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office a week. And it ended with this quaint thought:
“If you don't show up, we will assume you resigned.”
That is, indeed, “super clear.”
Billionaires tend to get their way, but as Forbes reports, this strategy could backfire on the erstwhile maverick business titan. In a story titled, “Why Critics Say Elon Musk's Return-To-Office Ultimatum Is Dangerous,” Bryan Robinson quotes numerous corporate execs who insist Musk's mandate will only drive his employees to look for a new job.
Noting the technique is heavy-handed, Josh Feast, CEO of Cognito Corporation, insists a kinder gentler approach is necessary “to ensure everyone feels fully supported—emotionally.”
One can only imagine how Musk would react to this kid glove approach to management.
It is difficult to imagine the end game – how it will all play out. Will the workforce get its way, avoiding the commute (and radio!), or will corporate bullying win out in the end?
As much as they may despise him, you have to believe many CEOs will be watching reactions to Musk's rants results with great interest. Will those employees return to work and what will happen to Tesla's stock price.
Radio's C-suites will be watching, too.
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