Perspectives from a PR agency that busted norms 15 years ago

In 2005 I decided that my industry was broken. There was high turnover, profits that flowed exclusively to top management and exorbitant waste paid for fancy offices. And most importantly, for an industry with a high degree of female participation, there was a huge percentage of women who dropped out of the workforce after having kids.  Due to a combination of inflexible workplace norms and burnout, women who had options said, “forget it.” Much has been written about this topic. The McKinsey broken rung research is most notable for how women lose out over time. But even back in 2005, before this had been explored more deeply, I knew I wanted a better option. I started something new, built from the ground up to serve the people I was lucky enough to call my team.

We built a virtual team that put a focus on people and talent versus geographic location and traditional schedules. Being shackled by existing workplace norms wasn’t only frustrating, it was actually a disadvantage to the opportunities created by advancements in technology and growth of knowledge work. So, we architected a new kind of environment where talented, ambitious people could come together and own their work experience.

In the great race for talent in 2022 I see a lot of new terms, perks and benefits being used to attract and retain teams.  But has the underlying culture of PR and marketing agencies changed? A business must fundamentally shift how it approaches the nature of work, its relationships with its workers and what success metrics are. Unless these adapt, I don’t believe the change is built to last.

Making small changes on the margins, like allowing for some work from home days, better pay or a new wellness program is not solving a much larger problem. As Adam Grant astutely wrote in his essay The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work: the great resignation isn’t about quitting, it is about finding freedom.

For agencies looking to attract committed people for the long term and workers examining their options, I offer three principals that I believe are key to creating long-term value for the company and the people who work there – based on our unique experience at The Fletcher Group over the last 15 years:

Advertised: Flexible work. Look for: Freedom to work.

We have offered both work from home, asynchronous and part-time work schedules since 2005. True flexible work means your employer places trust in you to get the job done in a way that works for the employee. If a company is simply offering a work-from-home environment with a companywide mental health day off, it is not necessarily flexible. Being on Zoom 8 hours a day from home is not flexible. Answering Slack messages at all hours is not flexible. Not everyone works best in a 9-5 environment and for most agency jobs, they don’t need to adhere to that rigid schedule all the time. Agency leaders should work with their teams to figure out the norms that work for them and be open to people who don’t fit the typical mold of a 9-5er.

Advertised: Better pay. Look for: Share the value created.

A bigger paycheck is great. A big bonus is also great, particularly when these bumps in pay increase the trajectory for lifetime wealth creation. This is particularly true for women and people of color who have traditionally been paid less over time. In the current environment there is a lot of advice about striking while the iron is hot. Make the jump to your next job to get the big bump in base pay. Not a bad idea, but make sure the jump will lead to a sustained outcome. The company value to look for is profit sharing and ownership, not just a one-time signing bonus. Companies that have it in their DNA to share profits and view everyone as owners of the firm’s destiny will continue to pay strong dividends over the long term. At our firm we have shared 20% of the profits each year with the team. We also have a culture of ownership – you don’t need to be an actual owner to feel ownership and control over the destiny of the organization. If everyone has that mentality it leads to greater engagement and retention.

Advertised: Positive culture. Look for: Personal fulfillment.

Company culture is well documented as critical to success. Today, there isn’t a company out there without a mission and vision statement. And companies have tried to do a better job of killing cubicle culture with lunch buffets, ping pong tables and Friday happy hours.  Some of these initiatives may make work more fun, drive creativity and build teams and relationships (which is very important,) but they don’t translate to fulfilled employees on their own. Also critical to address are how the team will work together and the norms of engagement. How does everyone communicate? What are the expectations for workload?  How do you incorporate technology? What happens when someone must take care of a sick parent? When your child busts in on a Zoom meeting, how does the team react? What happens when a new client is won but HR hadn’t been able to hire new people? What is the pacing? Are you expected to be friends with your co-workers? It is my experience that this is the stuff that really matters. And I have found that a truly nurturing and supportive team culture is what matters the most.  The most sustainable company culture supports the personal fulfilment of its people. In my experience this is key to value creation, productivity and retention of people and ultimately clients.

Our company is anchored in these core principals. We created a bold new environment where talented, ambitious people could come together to support one another and own their work experience . This has 100% been the key to our success with industry leading client and people retention rates. In this hyper-competitive hiring moment, all agencies must rethink how they approach the very nature of work if they expect to win the war for the best talent in 2022 and beyond.

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