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How to navigate the employer-employee power shift

Robert Jane, Chief Talent Officer - Wavemaker UK

New data privacy legislation and shifting first-party data strategies will challenge marketers in 2022.  But it’s talent that’s topping their list of concerns, with a quarter of agency professionals expecting ‘The Great Resignation’ to be their biggest challenge this year. 

‘The Great Resignation’, which saw a record 1.02m British people move to a job from another between July and September 2021, is continuing to cause far-reaching ripple effects. And the war for talent is global. Internationally, a staggering 41% of the global workforce were considering leaving their employer last year, according to a Microsoft study. 

Why such a big shift? Thanks to the pandemic, employees are now in the driving seat. Wavemaker’s recent Growth Trends 2022 report found that the pandemic has altered the employee-employer relationship for good. Employees are more certain than ever about what they will and will not tolerate at work, about what they want their business to stand for, and they are more confident in expressing their wants. 

As a result, those who felt that they weren’t being listened to, felt the company or industry they were in didn’t reflect their own values or questioned if a return to the office would mean a return to a poor work-life balance voted with their feet. 

While every industry has been hit by “The Great Resignation”, the marketing and media sector has a particular reason to worry because it heavily depends on people for ideas and innovation. It’s also a high-pressure industry, where the pursuit of high levels of client satisfaction is coming at the cost of its people.

This is evident in last year’s The Referral Rating (TRR) data – which assesses, among many things, how likely a client is to recommend an agency. It also assesses how likely an agency team member would be to recommend working with their client – The Barometer. The data finds that base-level TRR scores with clients are higher than ever and yet Barometer scores with agency employees have never been lower. 

The Barometer data clearly indicates that our people are under pressure. Time pressure is leading to complaints from mid and junior staff, with “insufficient time”, “heavy workload” and “under-resourced” the most mentioned negative issues by agency staff. And these issues have intensified since the start of the pandemic. 

In other words, the problem is getting worse. It’s now endemic. Agencies have traditionally been ‘work hard, play hard’ environments with high pressure to deliver. But, the pandemic has made them ‘work hard, play never’. Last year, 52% of professionals reported working longer hours when working remotely, and some media agencies even stopped pitching for new business because of understaffing and overwork in their teams. 

As a result, companies are burning through talent, with reports of a 30% average churn rate. In figures, of 100 employees, 30 will resign. A red-hot jobs market may force some to move on (some for pay hikes of 20% or more), while others may leave the industry altogether.

So, what can employers and HR teams do to successfully retain existing and attract new talent? Businesses will need to be flexible, listen and talk to their people and adapt to this new shift in power to the employee. An emphasis on culture, an engaged leadership, career growth opportunities and flexible work will become a competitive advantage across all industries.

Connect through culture
Even before the pandemic began, our opinion was that the 2020s was going to be a culture-first decade; this is going to be a period where employers really start to emphasise employee experience across the board, regardless of what industry they’re in. Putting people first has long been a key element of most agencies’ philosophies. The difference now, however, is that they need to be more inventive about how they go about making an agency a great place to work.

This can start with anything from recognising the regular triumphs, organising more meet-ups outside of the ‘office’ or trips, facilitating cross-team engagement or just adding more plants to the office. Building a culture that works will be different for all agencies, but the heart of it is asking what works for your employees and how do your employees want to connect? What would be the most meaningful way to do that? That’s really where the focus is — listening to them, relating to them and then knowing how to react and support them effectively. 

Prioritise flexibility
One of the first priorities should be clarifying how and when employees are expected to come together in the office. For some, a return to the office is a godsend after spending the best part of the last eighteen months at the kitchen table. But others have found that time at home unlocks greater levels of productivity and focus. If a business fails to offer the flexibility all workers desire, they will find another that does. 

At Wavemaker, for example, we’ve empowered our employees to deliver more purposeful work by choosing the right mode of working for them. We have identified three modes of working and trust our teams to use them as their needs dictate. ‘Keyboard mode’ is for personal working time, ‘coffee mode’ for 121s and status meetings and ‘avenger mode’ is for coming together to harness our individual and collective powers; solving for clients, pitching, innovating, and creating, embracing, and building culture.

Invest in your workforce
Additionally, 2022 will see all businesses working hard to motivate employees internally as well as externally. In many companies, employees find that the best way to move up is to move out, driving up turnover. Employers need to invest in their workforce, offering career path clarity and support. Building from within also means showing workers how they can move up within the company, giving them a reason to think twice about the attractiveness of jumping ship. An employee who sees progression as an option is also more likely to be motivated and engaged, which also amounts to better work and overall wellbeing. 

When your employees are reflecting on what they want from life in the ‘new normal’, will your workplace have what it takes to keep them? The Great Resignation is now business-critical, and organisations across all sectors must act now because their employees won’t wait. 

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