Ricarda Ruecker, Chief Talent Officer at MCN, explains how to capitalize on the ‘new normal’ and the opportunities it presents.
The year 2020 will surely be remembered in history. A year of tragedy, loss, fear, isolation, face masks, and social distancing. A year that triggered significant change in many aspects of our lives and a year that saw a seismic shift in how we define work and the workplace. Situations like these put leaders to the test: how do they cope in a crisis? Can they adapt quickly and overcome unprecedented challenges? Is the operational infrastructure sufficiently robust? And, above all, can they offer their colleagues and clients the reassurance they need via timely, relevant, and transparent communication?
Managing the crisis
As lockdowns set in across the region in early spring 2020, our collective ambition at MCN was to try our best to do right by our staff, although we recognized that if revenue fell, this would become an increasingly challenging objective.
Like many organizations, we were quick to introduce a mandatory work-from-home policy once the scale of the pandemic started to become clear. Our people-first policy saw us immediately look to reduce operational costs, primarily through the elimination of all travel, entertainment, and discretionary spends; and, naturally, recruitment was scaled back significantly.
As COVID-19 spread, the financial impact grew and we took the difficult decision to introduce a flat 10% reduction in all salaries across all our agencies in MENAT. We wanted to send a clear message: “We are all in this together.” Standing collectively strong was unanimously seen as the best way to protect jobs, successfully avoid redundancies, and retain our focus on continuing to attend to our client’s ongoing business challenges.
Such remedial actions were undertaken by many employers around the world. Fortunately, we were able to reverse the salary reduction after just three months for all our employees.
The pandemic has challenged us all to rethink traditional ways of doing business and, in several ways, accelerated what was coming anyway. As we emerged from the worst effects of the crisis, attention started to turn to how to return safely and effectively to the office. Careful adoption of rotating scheduling meant that initial office capacity was set at 30%, increasing to 50% capacity by rotation of all employees within a month or so. At each phase, the health and wellbeing of our colleagues remained the priority and we took every precautionary measure conceivable to protect them, including establishing staggered starts times so as to limit the number of elevator passengers, introducing alternate seating arrangements and dividers, installing new sanitization stations, and distributing information on how to protect themselves and others.
All of these efforts were important in reassuring our people that we cared for them and in creating some semblance of normality. This shared experience also helped establish a sense of belonging and enhanced an already strong collective culture.
Embracing new employee expectations
A year later, life at MCN is slowly, yet increasingly returning to normal. We continue to keep a finger on the pulse of employee happiness – it’s important to understand what this actually means moving forward. With nine out of ten of our people fully vaccinated, it’s now time to energize our culture, restore the human connection, and re-establish the sense of belonging that we’ve all missed so much.
In a creative profession such as ours, it’s hugely important for individuals to spend time with one another; to collaborate, to brainstorm, and to socialize. We are still operating in rotation and unless employees suffer from a medical condition or identify as vulnerable, they are expected to attend the office 50% of the time.
We recognize that priorities have changed. People are beginning to question so much in their lives. Conversations about compensation, while undoubtedly relevant, will likely no longer be enough to attract and retain the very best talent. Employers will increasingly need to be able to balance the qualitative needs and expectations with any financial remuneration and employee benefits.
Operationally, MCN was able to successfully complete our 2020 appraisal and personal development program, implement promotions, and deliver online learning opportunities through our Degreed platform.
Throughout the sector, people are responding to a more stable business environment and are, once again, open to moving between companies, geographies, and sectors. Much of our own recruitment was scaled down last year, but we are now back to recruiting at 2019 levels.
Staff retention remains an area of focus and is a challenge for organizations big and small, wherever in the world they operate. Regular ta-lent reviews to identify high potentials and key performers are becoming even more critical, as keeping the highly talented engaged requires a greater focus on structured and tailored retention plans. Similarly, for many firms, salary expectations continue to be a cause for concern, as do personal development and career growth opportunities. Benchmarking of salary scales, well-defined internal succession planning, and a high-quality approach to learning and development are more important than ever.
Although remuneration will continue to be a key driver, the challenge of successfully balancing opportunity with responsibility will become increasingly important in attracting and retaining the best talent. Only by creating an environment that provides the right chemistry and mix of soft skills will organizations be able to successfully establish meaningful points of differentiation.
If businesses are to attract the best and brightest talent, it will become crucial to better understand and respond to candidates’ needs and expectations. Establishing a motivating and engaging culture that offers a genuine sense of belonging in a hybrid workplace is not easy and, increasingly, candidates will be looking to identify opportunities to better balance their personal life and their personal and career development.
The pandemic has also created previously unseen challenges for organizations seeking to retain their most talented individuals; with international travel beginning to open up, we have observed expatriates who have been separated from loved ones for up to two years and who are increasingly opting to move back home to be with their families or to take care of their parents. Clearly, COVID has refocused many people’s priorities, with mental health and wellbeing particularly growing in importance. At MCN, our colleagues already enjoyed a long-established wellness program; but in response to the challenges of COVID, we were quick to recognize the need for more support and introduced biweekly mental health and wellbeing webinars to support our colleagues and their families. In addition, we have been offering people the opportunity to receive free counseling sessions through our existing Employee Assistance Program and we set up an MCN Virtual Clinic at MCN Hive which enables our employees to receive immediate free consultation with doctors, wellness and nutrition experts, as well as psychologists.
We expect wellbeing to play a more significant role in the workplace of the future. Consequently, we are in the process of assessing flexible workplace models, focusing on mental and physical health and more progressive DE&I initiatives.
On a personal level, I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved. As a result of transparent and frequent communication, I have witnessed our people standing by one another, working responsibly, delivering on client commitments, and emerging a stronger team than ever. The fun of working in an agency, the bonds formed through countless hours spent working side by side both in and out of the office is the real glue that binds it all together. It may have taken a global pandemic to get us to step back and reassess our collective approach to managing our people, but the workplace of the future is here and I, for one, am excited at the challenges and potential it has to offer.
This article was published in Communicate's latest issue.