Talent War - How agencies are encouraging employee belonging when WFH

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 12 October 2022
Source: Verne Ho via Unsplash

Working from home has faded feelings of purpose and belonging in agencies.

Research shows that employees feel more productive when they’re given the option to work remotely. But according to the Hays 2022-2023 salary guide, many feel out of touch with their company’s values, purpose and culture due to remote working.

“The employee experience needs close attention and personalization, to attract the best candidates during this time of acute shortages,” Hays states.

“Now the market is calling for employees to be elevated to the status of your most important customer. Employees are motivated when they feel valued and can create impact - and they want to bring their authentic selves to work.” 

While agencies must keep flexible work policies to remain competitive, organisations must balance this with inclusion strategies to maintain a productive and engaged hybrid workplace.

So how are they encouraging employees to come in and promoting feelings of rapport when working remote among staff?

Chris Dodds, co-founder and managing director – digital at Icon Agency told AdNews: “Remuneration is important, however, it’s only one factor that employees look to when choosing an employer. Culture, capacity to learn and progress, hybrid work arrangements and perks are all part of the mix. 

“At Icon we’ve noticed a growing shift towards employees looking to move to more purposeful work – a commitment hard-baked into our ethos. In fact, pretty much every new person we’ve interviewed over the last few months has mentioned a desire to work on projects that will have a positive impact on people, communities and the planet. 

“We believe this attitudinal shift will continue to develop alongside remuneration factors – especially for younger team members who are rightly demanding change and work for good.”

Research from the latest Achiever’s report found that a strong sense of belonging drives three times the level of employee engagement, commitment, productivity, and virtually anything else on the HR agenda. 

Strategically fostering a deep experience of belonging - defined as ensuring employees feel at home - builds business performance.

But of course, there is no one size fits all solution to encouraging belonging and purpose in a workplace because no two businesses are the same. But looking at what competitors are doing can inspire.

Lisa Lie, former head of people and culture at Half Dome, said: “Without doubt, there has been a shift in the way we work, lead, and find purpose and belonging in the workplace. To gain the benefits of flexible working we have to be prepared to be much more intentional with how and what we connect over to generate feelings of purpose and belonging at work.

“If we keep it simple, in the modern workplace belonging is all about being heard and having work relationships, not transactions. Purpose is about finding meaning in what you’re contributing to within your work environment (either through your role or the broader culture).

“Our hybrid work schedule includes:

• Core sync hours: 10 am – 3 pm

• Meeting free day: Awesome. The most valued thing we’ve put in place

• Design your week: The option to condense hours

• Remote first: We expect teams to come together for face-to-face collaboration at least once a fortnight to socialise, learn from each other and think creatively about their work together

• Office as hub: A place to collaborate, learn and socialise

“Some things we’ve put in place to intentionally support hybrid/flexible working and increase purpose, belonging and connection at work include:

 • Co-designing a set of guidelines and success metrics that are owned and implemented by the team

• Established regular feedback loops and resets with team leads for reviewing and sharing lessons around flexible working

• Training every team member on Mental Health First Aid

• Identify the meaningful touchpoints (e.g., our fortnightly Team Meeting) and make them memorable and commute-worthy

• Use DISC profiling workshops to understand different individual workplace needs, strengths and how to get the best from each other.”

The most crucial strategy agencies are prioritising is communication to collect feedback and take action based improvements in their offerings, which ultimately ensures employee inclusion in management decisions.

In fact, the Achievers report stated that employees at companies that regularly take action on feedback are three times more likely to be engaged, committed, enthusiastic, and productive.

Nadine O’Regan, general manager at TQSolutions, said: "A hybrid work culture can be as rich and rewarding for a business and its people as an in-office culture, it just means that the business needs to evolve its approach to building a culture fitting with this new model.

“Put simply, cultural alignment isn’t going to develop through water cooler chat and in person connection in the hybrid world. 

“What companies find most challenging about hybrid work strategies is how to maintain or build their culture and connection virtually. With a hybrid approach, the practical applications for culture, like interactions and collaborations with team members need to be intentionally designed to occur more so than offline encounters. 

“But something to recognise is that hybrid work actually has the opportunity to cater to a broader group of needs -  the employee experience can be designed for introverts and neuro diverse people, so an even more inclusive culture and sense of belonging is possible.

“In my own experience as a leader of a team of around 60 or so people in a business that worked fully remote even before COVID, it’s not as simple as saying you can work from home. It is about giving people the autonomy to choose when and where they work that resonates. 

“Even though our team has worked remotely for 14 years, our people still experienced loneliness during the pandemic. 

“To help overcome this we implemented a buddy program for new hires coming into our remote environment. We implemented virtual stand ups, morning teas, lunch and learns, and so on. Despite being remote first we have had to focus even more on this because there was less opportunity for face-to-face interaction.

“Many companies will feel hybrid work is too hard and those that do will force a return to the office. I heard a recruiter say a few weeks back that in the current market, the best place to find talent is from any organisation mandating office attendance. 

“In the current labour market, companies simply cannot afford to make it happen."

Ensuring that your employee’s wants and needs are action also decreases the likelihood of burnout. As 43% of employees are less likely to experience burnout when they’re allowed to choose which tasks to work on. 

Of course, burnout leads to disengagement in the workplace, so creating a remote work environment that’s purposeful takes trust. 

Kiranpreet Kaur, managing director at Archibald Williams, said: “COVID doesn’t change our need for human interaction in order to be inspired and grow. Sure, we can go without it for some time if we need to. And heck, there are many times when we really just want anything but human interaction (all of the partial introverts like me are nodding right now). 

“The issue from a workplace – and particularly agency – leadership perspective is trying to balance the individual and the team.

“So, for us, the first step was asking the individuals on our team what they needed – personally and from the workplace. These interviews and surveys guided our strategies. We’ve gone back and forth and tried a few things, but we’ve now landed on a 3:2 WFH split. 

“The key part of that was keeping the same 3 days in office for everyone so that when someone made the effort to come in, they were actually getting the full benefit and experience of being in the office with the team. This helped not only collaboration and effectiveness, but also to maintain a sense of culture through events and just banter on the days we’re all in. 

“The added personal layer on this has been to ensure that individuals still have flexibility if they need to adjust a day, or start or end early to accommodate their life – be that school drop-offs or furniture deliveries.

“At a pragmatic level, that’s our approach so far and it’s working well, but we’re making sure we’re staying fluid to test and learn and adjust as we go.”

Implementing changes slowly is also important.

Stacey Saunders, chief of staff at The Houston Group, said: “Overall, working from home has affected purpose and belonging but we made sure that a slow and considered approach was needed - now we are working on finding the right balance.

“We knew after a massive two years of disruption, our staff were exhausted, creativity and conversation were floundering and people didn’t feel like a part of the bigger picture, so we made coming back into the agency a priority to boost employee confidence.

“When we returned we conducted well-thought out staff surveys and held one-on-ones with every single staff member to ask people what they wanted to do; what they wanted their day to look like; and how we can take a new hybrid approach to working creatively onboard.

“We started with a staggered approach - 2 days, up to 3 – now we have left it up to most staff and because they love coming back to work in the office we are mostly back in the agency together 4 days full time.

“Being a small independent agency we are still constantly learning day by day together about finding the right balance on how the flexible model works but we are a hell of lot better now than we were back in 2020.”

Workplace activities and perks can also encourage improved feelings of purpose since they provide casual opportunities for employees to banter and engage outside of being coworkers.

Luisa Paton, head of strategy and insight at JOY Agency said: “Through JOY culture, our consulting business, we have worked with many local and global companies to successfully reinvigorate and redesign internal cultures so that they are more aligned to promote staff satisfaction.

“A key takeaway from our dealings has been that a hybrid setup requires different cultural nurturing, with new cultural programs needed to support its success."

Melissa Fein, CEO at Initiative, said: “Working from home has, in many instances, hindered a sense of belonging and connection so we encourage our team to work in the office 2-3 days a week to connect with the team, for training, development, collaboration and inspiration. 

“You simply can’t get this through a screen. What we don’t want is when one person from a team comes to the office and the rest of the team are working at home, so our team leaders coordinate this to bring their teams together.”

Zarah Prior GM at Alpha Digital said: “It's difficult to build and maintain strong relationships without face to face contact. We're still fully hybrid and don't think forcing people back is the right answer. 

“Instead we're focused on creating a physical space where people want to come in rather than mandating it. This means finding ways to outweigh the perceived costs of coming into the office (commute, traffic, inconvenience, less sleep etc). 

“We know there is a craving for connection and community, so we've been focusing on rebuilding that. We've seen great success in small regular social-focused initiatives that bring people together. 

“We believe there's a tipping point where the benefits start outweighing the costs, and where the number of people coming into the office encourages more people to come into the office.”

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