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Mass exodus? Agency leaders on whether we’re really facing a ‘great resignation’

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Starting back in the late spring, employers across industries began reporting record numbers of people leaving their jobs – and struggling to replace them. Publications called it the ‘great resignation’. Since then, opinion has been split: some say the trend is slowing or stopping; others predict it will accelerate. We asked leaders from The Drum Network what they’ve seen in their own organizations and what they see ahead.

Harriet Shurville, global chief people officer, Iris

When lockdown was over people wanted change in their life and one way to do that was to change jobs. We have sadly lost some great talent – but we have to respect their desire for something different, especially after giving so much to the agency over the years.

Resignations have started to settle down since the summer and we have put steps in place to get close to our talent. We have continued to listen to and understand how everyone is feeling and we’ve been open to feedback and areas for improvement – taking on board what people have to say in exit interviews. This is not a time to be defensive or adverse to criticism.

We’ve been focusing on the progress of our people, which was arguably on hold in 2020. We’ve invested time in training, including a program for all managers. Managers hold the key to others’ progress, so it’s important to give them the tools and knowledge to do this right.

We’ve also moved to a flexible hybrid way of working, only expecting people in the office two days a week, alongside core hours. This allows everyone to still do the same great work while being able to have more time with family or other commitments. There’s no silver bullet here; I’m a firm believer that it requires empathy and flexibility from everyone. What’s important is that we don’t get complacent now, so that we continue to retain our talent and invest in their progress.

Lauren Coe, employee experience associate director, Zone

The truth is, if invested in properly, resignations can be extremely positive. Staff leaving can be sad, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing: businesses are missing a trick if they overlook the opportunities.

There are key opportunities to learn now. Exit interviews, for example, tend to be a tick-box exercise when, in fact, the right exit experience can offer businesses the chance to pinpoint where it can improve and find moments that are of real importance to staff. With platforms such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn giving past employees the opportunity to review an organization, creating an exceptional leaving experience has never been more important – it’s a key time to ensure you have a brand ambassador.

Organizations who have invested in this area are seeing the benefits of promoting their employee reviews to prospective employees. By sustaining a positive relationship, former staff can sometimes find themselves returning to the business. This is massively beneficial: they already understand company culture, processes, and expectations.

Ed Grice, head of EMEA, PMG

The pandemic caused seismic shifts in how employees prioritize what’s important in where they work and who they work with. In some ways, it has also reduced the importance of the career as the centerpiece of one's identity. This created new challenges that businesses need to address — through introspection, listening to their employees, and diagnosing root causes contributing to resignations.

Not all companies are feeling the same pain. Companies that have always made deliberate efforts to promote a people-first culture have fared much better over the past 18 months. At PMG, we have an unwavering commitment to supporting employees both professionally and personally, investing in their development, and promoting a flexible work-life balance. We’ve had more than 90% employee retention during the pandemic.

It’s a simple formula, but taking great care of your teams and consistently doing your utmost to set them up for success (especially during periods of uncertainty) helps them feel empowered to do great work every day and less likely to wonder if things could be better elsewhere.

Putting people first isn’t just a high-minded philosophy. It leads to better results for your customers, and ultimately, your business. It will make your workplace an appealing destination for talent looking for an employer that aligns with their values and cultivates a sustainable culture for the longer term.

Tilly Morgan, operations and people director, Wilderness Agency

Staff turnover rates from 2020 to 2021 have dramatically increased as travel restrictions have lowered, and I see this trend continuing for the next 12-18 months.

It’s a new challenge for employers to not only retain their current workforce but compete effectively to secure new talent – with employees both actively seeking new opportunities and being headhunted.

At Wilderness, we have noticed a large majority of our leavers moving to in-house roles which were previously occupied for over three years. We are seeing opportunities that rarely come on the market cropping up as people look for increased work flexibility, or a change in lifestyle or career path. These roles are incredibly challenging to compete with – not just because of the financial gap between agency and in-house salaries, but also the caliber of brands with vacancies.

Obviously, agencies must compete on salary to secure their workforce, but most importantly, the workforce is looking for opportunities. We must create a business structure that allows for development, then communicate that structure and potential opportunities internally and externally. Wilderness underwent a restructure at the start of 2021 to prepare for the looming increase to attrition levels and despite still facing our fair share of people challenges, our team is invested, engaged and progressing rapidly.

Jon Greenhalgh, managing director, Adapt Worldwide

Macro-economic impacts have created what can only be described as a perfect storm – I’ve never experienced finding talent to be as challenging as it is today. We have worked hard to keep our businesses in check these past 18 months and we’re fortunate that our sector is seeing incredible growth as brands double down on the tangible returns of digital marketing.

Macro-economic trends create change, and this is a positive opportunity. Firstly, we need to think about what people want from their job in 2021. Flexibility is significant and we’ve taken an approach of ‘extreme flexibility’. We want people to use the office in a way that makes them most productive and best able to serve our clients.

There are some big wins from introducing this level of flexibility. Diversity and inclusion for example: the senior landscape dominated by male leaders will hopefully become more challenged over time. Then there’s training. We have a responsibility to train fresh talent, so we launched an academy this year. Our aim is to bring people into our industry from all backgrounds and remove the elitism around university education.

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have taken these risks, and I’d urge others to be bold! You’ll see the benefit in the longer term.

Chris Roberts, managing director, ClickThrough Marketing

We have certainly not been immune to the great resignation, with 2020 seeing elevated levels of churn compared to what we were used to or planning for. This has slowed down over the course of 2021, but still slightly higher than our usual levels, which we’ve traditionally seen being lower than industry standards. Role mobility and flexibility will still be high in 2022, so employers that don’t invest in employee experience will continue to see elevated churn.

We have done a lot to address churn over the last year and ultimately the question we need to answer is ’why ClickThrough?’, as people have more options than before, with hybrid and remote working here to stay for many.

Offering growth to our employees is crucial to retaining staff, especially now. We have invested in developing our people significantly, with several new initiatives including training schemes and increased working flexibility. Putting employees, their wellbeing and development front and center of your agency strategy is the only way to retain the best people in this market.

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