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21st Century Employee Engagement – What It Looks Like and How to Make It Happen

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21st Century Employee Engagement – What It Looks Like and How to Make It Happen


Creating the right environment for employees to succeed is paramount to the success of any business, digital and creative agencies included. But what does employee engagement look like in the twenty-first-century and how does it impact people management? This article looks at the findings of recent research and gives you insights from agency leaders to help you maintain employee engagement and grow your bottom line.


Twenty-First Century Employee Engagement?


Employee engagement has long been defined as an employee’s willingness to exert discretionary effort. However, recent research from Deloitte shows that the definition of engagement has shifted in emphasis from organisation to employee; if culture describes ‘the way things work around here’, engagement is ‘how people feel about the way things work around here’. Which implies that getting your culture right is at the heart of employee engagement.

Why is this important for agencies? According to the Wow Agency Survey, sponsored by Adam, 63% of agencies plan to increase turnover by 11% or more in 2017. But, the survey results also show a gap between the growth companies wanted to achieve in 2016 and the growth they delivered. Because employee engagement levels are known to impact performance and productivity, engagement and culture should be at the frontline of agencies’ growth plans.



Allow Space for Creativity


The success of agencies lies in their ability to be creative. Overwhelmed employees are not effective, particularly when it comes to creative individuals who require time, headspace and low stress levels in order to come up with new ideas.

Kevin Gibbons, Co-Founder and CEO of Digital Marketing Agency, Blue Glass, says that agency owners need to provide their teams with, “the type of environment that allows them to be their most inspired, so that you can get the most out of their strengths.” That could mean getting them involved in Research and Development projects or including them in pitches.

Ric Brooks, Operations Director at Manchester-based video and social media agency, Tuna Fish Media agrees, stating that it’s important to focus on “quality rather than quantity and allowing people to have thinking time, especially in creative roles.” This reduces the risk of stagnation associated with businesses where “people are worked to the bone and are too busy worrying about completing the next task rather than developing new ideas.”


Avoid Overwhelm


Regardless of whether individuals are in creative roles or not, workplace overwhelm is a recognised issue. Which is why it’s important to ensure employees aren’t crushed by a flood of email and information whilst wrestling challenging work assignments and dealing with unexpected workloads due to colleague illness or holidays. Add to this the fact that most employees are now ‘always on’ due to mobile technology and it’s no surprise that employees are feeling the strain.

Brooks says, “there’s always going to be a point where an employee starts to feel overworked. To minimise this, we aim to have realistic expectations and plan ahead with our recruitment strategy, rather than waiting to get to breaking point.”

Agency owners need to understand how to operate effectively in the gig economy environment. At its heart this is the recruitment of talented and highly skilled people who will improve the productivity of other agency workers and increase profitability.

Gibbons recommends using freelancers to enable your agency to scale quickly and provide specialist skillsets that aren’t required full-time in-house. “This can be a big help to allow you to move quickly, or to produce high quantities of work for a task you wouldn’t normally do at that scale.” Find out more about the pros and cons of hiring freelance talent in our recent article.


Develop A Culture of Trust and Empowerment


The Wow Agency Survey found that the average agency turnover was 17% with 9% of agencies losing more than 50% of their staff in 2016. Gibbons follows Dan Pink’s approach and believes the key to retaining top talent is enabling ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’.

This aligns with the Deloitte research which identifies how some of the most successful organisations are using a similar, decentralised approach to work. By moving toward dynamic product- and customer-centric teams that are highly empowered, employees are empowered to communicate and co-ordinate activities in unique and powerful ways.

Gibbons recommends providing “a framework around what you do that allows employees flexibility in how they do it.” Whatever your agency’s preferred way of working, you’ll have a range of cultural behaviours you want employees to demonstrate. The Wow Agency Survey shows that 53% of responding agencies pay performance related bonuses. If you have this kind of scheme in place, link your reward mechanisms to desired behaviours to reinforce the importance of your workplace culture.


Constantly Check In


Companies are also finding that measuring engagement through an annual survey is not enough: it doesn’t help them understand the passion, frustrations and meaning in their employees’ day-to-day work lives.

Without this level of understanding, companies are unable to do more of the things that engage employees and less of the things that don’t. Truly understanding what drives your workforce means you can provide the support required to enable them to deliver effectively and reduce employee turnover into the bargain.

Katy Howell, CEO of social media agency, Immediate Future, says that staff engagement is down to sharing. ‘We have a quarterly review meeting where we share the numbers on the bottom line, our successes, and our areas of improvement.’ By being open about where they want to be and how they’ll be moving forward, Immediate Future ensures that ‘even the most junior person is engaged.’


Create an Inclusive Workplace


Social changes mean that workplace demographics have altered with more employees working into their 60s and 70s with an increasing number of millennials joining the workforce. Ensuring that all employees are engaged with your agency takes effort but engendering a sense of attachment has its benefits; research from Deloitte shows that teams with high levels of inclusion outperform others by a factor of 8:1.

The Wow Agency Survey asked agency owners for their views on how to retain millennials. The most prevalent response was to, “Give them training and development.” Other comments ranged from, “Create an inclusive, flexible culture. Make it a positive and encouraging environment where people can develop” to, “Treat everyone as an individual. Avoid labelling a whole generation.”

Brooks agrees with this last statement saying that, “it’s important to remember that not every person is the same; everyone has their own drivers and goals that make them step out of bed in the morning.”

With increasingly diverse workforces becoming the norm, understanding this and treating employees as individuals is vital to successful people management.


Ensure Career Development


It’s not just millennials who value learning opportunities. Not only are they among the largest drivers of engagement for all employees, they also contribute to the development of a strong workplace culture and form part of the employee value proposition.

At Immediate Future, Howell takes formal and informal approaches to education through learning Pizza lunches at the end of each month and providing every-day informal tips, training and ideas. Sharing back stories, explaining strategy to junior staff, helping teams see the bigger picture and asking for the team’s input are also tactics Howell uses.

Employee engagement should be at the forefront of the minds of agency owners. But when there’s so much to focus on, managing your people and keeping them engaged often slips down the list of priorities. The best agencies establish a strong and inclusive culture that gives employees direction and space without stifling creativity.

For support with growing and developing your agency’s talent, contact Leon Milns on 0207 871 7665 or by emailing