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Winning game of retention

Published on Friday, 07 Dec 2012
Greg Carton
Photo: Dickson Lee

In a bid to reduce staff turnover and provide an environment where young, creative people want to work, Ogilvy & Mather designed and implemented a special “return on fun” programme. Greg Carton, director of client growth for the agency in Hong Kong, explains how the programme encourages employees to take part in a range of non-work activities – all paid for by the company – and is proving that money invested in fun can be a winning strategy for recruitment and retention.

The advertising industry is often stereotyped as quite laid back, but in fact it is highly competitive in every respect. Attracting good staff and holding on to them is always a challenge.

This is particularly true for members of Generation Y, who are coming into the workplace with their own ideas and expectations. For them, job satisfaction is not just about pay and benefits. They want to enjoy what they do and feel part of a company which offers opportunity and variety, and is prepared to listen to their views.

Every year, we do an anonymous “employee acid test” to find out how satisfied staff are and to identify key concerns. Some questions are deliberately open-ended to encourage comments and recommendations. Two years ago, this revealed a major need to engage more with staff, since up to 40 per cent were found to be in the “at risk” category of people who might leave.

Obviously, if good employees do leave, there are major cost implications for the company in terms of hiring, training and integrating replacements. There is also a negative impact on current projects and general staff morale.

In 2011, we decided to set aside HK$600,000 – roughly 1 per cent of annual revenues –for activities and events classified as “fun”. A chief entertainment officer – my part-time role – and representatives from different departments now invite suggestions, approve budgets and help to implement ideas. Staff can sign up for anything from cooking classes and yoga sessions to bowling nights and junk outings.

Activities are usually publicised internally and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Everyone is welcome to take part, but no one is forced to do so. This isn’t organised fun, such as a Christmas party or annual dinner. It is letting groups of colleagues decide what they want to do and providing the support and funding to make it happen.

There has been a noticeable, almost remarkable, change within the company. People are happier. In general, they now get to meet more of their colleagues – “silos” can easily develop in an organisation with around 500 staff – and you definitely hear more talk and laughter around the office. This is ideal for our type of business, where interaction sparks new ideas and has a positive impact on collaboration and creativity.

Now, the PR department actually talks to marketing. Different “generations” get on better. It all comes from people being friends with colleagues they would otherwise not have known. The fun activities have brought together diverse individuals with similar interests and clearly helped to break down barriers.

Feedback is typically very positive. Staff at every level welcome the chance to make friends and try something new. Students and interviewees have also heard about the scheme and often mention it as one of the reasons why they would like to join the company.

Results and plans
This initiative started out as a hunch, but the accountants and the HR team, who keep a close eye on various related measures, already have the figures which confirm the business case. The first employee acid test conducted post-launch showed a 20 per cent drop in people in the category of those likely to leave. There was a 10 per cent cut in staff turnover and a 15 per cent increase in “loyal” staff – those who say they have no interest in going elsewhere.

Using our internal formula, that translated into savings of HK$1.3 million thanks to lower costs for job adverts, replacements and training.

It represented a 116 per cent “return on fun” and that sum was then agreed as this year’s budget for events and activities. It means we can add to the current list of activities and gives staff the chance to come up with all kinds of new suggestions.

As told to John Cremer

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