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Attracting and retaining communications talent in the time of COVID

2020 has brought turmoil, trepidation and in some cases hardship to many communication consultancies and their employees.

In particular, those with legacy operating models have been under most pressure to accelerate evolution, and have had to make some very tough decisions on staffing. For the many people caught up in it all, and suffering the worst from it, it is a brutal experience. 

The industry is trying to help and respond – the PRCA’s drive in the UK’s new Kickstart scheme being a clear example.

This all means that it’s not the obvious time to consider how the constant challenge of attracting and retaining talent has shifted and evolved. But the reality is that while financial uncertainty abounds, the challenge has become more acute than ever. 

Attracting and retaining talent needs to remain a priority for consultancies in the age of COVID for now and for the future, even if priorities and outlooks are very different. It brings many considerations into question, but the ones I’ve heard and talked about most in recent weeks are:

  1. How do you attain the right balance of resources and skills between clients and agencies?: we have spent many years operating under the blanket understanding that clients will want to outsource certain aspects of communications and keep others in-house. The boundaries have been blurring for some time though, and this has been accelerated. Client-side, some organisations have built content, digital and analytics capabilities. Consultancy-side there may be more deep sector, strategic and insights expertise, as well as creative nous. The urgency and need to pivot then transform client businesses has thrown all of that into question though, with many now wanting more experience, expertise and advice from their agencies, placing an onus on them to provide that quickly and consistently, and without internal friction. Above all, understanding what skills are needed and where, now and for next year, is going to mean staying very close to clients and their requirements.
  2. How is team spirit nurtured and sustained across hybrid locations?: we are seeing a challenge unlike any other as people start to slowly return to consultancy offices while others are dispersed across home locations, and that balance can vary by country. Talent-wise, new joiners are coming into teams in which they may barely have been met colleagues face-to-face. The mass rush to work remotely now looks a light lift compared to a hybrid situation in which some people may be in offices some of them time, others all the time, others predominantly at home. Culture will be tested most, and nurturing team spirit will need particular focus where new joiners come start from education, taking a first job at an office where, for a while, very few people work. Holding interviews in the office can help to give them a sense of place, but in a surreal way, given the normal and hustle and bustle. This will need careful handling not just by HR teams, but leadership and client team members.
  3. How do you hire the people who are really the right fit when the way we do that is so different?: per previous, ‘fit’ with culture, business ethos and the client base is crucial, but it is tougher to gauge that when much of a team is working from different locations. Typically, candidates and colleagues will want comfort that the prospective hire is aligned with the work that needs to be done, the team environment in which it will be done and ‘what a normal day looks like’. While most consultancy people I speak to have done an admirable job maintaining team culture in a remote set-up, aspects of this are really difficult as they cannot be replicated purely online. My take is that we are going to have to find ways to meet as many people in-person as possible during the process, and make time to do that comprehensively, as relationships in teams will be more important than ever in the times ahead. It is a tough enough time to be starting a tough job or taking on a new one, and the more honest conversations are held to bring new colleagues in, the better.
  4. How do careers keep developing when so much has changed?: I’ve heard people say that career development is effectively on hold with so many people working remotely. I don’t agree. We are learning things from fast-transforming situations that test us all in new ways, and bringing certain skills and personal qualities to the fore. Consultancy people are – or should be – right at the coal face of what clients need, and right in the thick of their business priorities. It may not be the formulaic, trackable learning process of established agency development programmes, but we all have opportunities to learn and apply skills that drive direct benefit to clients and put us all to the test. Consultancies need to recognise that and find ways to support their teams as they experience it, and understand how they’re developing as professionals in a less-defined, more abstract ways.

It’s far from easy. But amidst all of this, there’s one thing I think will prove to be the case: regardless of sector, shape or size, the consultancies that have really figured out what they do brilliantly for clients, and are freed from the operational constraints that can prevent them doing so, are the ones that will be most attractive for employees and clients alike.

Ultimately, it’s all about consultancies and the people who they employ being able to do work that truly makes a difference, and the changes going on in the world now make that more important than ever.

Interested in learning more? 

Please reach out to Steve Earl to learn more about how BOLDT can help you.