Personal and professional growth

Every movie about an office work environment has managed to, in one way or another, demonize the monotony of sitting at a cubicle doing the same work every single day. And who can blame them? Doing the same thing over and over again is widely referred to as the definition of insanity.

No one wants to feel like they aren’t progressing in their job. And this rings especially true when we are talking about top talent. If someone wants
to stay at the top (where you probably want to keep them), they need to continually have an eye on the newest developments in their field.

The information gathering and processing is on them – allowing for an environment where they can test new ideas, that’s on the agency.

There are many ways to help talented employees fuel their passion for their work. Every person is looking for something different, but we have a few ideas that should be universally interesting for most people.

Is ’’When and Where’’ Important?

Allowing for a full five-day remote work schedule is not something that can be implemented instantly, it’s something that agencies have to build towards over time.

For a large portion of agencies, a full week of remote work might not even make sense at all. But giving people the freedom to work from home as needed on special occasions can remove a lot of unnecessary stress. If a person needs to take care of some errands, look after the kids, or maybe they are not feeling well enough to drive to the office, but well enough to work, why not have the option of working from home?

Let’s say you have a single developer dedicated to taking care of your agency website. He has tasks that he doesn’t actively collaborate with anyone else on. He gets a mockup of the website, some copy, and gets to work. He might also be actively trying to sell his apartment. In most companies, this would mean that he has to run back and forth between the apartment and the office, sometimes multiple times a day, to deal with the buyers, real estate agents and contractors. But does he really have to?

Would it not be more comfortable for him to stay at home and work between meetings? And would it not make it easier for his team members and managers not to have to keep track of his travel schedule? And if the work gets done in the right time frame, does his physical presence at the office really matter? I’ll discuss this further in “Is it time to go fully remote?” post.

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At SQAEB, everyone has a setup that allows for secure remote work, and in case of sickness, family emergencies, schoolwork or other unforeseen events, they are always welcome to work from home. We give people the benefit of the doubt / assume positive intent, and so far, it has always paid off.

Talent Freedom

Freedom is often hailed as the ultimate solution to happy employees. But most people have an easier time being creative when there are some restrictions in place.

Example: If your agency needs you to write as many slogans as possible selling pineapples in the next 10 minutes. When do you think you will produce more? A) If the 10 minutes is the only restriction. B) If you have a 10 minute restriction, you cannot use the word pineapple and all the slogans have to be under 10 words or less?

Studies show that B is the right answer – even though you have more freedom in A. Sidenote: We tried it at our office and we are currently considering a new venture in ’’Spiky yellow fruit’’ advertising.

So does this prove that freedom may not be the answer to an infinitely creative and productive workplace culture?

Of course not – because we had the freedom to choose those restrictions.

Client expectations and agency needs dictate the tasks that have to be solved. Every agency also needs to have some time and budget restrictions to prevent a project getting out of hand.

Other than that, the freedom to solve the problem in any way possible is one of the most significant benefits you can grant your employees:

  • The most efficient way to a problem takes all the learning and experimentation out of the process
  • Using less billable hours and achieving maximum efficiency will inevitably mean that the client should probably expect cookie-cutter deliverables instead of innovative solutions
  • If there is a framework, guideline or brand book for everything, proposing new solutions and approaches might be perceived as too much of a hassle to even suggest

If you find the perfect balance in the above, you should have the How and Why of task management covered. But freedom in the workplace is a complicated thing. The How and Why are questions that have to be answered or the work will never get done. But why not take more weight off of people’s shoulders by not having them stress over the When and Where as well?

NURTURING AND RETAINING TOP TALENT

Hiring and onboarding new employees is one thing. But as we know, the costs of employee turnover is high. If you don’t work on having a great environment where your employees thrive, then it’s going to be very costly for you to keep replacing everyone.

Employees changing jobs is impossible to stop – especially in the tech industry – but there are things you can do to keep your turnover rate low.

This post could just be called ’’culture in the agency space’’ because that is the true key to acquiring and keeping top talent.

But what is company culture?

The 17-word, aka the short answer: Company culture is the combination of all the values, social interactions, and psychological behavior in an organization.

The 340-word, aka the long answer:Company culture is hard to define in specific terms, because unlike most essential things in business, it is entirely intangible, a feeling. Branding is closely intertwined with culture in every interaction that the company makes with any of its outside stakeholders. And if you want your brand to be consistent across all channels, you have to work towards a work culture that aligns with your corporate messaging.

A brand is a reflection of your company in the minds of your stakeholders.

That is why it takes on new forms in every piece of content shared on social media, every meeting with a possible client, and every shared lunch break with Debbie from the agency next door. A brand consists of many moving parts, some tangible, some not. The tangible can be boiled down to visual identity, messaging, and imagery, if need be. These can all be changed with a new set of guidelines, a new designer, or a new marketing department, but how do you control a culture?

Culture is not just a code of conduct, communication strategy, or a list of processes. Company culture includes all the small details:

  • The tone of voice the CEO uses to address a reporter while discussing a new acquisition
  • If your employees feel comfortable to talk about non-work related issues with their manager
  • If the new sales intern feels like waking up in the morning on his second week on the jobAnd that’s why culture is one of the hardest things to get right in an agency, as it can not be acquired, mandated or forced.

Culture has to be built and continuously monitored and maintained.

You can tell a lot about an agency culture:

  • In the way, your company treats employees, customers and the surrounding community
  • In the degree that your employees are committed to the company values and goals
  • By how comfortable employees are with innovating, making decisions and expressing their opinions
  • In how information is broadcasted from one department to another and from the higher-ups to the lower-level employees

Day one onboarding

There are many things a person needs to know on their first day at a company. And there are a lot of things that they will definitely not remember. To prevent information overload, it’s preferable to keep some essential things for the rest of the week so the fresh hire will pick them all up eventually. So what should they know on their first day?

  1. Give them an “onboarding buddy”. This should be someone from their team, who they can ask any and all questions to, without feeling like you are bothering them
  2. The values or the ’’WHY’’ of the company
  3. The names of their closest coworkers
  4. The tech stack your department is using
  5. Where to find the best coffee machine in the building, as well as any other refreshments they can get (fruit, cold water, etc.)
  6. How the company intranet or CMS works
  7. The most efficient way to get to their desk
  8. The information and communication flow of your company (emails, chat, phone calls, etc.)
  9. Where the bathrooms are (you’d be surprised how often this is an issue)
  10. What task management solution your team uses to keep track of tasks
  11. When lunch is
  12. Their first real work-related task

That’s about it, any other information would probably be too much, and
as we all know, if you go for a handshake tour with every department immediately, you forget the first person’s name while shaking the third one’s hand.

Onboarding that rocks

Onboarding a new person to the team is a masterclass in taking your own medicine for a lot of agencies. Every good agency prides itself on an in- depth understanding of user journeys and user experience, but what is the experience of joining your agency like?

Placing someone behind a desk, giving them access to your password manager, and asking them to start developing right away is the equivalent of ordering a pizza and giving the delivery guy just your zip code. It takes so much more, and a good onboarding experience can make or break your company’s ability to foster new top talent.

Interview a talent

Generally, tech companies started adopting ’’a multiple interview approach’’ that not only gives applicants a coding test or some homework, but also goes over their background and culture fit in the same depth. More and more agencies are now doing the same. This is where our hiring journey once again splits into two paths, this time, based on if you chose the internal hiring strategy or the headhunter/recruiter strategy.

The recruiter can take care of the searching, first impressions and the technical fit, but you should always have the most promising candidates meet the current team for a short and sweet meet and greet before you consider hiring them.

If the agency conducts the entire hiring process in-house, there is a lot of leeway in the process. Try new approaches and strategies, and eventually, you will find what works for you. But if you want a hint from a company that put culture first and has been doing so for 3 years, here’s how we do it at SQAEB:

  1. Collaborative effort to identify skills required. Once we are sure we need a new addition to a department, the team goes over the exact skills we are looking for. This ensures that the team knows which new skills are coming in, instead of a manager deciding it themselves.
  2. Job posting. When the manager has the final job posting ready, it is posted and shared online internally as well as externally. We know the value of a good network, so employees from all departments are asked to share it with anyone they might think is a good fit. To help gauge personality in the first screening process we usually ask for a short video introduction, along with a resumé, just to get an idea of who you are as a person even before we meet you.
  3. Screening of candidates. As soon as we have enough candidates, the first screening process starts. This consists of sorting out any that does not have the required skills or did not adequately show that they would be a good cultural fit.
  4. First interview. All candidates that pass our first screening are invited
    to a first interview. The purpose of the first interview is to get to know them as a person and figure out if they would be a good cultural fit. This includes having a current team member talk to them for 10 minutes one- on-one, without those involved with the hiring present. If the personality is a match to our culture, they are given homework and invited to a second interview.
  5. Homework. While the first interview is focused on the cultural fit, the second is about technical skills. And to judge that, each candidate is given homework to complete before the second interview. This consists of various work-related tasks where they have a chance to showcase their skills. The homework also includes writing a movie review. This is an added curveball to see how they approach problem solving of tasks they probably haven’t done since high school.
  6. Second interview. We have the second interview to go over the homework and technical questions. This is where their skills are assessed and the main goal is to ensure that the chosen candidate has the necessary skills to handle the tasks they would be given in the position.
  7. Hiring. After the second round of interviews it is often clear which candidate is the best cultural fit and whether or not they have the necessary skills.

Now that you’re done recruiting and have hired the right person, the real work starts: onboarding. Hiring the right candidate is one thing; but if you don’t manage to give them a proper onboarding experience they will not perform as well as they could. Onboarding is the first step towards nurturing top talent.

Talent, Takes one to know one

Agencies have a lot of ways to get new talent in the door. You might do all the recruitment in-house, outsource it to a headhunter/recruiter or grow to a point where a dedicated HR department or in-house recruitment person is the way to go.

But no matter which option is the most viable for you, always keep the cultural fit in mind. You might find out that the person with the most extensive resume might be too far in their career to adapt to the workflow that works for the rest of the team. There are also cases of people with less impressive qualifications, who fit in so well with the rest of the team, that they hit the ground running and start producing work way above their estimated skill-level right away.

Making your agency a cultural paradise for top talent pays off in more than one way:

On one hand, you will attract those who have already proven to be top talent, which can give the quality and speed of work an instant boost. And if they are the ones who come to you looking to join, you’ll have a much larger talent pool to choose from.

On the other hand, you will be nurturing potential top performers from their career infancy and help them grow into top talent with the right personality traits to perform at your company. That has a ROI that can only be beaten by time travelers going back in time and buying stocks in Apple.

This whole train of thought is where agencies might learn something from the world of sports, where it’s a common philosophy in some football clubs (or soccer if that’s the term you prefer to use):

”We don’t sign superstars, we make them”.
– Arsène Wenger, Manager of the Arsenal F.C.

But how do you make sure that your candidates are a cultural fit? And how can you make sure that they can do the work once they get hired?

Contrary to what you might think from our previous arguments about “personality > skills”, it’s important to start with the skills first. At the end of the day you need to know which skills you’re looking for before you can start evaluating personality and cultural fit.

When the hiring process is handled by the department or team that is looking for a new member, the senior members or managers are usually in charge of the process. If there is an obvious need for a specialist that the team doesn’t yet have, creating the requirements should be as easy as simply writing down the tasks that need to be done and translating them into skills. However, if there is just more work coming in for a specific skill set (UX, .NET Developer, etc.), the existing team members should be consulted so that the new hire can complement their skill set.

Once you are settled on the skills it’s time to consider the personality you’re looking for. Are you looking for a person with an extraordinary drive to grind it out 50 hours a week? Or maybe a true team player that makes everyone around them better? There’s no right or wrong answers here – but it’s important to have an idea of which personalities you’re looking for.

The tone of voice varies from agency to agency and even from team to team, and the structure of a job posting can vary quite a bit. But there are still some evergreen tips that could save you and potential candidates some time:

  • When a job has language or certification requirements that make or break the application, start with those
  • Don’t get caught up in the technical requirements and skills needed for the job.
  • Present the personality traits you are looking for on equal footing with skills, education and experience
  • When dealing with entry-level jobs, a portfolio of work could be supplemented with school projects that have a similar scope
  • Don’t put unnecessary year requirements on non-senior jobs
  • With software that has a steeper learning curve, ask for a specific platform that your team uses (Sketch/Adobe XD/InVision) instead of listing experience with prototyping software in general
  • Don’t ask for 8 years of experience in a language that has been around for 3 years

Talent Career page

A good starting point for your ’’first point of recruitment’’ (not the first point of contact, because that’s probably your landing page) is to create a clear value proposition for the inbound job candidates. Until your agency reaches a certain size, you can’t cater to everyone’s wishes concerning work-life balance. Your hiring decisions should always be based on a cultural fit more than a technical fit.

While technical skills are clearly important, it’s much easier to improve a skill than it is to change
a personality. If we want to go into specifics, we can go back to the user experience analogy. When writing a value proposition on the careers page, you need to think about what kind of agency you really are.

’’We are looking for dedicated people to help bring the most innovative web solutions to life for our clients by day, and help us put up new shelves for all these awards by night…’’

That statement will attract a certain kind of people:

  • Fresh graduates with a lot of ambition looking for validation of their skills
  • Experienced professionals who want an environment for their talents to be utilized
  • People looking for a challenge and don’t even consider crunch time a negative word
  • Career-building professionals who are looking for a place that gets them more awards to their resume
  • People who live for their jobs and look forward to evenings and Saturdays at the office filled with pizza and fixing the kinks in the code

Then on the other side of the spectrum, you could have:

’’ You bring the talent, we bring the perks. At AUE Inc. (Agency Used as an Example), we value strategy and planning above everything else. And thanks to our in-depth research and planning, clients always get the solution they need, instead of the solution they think they want. This also means that our employees never have to worry about scope creep or staying at work past 5 PM. Oh, and did we mention possibilities of

working from home or the 4 day work week?”

A few sentences like this on your career page could go a long way towards attracting people that:

  • Love their jobs, but don’t want to sacrifice time with their family for work
  • Are perfect for the job, but would have had to relocate or travel multiple hours every day
  • Are motivated for the job, but also have other ambitions and are trying to run some sort of side-hustle or project on the side

Sections like ”International Workplace” or ”Fun Squad” shows that we care about an open and fun work environment, where your colleagues also become your friends.

Personality vs. skills

Before we get any further it’s time to address the tiny elephant in the room:

What’s more important – personality or skills?

To answer that question, you only need to scroll back up a few pages to find our list of characteristics for top talent. Notice how there’s only 1 called skill, while the rest are primarily based on personality?

That’s no coincidence. While skill alone is incredibly important, it’s what makes them capable of doing their job after all, it’s not necessarily the thing that makes them top talent. If they are an amazing coder, but can’t be depended on to meet deadlines or have issues working together with their team, it’s hard to call them top talent.

At the end of the day it’s important to remember that skills can be taught and improved, but personality and culture can’t. And if you want your entire team to perform – not just the individual – it’s important to have the right mix of personalities and culture. If the right culture is there, you’ll see skills improve for everyone and soon you’ll have a team full of top talent that performs day in and day out.

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For 99 % of our job postings we use this to highlight our people- first focus:

”We care about people. That’s why the most important qualification is your personality: who you are, what values you have and how you interact with other people. We are looking for people with passion and energy to be part of something bigger than themselves and who are willing to dedicate their time and skills towards building great products and services in collaboration with talented and friendly colleagues.”

Talent RECRUITMENT

Recruitment. Love it or hate it, this is where it all starts if you want to attract top talent for your agency. But there’s so much more to recruitment than job postings and hiring recruiters. It’s in the recruitment phase that the first bit of onboarding starts. While it is 100% the candidate’s responsibility to find out as much as possible about the agency he wants to join, why not show your values and culture even at the earliest stages and make it easier for them?

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us

– Simon Sinek, Author of ’’Start with Why’’

It’s no secret that even the most basic one-page websites have an “about us” section. But imagine being a top talent developer or specialist looking for new opportunities. They might go through 50 “about us” pages every day. Does your mission and vision statement stand out of the crowd? Do you communicate having a culture that provides a constant stream of challenging problems to solve? Do you have a hilarious video of your founder switching places with your human-sized-rabbit-office-mascot and shooting confetti at your unsuspecting support staff?

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Do you want to show your values to potential clients? Then video is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be a big production – the only thing it has to do, is to show your company values and culture.

Letting your mission, vision and culture shine through in your recruiting process helps you immensely in not only standing out from the crowd, but also in attracting the right people for your company.

What is top talent?

Before we start our deep dive into the obvious and not-so-obvious ways of attracting and retaining top talent, let’s take a moment to define:

What exactly is top talent?

Top talent is one of those terms that does not have a clear cut definition that people can point to. However, when talking about the agency world, there are certain characteristics that come up time and time again when discussing high performers:

Skill – The go-to metric for determining top talent. Whether it’s due to natural talent or 10,000 hours of practice, if someone is exceptionally skilled, they are on the best possible path to be considered top talent at any agency.

Ambition – The goal to become the top of their field. Ambition drives people to always keep up with the newest trends and developments in their field and continuously improve their skills.

Integrity – When they say something will get done, it gets done at all costs. And if both the managers and team members know they can count on someone when the going gets tough, that person becomes irreplaceable.

Communication – Knowing how to clearly communicate with managers and executives that speak the language of money on one side, while communicating with the technical team members who speak in code and high fidelity mockups on the other is a skill that should be paid in gold.

Teamwork – Everyone can excel at their individual tasks, but sharing a task or working efficiently in a team is a must-have for those that want to become the top performers in any agency

Creativity – Some creatives are a constant source of ideas during a brainstorming session. Some always see a problem from 3 more angles than everyone else. And while creativity manifests in a lot of ways, sometimes it’s the main thing behind a person’s top-talent status.

Leadership – Leadership is not just a skill for managers or team leads. People who join fresh out of college can find themselves at the top of the pyramid in any team within a few months, even with no direct effort. If an individual is approachable, facilitates a good workflow, or solves problems with a leveled head, they will soon become respected by their peers as a leader, even with no title involved.

Devotion – The green ’’you can talk to me’’-light next to the monitor turns red. The headphones go on.
6 hours, 3 cups of coffee, 1 missed lunch, and a single stretching session later, one individual just saved a 10-person project from being one week late. That’s how people become legends. And top talent.

Being considered top talent does not mean that a person has to have all of these qualities fully formed. It doesn’t even mean that top talent and top performers have to achieve all of these qualities eventually. A person who fully masters 3-4 of these qualities should quickly rise to become a prime asset to any agency. And if your agency finds itself hiring a person that displays most or all of these qualities, then you should do everything you can to keep them around until they decide it’s time to retire.

Why talent is more valuable than ever

Every day we are moving towards a world that is both more efficient and more digital than any sci- fi cartoon from the 70s could have predicted. One of the forces at the helm of this digital revolution is the creative, design, and web agencies that are facilitating this change for everyone else.

Whether it’s by helping businesses that previously had no digital presence be represented in the digital space or taking established businesses and expanding their opportunities with new online solutions… the role that agencies play is undeniable.

But to try and fuel this innovation, the agencies need a constant supply of developers to fill a multitude of general and specialist roles. And while the demand for developers is at an all-time high, the quantity in both University graduates and self-trained professionals is not even close to enough.

Multiple surveys of over the last couple of years have pointed at a worldwide shortage in developers. The top three issues software businesses face are a mix of:

  • Not having enough people
  • Sharing experience across seniority levels
  • Hiring suitable candidates

With almost 9 out of 10 IT businesses saying that hiring new talent is ”hard” (and 36% calling it ”very hard”), it’s starting to become evident that calling this a developer shortage might be an understatement.

Recruiters often refer to this situation somewhere along the lines of: ’’worldwide developer shortage crisis’’. So if hyperboles are on the table, what if you wanted to make your recruitment even more selective? If you don’t want to settle for just having any ol’ developer, but instead, you want to attract the top talent in the industry, with all the perks they might bring to your agency. Well then, you must be prepared to rethink or tweak some things about the way you operate.

If that sounds like a hassle, or you already have a team filled with top of the line developers, you might want to think about retention instead because employee turnover costs you more than you know, both directly and indirectly:

  • Teams that are in constant flux and have an unstable structure are obviously going to be less productive
  • The employees that leave are always going to leave with crucial experience/knowledge that is completely removed from the company
  • The brand might get damaged from bad reviews on employer-rating sites and word of mouth, or bad press in general
  • The cost of losing an employee can range anywhere from 16% to 213% of their annual salary in some cases!

Now that talented developers are more scarce than ever… you might be wondering:

How does one identify this ’’top talent’’? And once you’ve done so, how do you recruit, onboard and retain them?