Reinvigorating the workplace atmosphere and social scene

The business

Part of the Publicis group, Zenith Optimedia is a global media planning and buying agency. With worldwide operations, its client list includes multinationals such as L’Oreal, O2 and United International Pictures.

In June 2006, all 500 staff moved from three offices in the Paddington area of West London to one office on Percy Street in the heart of London’s advertising industry, Fitzrovia. It has an HR team of five.

The challenge

Since 2003, the company has conducted an annual staff attitude survey. Called ‘Pulse’, it uses a combination of online responses and focus-group feedback to provide the agency’s management with a picture of how their employees feel about working at Zenith Optimedia. While many aspects of the results have been positive, the company was consistently scoring poorly in the areas of working environment and culture. Only 32% said that they liked the offices, while 42% said there was a good atmosphere at the company.

“The competition for talent is particularly fierce in our industry,” says people development executive Rudi Symons. “The rewards for success are high, and, because we’re a people business, they tend to go to the agency that has the best people. Recruitment and motivation are therefore absolutely crucial to us.

“There are 10 other media agencies within half a mile of us, and we all offer more or less the same benefits, so it’s only in the areas of environment and culture that we can hope to stand out as an employer brand,” Symons explains. “As we all know, happy staff are productive staff, so it was critical that we tackled this problem.”

The solution

The physical office environment was a clearly identifiable source of employee dissatisfaction.

“Being in three separate offices was very divisive and the buildings themselves weren’t ideal,” says Symons. “Although fine on the inside, from the outside, they looked like multi-storey car parks. It wasn’t really the right image to be projecting to clients, and this was affecting staff morale.”

The HR team decided that the move to central London would be a good time to address the other issues that the company had with its environment and culture. So it asked employees to write down the three aspects of the existing office that they would like to take to the new building, and the three they would like to leave behind. Suggested improvements ranged from the practical, such as incorporating more meeting rooms and more natural light, to the ambitious, such as a bar in the basement.

Symons says this helped everyone at the agency feel involved in the move and gave the management clear ideas of what was needed in the new office. It also revealed that the company’s employees were dissatisfied with the agency’s sports and social club, Zodiac.

Symons says: “Traditionally, staff benefits in the media industry have been focused on boozy nights out, and this is really what Zodiac was about. The feedback was that this wasn’t what many people wanted any more.”

The HR team set up a committee to address the problem. It resulted in the formation of the Percy Club, a benefit scheme designed to appeal to all employees. It provides discounts at local businesses, independent financial advice, and free trainers for staff who wish to take up running. It doubles any sponsorship money that employees raise for good causes, and allows employees to work for a charity for half a day every month.

The club also organises monthly events, but these are now based less on drinking, and more on supporting colleagues in their activities outside of the workplace. “We discovered that many of our people have skills we never expected,” says Symons. “In their spare time they’re getting on stage as actors, musicians, comedians and DJs, so we’ve started organising trips to go and support them.”

The outcome

Symons is unwilling to divulge the cost of these new initiatives to the company, but stresses that it has produced significant benefits. The results of the 2006 employee survey would seem to support this view. An overwhelming 95% of employees said they liked the offices, and 94% felt there was a good atmosphere. This progress was recognised when the company was awarded the Pathways Media Employer of the Year award for 2006.

Employee perspective

Tim Payne joined Zenith Optimedia as part of its graduate intake in November 2005. He has just been promoted to client planning executive on the O2 account, and is full of praise for the working environment at the agency.

“The benefits package is fantastic,” he says. “Before we moved to the new office there was no formal package – it was just the occasional night out. Now we have a Santa Claus Day, sessions for giving blood, and other structured events.”

He also admires the company’s internal communications team. “We’re given frequent and regular updates about what’s going on,” he says. “During the move to Percy Street, the team made sure we knew what was happening at every stage.”

Payne hopes to remain at Zenith Optimedia for the foreseeable future, with the aim of becoming an account manager, taking on a broader range of clients and getting involved in new business pitches.

Guide to creating a positive working atmosphere in three steps

Allen Knight, a director of Berkshire Consultancy, offers these top tips on how a company can go about creating a positive working atmosphere:

  1. Offer benefits that motivate staff. Benefits such as a high salary are often thought of as standard and taken for granted. In contrast, benefits that reward achievement, such as bonuses, will motivate employees and differentiate the company as a positive employer.

  2. Well lit, bright and airy work environments have been shown to help create a more positive and motivating environment. Open-plan offices that provide a clear line of sight between employees also lead to better communications and make for a better working environment.

  3. Involve staff when designing their job roles. This will give them greater ownership over their activities and increase their motivation to do well and make the role work.

If I could do it again…

Zenith Optimedia’s people development executive, Rudi Symons, says that the work on the office relocation and the employee benefit package taught her the value of getting a strategic view on an issue.

“Looking back, I realised that it’s only when you put everything together that you can see what you do well and where you need to improve,” she says. “It has also highlighted to me and to our business the importance of investing in our people.”

She believes there are always areas for further improvement. “For instance, we still need to do some work on our induction programme for new recruits,” she says. “As we tackle these areas, we’ll be sure to use what we’ve learned on the project so far, and take an approach that is both strategic and people-focused.”

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