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For richer or poorer

Holding on to employees that stand out from the crowd
For richer or poorer

Everyone in pharma seems to be talking about engagement. Sales professionals are implored to 'engage' their customers, multichannel content must be compelling and 'engaging', and strategy development should 'engage' internal stakeholders across the cross-functional organisation or risk implementation failure.

From digital engagement to payer engagement - and with patient engagement thrown in for good measure - you name it, we need to engage it. But one engagement strategy has remained particularly enduring: employee engagement. Strong employer/employee relationships, where the former invests in an individual's development and the latter buys into a company's culture and aims, have long been regarded as the key to talent retention. And, as the language of business changes and new buzzwords find their way into the vernacular, it seems unlikely that employee engagement will diminish in significance. But in the real world, where the everyday use of 'engagement' denotes the intention to wed, it's important to recognise that more than 50% of marriages now end in divorce. By the same token, an employee engagement is not a one-time achievement, it's an ongoing journey requiring constant investment. When it comes to your most talented employees, until death us do part is not an option.

The proposal
Earlier this year, a global cross-sector survey of executives from the c-suite to mid-level management showed that, for the first time, employee engagement now ranks as the most important issue on the human capital agenda. Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2015 says that the balance of power in the employer/employee relationship has shifted 'making today's employees more like customers or partners than subordinates.' In an age where online technologies give employees real-time access to new job opportunities and social media provides instant insight into hiring companies' people and cultures, the so-called war for talent grows ever more fierce. As such, Deloitte's report urges business leaders to develop a 'clear understanding of their organisation's culture' and re-examine every HR and talent programme as a way to engage and empower employees more effectively. It's time, once again, to get engaged.

So what does this mean for pharma companies and those that provide services to support the commercialisation of medical innovations? Well, the rules of engagement are changing. In an aggressive and resurgent job market, attracting and retaining high-calibre professionals remains a key determinant of competitive advantage. But the industry is reshaping and, as the latest bout of M&A activity reverberates across the sector and beyond, companies' ability to establish a winning culture will be critical to them keeping hold of their best people. Elsewhere, as the fertile product pipelines of more progressive companies begin to bear fruit, even the most high profile players need to protect themselves against the admiring glances of third party suitors wooing their top talent, and the wandering eyes of disengaged employees.

The vows
Employee engagement surveys are now commonplace across the industry - but commentators claim that engagement needs to move beyond being an annual HR measure and become a more continuous part of business strategy. But what are the markers of good engagement? “At the macro level, having a good corporate reputation, successful products and a strong pipeline can help companies retain their best staff. But much of it depends on getting the hygiene factors right,” says Graham Hawthorn, director at Chase. “Hygiene factors are more than just the basics of salary, benefits and bonus. It's about providing personal development, responsibility and accountability. Employees want to know where their job is going to take them. People talk about having 'five years' experience' only to reflect and find they've done one year five times over. And so many are beginning to ask: am I really going to be developed if I stay in this company? If they can see scope for career development, a strong pipeline and good remuneration, it will take a lot for them to be enticed anywhere else.”

Unhappily married
The recent era of restructuring undoubtedly had a major impact on resourcing in pharma and healthcare agencies. The swathe of job cuts brought a swift conclusion to the historical churn of people moving companies frequently. Moreover, as job security became the primary motivation, employees opted for the 'devil you know' rather risk of jumping ship. But the wider implication of restructuring was that companies attempted to do more with less, placing greater pressure on smaller workforces to meet, at times, unrealistic targets. Although the scale and intensity of job cuts has finally relented, some of the scars of restructuring still remain - and they have a significant impact on employee engagement. “Recruitment specialists have a wide view of what's happening in the industry and, as candidates approach us for new opportunities, get a close-up view of the things that disengage employees,” says Julia Walton, managing consultant, Media Contacts. “A common source of dissatisfaction, particularly within communications agencies, is the expectation of working tremendously long hours - aligned with a lack of recognition, reward or supportive management. Quite often people are happy to work additional hours provided they receive appropriate appreciation from management - yet in streamlined agencies that are preoccupied with business development, the implications for the over worked engine room are often overlooked. Where project teams lack the right levels of support and resource, the most common response is a disengaged workforce and a haemorrhaging of staff. Ultimately, the loss of your best employees becomes inevitable.”

The logic of work/life balance is, of course, universally accepted, but are companies only paying lip service to the concept? As organisations confront the twin challenge of driving additional revenues and increased efficiencies, the implications for the workforce can be severe. To avoid this, some definitive employee engagement is essential. “This is certainly the case in medical communications agencies, where full engagement with all employees across a company can help management understand the real-world impact of their growth strategies,” says Daniel Newbury, team leader, medical communications, Zenopa. “The most effective agencies take a more structured approach to business development and focus on having the right infrastructure in place to deliver the work. In some agencies, there's an engagement gap between the client services team and the writers which often leads to the imposition of ambitious or unattainable deadlines. This not only places teams under huge pressure but, in many cases, it culminates in disenfranchised but talented employees leaving the company. With continuous employee engagement, these scenarios could easily be avoided.”

Both industry and the NHS bear some responsibility for this situation

These are agency-specific examples, but the principles are equally transferrable to pharma. The solutions are common sense - but in the cut and thrust of competitive business, simple mistakes are made with alarming repetition across all parts of the industry. One commonly repeated error is a natural extension of a poor retention strategy - and it concerns recruitment. When it comes to engagement, retention and recruitment, like a blushing bride and groom, go hand-in-hand. But too often, when a corporate culture is having a detrimental impact on staff retention, employers perpetuate the problem by opportunistically choosing not to recruit a replacement. This short-term measure can certainly save money, but it also places intolerable pressure on the existing workforce and in the long-term further damages retention levels.

“Recruitment is a key part of retention,” says Daniel. “If you haven't got an agile recruitment strategy in place, you're likely to be exposed when employees inevitably leave. Following the widespread restructuring, most teams are already working at capacity - so any loss of resource will only increase the pressure on existing employees unless it's quickly addressed. Unfortunately in some companies, when someone senior leaves, there's the belief that they can make do with what they've got. It's an approach that demotivates staff and invariably leads to the departure of valuable employees.”

Planning a future together
Replenishing the talent pipeline is a core component of an effective resourcing strategy - but beyond recruitment, there are other means of meeting this objective. One such example is the graduate academy. In recent years, as the economic downturn forced pharma into the strait-jacket of efficiency, many companies closed their graduate academy programmes - and in effect turned off the talent pipeline. As a consequence, companies are looking for the rising stars and the future leaders of tomorrow and have realised that there's the danger of a talent gap. Steadily, they're reinvesting in graduate programmes. “This can only be good for employee engagement,” says Graham. “By investing in talent early and supporting graduates across their development pathway, companies can drive employee loyalty and retention. It's important to ensure the pipeline is well stocked at all levels - the war for talent is only going to intensify. The challenge is not only to retain your best staff, but also to make sure you're not just recycling the same people. It's about replenishing the talent pipeline and bringing in new talent too.”

Beyond 'grow your own', the most effective means of building talent reserves is through traditional recruitment. And it's here where companies can pay the ultimate price for poor retention. A good reputation can take years to build and an instant to destroy. So in the era of pervasive social networks and online jobs boards, when word gets out that your company culture is causing a mass exodus, it can be a difficult message to contain. Moreover, it can become a nightmare to attract new talent. In this regard, the value of engagement once again comes to the fore - this time, open and transparent engagement with a specialist healthcare recruitment partner. And despite technology giving the impression that recruitment is an increasingly generic and digitised discipline, there is no substitute for specialist knowledge and human engagement. “The most effective recruitment companies will insist on meeting line managers and HR teams to gauge the culture and ethos of any hiring organisation,” says Julia. “The frank disclosure of business challenges, along with real-world testimonials from existing employees, can help build the bigger picture and allow specialist recruiters to attract the right candidates. That same rigorous, face-to-face scrutiny should also be applied to candidates. In an evolving market, the principles of talent management remain the same: whether you're focusing on recruitment, retention or both - it really is all about engagement.”

In the modern era where employees will seldom be awarded the carriage clock for fifty years' service, the days when workers were 'married to the company' are long gone. But although today's workforce will most likely be unfaithful to their current employer, the importance of engagement is unequivocal. For richer or poorer, ignore it at your peril.

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

29th May 2015

From: Sales

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