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How happy are your workers?

Published on 22/01/07 at 02:27pm

Companies that get their working policies right not only tend to be more successful, they also make my job as a head-hunter very difficult. A friend and matrimonial lawyer once put it to me this way: "If you are really happily married, then why would you even consider another proposition when you have everything you want already?"

The analogy between a job and a relationship is appropriate. We spend a large part of our lives at work and often as much time with our work colleagues as we do with our friends and family. Companies that recognise and respond to this notion create effective retention policies that focus on the people within the organisation and the relationships they have with each other.

This point is illustrated clearly by senior managers at the top three companies to work for, as listed in the Sunday Times recently: trusting employees to do what they are good at is key to building a company that beats the competition; everyone benefits when employees become fully engaged with their company; it really pays to treat staff well - valued staff add business value.

Boehringer Ingleheim has made the list no less than five times in a row. Managing director Uwe Weller commented on the company's continued inclusion:" It is truly gratifying that the employees continue to find their working environment so enjoyable and stimulating.

"This award is particularly important to us because we take the welfare of our employees very seriously indeed."

Playing matchmaker

So what are companies doing these days to make my job harder? While there's no one-size-fits-all model, because of course, different companies and employees have different needs, innovative approaches to employment policies clearly stand out where recruiting and retaining good staff are concerned.

The ability to capture and retain good people starts with recruitment. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that companies that are transparent and realistic, and present an honest picture of the role and the company during the interview process, are much more likely to keep people once the six-month honeymoon period is over.

Companies that discuss not only the full range of benefits and flexible working policies at interview, but also training and development programmes, demonstrate that they have an interest in the candidate's career as well as their work-life balance.

Managing the expectations of the existing team during recruitment can be just as important as making sure the candidate is fully informed. A number of forward-thinking companies have set up selection and interviewing procedures that involve all those who will work with the new employee.

This helps make sure the new person fits into the group and that current staff members feel a sense of engagement and ownership over the process, and is a good way of avoiding any potential issues or personality clashes later.

Rigorous assessment processes, psychometric tools and team analysis tools such as Belbin, commonly used to prevent hiring mistakes, also show how much a company values its current and future employees.

Money isn't everything . . . but it helps

Money does not guarantee loyalty, but a competitive salary structure is essential. A few years ago, one company made sure they paid 10% above the market rate for their staff. This may seem a strange decision, but their retention rate was very high because whenever someone considered moving, they found themselves priced out of the market. If people did leave this company, management knew it wasn't due to the salary.

While the extra 10% isn't for everybody, salary surveys and HR networking meetings can be a good way of keeping up-to-date with the current market value for a specific skill set, or any fluctuations for a particular specialism.

Salary goes hand-in-hand with benefits packages, and these are getting increasingly varied. Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies have flexible benefits packages that offer a variety of options for staff, depending on their individual motivations and roles within the company. This alone has seen an improvement in retention rates.

A standard flexible benefits package might offer values attached to holidays, bonuses, life insurance, pension, share options (or equity) and private healthcare, which an individual can swap and trade to meet their current needs and requirements. Since an individual's needs change during their career, this can be highly motivational - for some, topping up their pension might be their priority, whereas for other employees, additional leave days might be the magic motivator.

Crossing the generation gap

Many of us have worked in places where we were expected to be at our desks before sunrise and stay there until well after dusk. Whatever our contract said about hours of work, the unwritten rules often said something different.

But things are changing. With the new age discrimination laws, people will be working well into their later years, and today's HR managers may be faced with four generations, the Matures, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millenials, all working in the same office. These groups each have different views on what constitutes working hours.

The Matures have a work ethic defined by the clock-punching model, the Baby Boomers believe visibility is the key (they may well be the workaholics on the team). Generation X thinks, "What does it matter when, from where, or how long I work, as long as I get the job done?" To them, it is all about a good balance in life. The Millennials think, "It is five oclock  I have another life to get to."

The expert HR manager recognises this issue, and works to ensure that each group understands how different people benchmark success in different ways. Team development and HR policies can be used to make the differences explicit and help people to accept diverse approaches to getting the job done.

Taking a flexible approach

Not only do the different generations of employees have differing ideas about what constitutes the working day, they also have diverging views about where their work should be done. Obviously, someone who works in a lab will hardly be setting up their research on the kitchen table, but working at home is increasingly seen as a natural part of working life, and fulfils a variety of needs.

I've met people who sing the praises of an HR manager who knows they need thinking space, without the interruptions of a busy office, to put together a report or proposal. Others have told me how working at home one or two days a week to cut down on commuting makes an enormous difference to their productivity and motivation.

A clear home working policy can be invaluable in defining the parameters of what constitutes the workplace and ensuring that, for instance, the Matures don't feel that Generation X is skiving by not being in the office.

Furthermore, flexible working is now part of employment law, so companies need to be able to adapt to the requests of their employees. A range of options come under flexibility, from home working to staggered working hours. Ted Smith, HR director at Vernalis, has some valuable insights into how flexibility helps companies retain their human capital.

"We have exemplary paternity and maternity policies in place," Smith says."But the main thing is we trust our people to do their jobs." He goes on to explain that they are not bound by an office-based nine-to-five mentality.

We all have sudden life-changing events that occur during our working lives. The flexibility we show to a mother returning to work after her maternity leave is also shown to someone who has just lost or is caring for a close relative.

This approach not only keeps expensive recruitment costs down, but also breeds a culture of loyalty and friendship among the staff. Smith's philosophy is backed up by DTI figures from 2005 showing that almost one in five employees has had to take time off to care for someone in the last two years.

A senior HR Manager at Bristol-Myers Squibb UK, agrees, "We want to provide an environment which allows our employees to balance their work and home life."

One way to do that is through job sharing, and a member of the external affairs team at Bristol Myers Squibb UK finds this approach ideal for her: "I have a son, so job share suits me perfectly. The company has been very flexible and allowed me to increase my hours now my son is older. The work/life balance I have is great; I enjoy the diversity of my role, and also know there are plenty of opportunities for me to grow in the future."

Simple but effective measures

Lack of career progression often drives people to change jobs. Judicious, and strategic, use of external training and development packages can do away with the glass ceiling. Ideally, there will be a clearly defined career path that keeps successful employees continuously challenged and motivated.

However, this is more difficult at smaller companies, and managers here need to be open to ideas from their employees, as well as providing possible solutions themselves. I've seen how a small shift in responsibilities and day-to-day duties can re-energise a member of staff, saving an enormous amount of time and money for all concerned.

There are a number of other options that companies use to create the ideal work-benefits package for their employees, and many of these are simple and virtually cost-free. We've all heard of duvet days, but I've also come across weekly extended lunch breaks for those working in companies based outside city centres. This not only recognises and compensates employees who frequently spend lunch at their desks, but also means they can fit in dentist or other appointments without having to take time off.

To some, the chance of a sabbatical after a certain length of service is key, to others the chance to work part-time, should the need arise, makes them feel valued. Regular staff outings and events, loyalty to a particular manager or team and personal development opportunities have all been mentioned as reasons to stay put. And more radically, the opportunity to change career path - a regulatory affairs manager I know was sponsored by her company through a part-time legal degree and then offered a role in the legal department.

Differentiation and equality

This all adds up to a big challenge for today's pharma and research companies. They have to be responsive to the needs of their individual employees, but must work out how to accommodate those needs in a way that doesn't disadvantage other members of the organisation. They have to meet the new legal requirements surrounding employment in an open and transparent way, while all the time driving forward the strategic needs of the organisation.

"You can't do it piecemeal," Ted Smith of Vernalis points out. "You have to look at the whole picture or your employment policies won't be inclusive."

In the days before I became a recruiter, I was a teacher, working with classes full of children of different ages and with different needs. We were taught to differentiate at all times and we had a stock phrase that seems to answer the question facing HR professionals, treat them all differently to treat them all the same.

In truth, I was wrong when I said successful companies were making my job harder - organisations that get the employment balance right actually make my job easier, because people want to work for them. I'd far rather place a candidate in a position where their life and career needs will be met, even if it does mean they won't require my services again.


Tarquin Bennett-Coles is the UK business director for clinical and medical at DOCS International, a leading staffing organisation specialising in the healthcare sector across Europe.

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