Interim topline report – February 2022

With unprecedented levels of vacancies across the sector, MRS, working with Daughters of Sailors, embarked on an exploratory piece of work to understand the underlying issues and identify potential solutions.

This work comprised a series of in-depth qualitative interviews with people across the sector, focusing primarily on the supply-side, including company CEOs, HR & Resourcing managers, execs at all levels and in different sizes of company, as well as those who have recently decided to leave employment to either freelance within the sector, or leave the research & insight sector altogether. It is a qualitative sample, so cannot be said to be fully representative of the sector, but the sample sought to include the views of a wide range of companies and experiences.

The research is still underway, but with the majority of interviews completed, and a desire to initiate discussions and take action, this interim summary is aimed at sharing some of the key emerging findings ahead of the more detailed final report.

  • Companies across many sectors, particularly in white-collar, office-based sectors such as consultancies, advertising, PR, etc, are facing challenges
  • There has been much press coverage of ‘The Great Resignation’ with apparently high levels of job dissatisfaction, and unhappiness with company cultures, leading to employees feeling they have had enough and moving on
  • Although some of the headline findings emerging from this research are concerning, it is clear this is not a situation facing our sector alone – however, it does not mean that specific action cannot be taken to look at the issues being faced, and start identifying actions that could be taken
Overall state of play
  • There is a general sense that things are not in a good place for everyone in terms of some employees not feeling positive and happy in their jobs
  • Many employees who took part in the research reported that they, and others, are feeling fatigued, over-worked, and fed up
  • Mentions of stress and burnout were relatively frequent among the sample
  • Lack of resource means that participants don’t feel they are doing the job they ‘should’ be doing – either more senior execs stepping down to pick up the slack where there is a lack of junior support, or junior execs having to do things they don’t feel they are ready for or have had adequate training on
  • Employees believe that long working hours have become the status quo within the sector – not driven by the pandemic, as this has been the case for a long time, but remote working and insufficient resource has pushed it to new levels
  • Employers are concerned about the impact on their teams in terms of existing team members being stretched, but also acknowledge the growing importance of flexibility as a core requirement and having to change their approach accordingly
  • All told, the issues and challenges are having a significant and varied impact on businesses – not least of which are growth, recruitment moving from a business as usual operation to a key strategic issue and quality of work delivered

Key driving factors

1. Pandemic

  • Furlough & redundancies increased the strain on those left in their roles
  • Some participants felt that too many people were put on furlough and redundancies may have been made too early, and some employers recognise that the uncertainty may have led to them going further than necessary on reducing their staff base early on in the pandemic
  • Some participants felt that the uncertain financial outlook meant their employers sought efficiencies and tried to get more from less, which has ultimately had an impact on quality but also on employees feeling too stretched and over-worked
  • If some employers did invest in developing tactics to try and ensure boundaries were maintained between home life and work this research indicated that this was not the case universally with some employees struggling to maintain the balance
  • Younger researchers within the sample in particular felt invisible and distant from their employer and colleagues
  • People re-evaluated priorities and what they wanted from their work & life

2. Excessive hours

  • 60-70 hour weeks were not uncommon
  • Many employees within the sample felt their employers never said ‘no’ to clients – and some even felt their employers’ prioritised profits over people
  • Project deliverables and timeframes were perceived to be getting increasingly unrealistic leading to rising pressure
  • Employees were felt to have to be taking on tasks outside their remit and/or comfort zone
  • Many tasks employees do are still very manual, time-consuming and prone to error
  • Remote training and support of junior staff was more time consuming than working together in the office
  • Commercial pressures meant some employees felt they were spending a lot of time on proposals for work their company was unlikely to win
  • Regardless of pressure, practitioners still have pride in their work and want to do an excellent job – although the energy for this is waning

3. Resourcing gaps

  • There is a shortage of strong candidates with the right skillsets
  • A back-log of recruitment means the processes are taking longer
  • A greater use of outsourcing and freelancers is enabling employers to continue to deliver to meet client expectations, but the use of freelancers in particular can be a cause of concern to employees who feel freelancers get more control over how they work than employees
  • Research and insight skills are recognised as very transferable, leading to increased numbers of practitioners leaving the sector for other careers

4. Lack of financial reward

  • Salaries were felt to be relatively low compared to other comparable professional sectors
  • Professional services consultancy was felt to be a much more highly paid sector, even though the work is often just the same
  • Employees from within the sample were increasingly making (unfavourable) calculations about the hours/reward ratio

The findings obviously do not reflect the experiences of employees in all companies, however it is clear that the issues leading to challenges in filling vacancies are fairly wide-spread. It is therefore important to look at these issues in terms of the impact on the sector as a whole, and an aspiration to make this a great place to work for everyone.

The final report will include some thoughts on what action can and should be taken to address the findings, with input from an industry round-table discussion playing a key role in developing these recommendations. There are clearly responsibilities for some individual employers, but these are sector-wide issues and MRS recognises the role it has to play in addressing some of the key challenges.

Report compiled by Pam Armstrong (Daughters of Sailors) and Sinéad Jefferies (Vela) – MRS Main Board member and Chair Designate.

With thanks to a brilliant team of volunteers from the ICG, who many of the interviews, and without whom this work would not have been possible: Nick Bonney, Paul Gebara, Elina Halonen, Steph Holland, Mary Leslie, Richard Smith.

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