Gen Y want mentors, not ping pong

RachelThe media agency world is notorious for its high churn rate. Foundation’s Rachael Lonergan looks at what Gen Y employees at her business want and argues it’s not the added frills that many agencies try to offer. 

I work for a boutique media agency where around 75 per cent of employees are under the age of 30.

We don’t have the space or to be frank, the budgets, to provide our staff with the workplace playgrounds ubiquitous in the larger agencies, who seem to have everything on offer from sleep pods, to ping pong and foosball tables, in house baristas and bars that are fancier than the wine bar down the street.

We do offer a fully stocked kitchen (for breakfasts and healthy snacks), a well-used Nespresso machine and a mini-fridge stocked with a few beers, cider and wine. But on the toys and distractions front, we cannot compete with the majors.

And yet when we lose staff, it is almost never to another agency (study, travel or a new career direction are the biggies) and no one has ever said ‘If you’d just provided a ping pong table I might have stayed’. Could it be, that the ping pong table and all the ancillary ‘stuff’ we gift to Gen Y employees, just doesn’t matter very much?

So what does matter? I asked my Gen Y colleagues to tell me what they rated as being more important to them at work. Their responses (via anonymous survey) were highly illuminating. Now I’m not suggesting this survey is scientific and the sample size is only 12, but for a small agency it’s a very good read on where the collective mind of the team is at.

The benefits they saw as being ‘Very Important’ included ‘mentoring from senior colleagues and managers’, followed by ‘training’, ‘manageable hours’ and ‘professional recognition’. The benefits that scored far down the scale with lesser importance included ‘a well-stocked kitchen’, ‘Friday drinks’ and ‘media parties’.

So… it turns out they want the same stuff that I want, and I am firmly in the Gen X cohort.

Now I’m obviously not the first person to make these types of observation. A blog post by Jessica Pawlarczyk of TMP Worldwide Chicago uses the same example to make the point that Gen Y workers are largely being patronised by recruiters who highlight these extras as indicative of a great company they should work for. You can read Jessica’s post here.

Back to my agency… the findings are interesting on a number of levels.

As a boutique agency, we’re in a good position to be able to deliver on the promise of mentoring and training to our less experienced staff members. Because of our structure, senior staff are hands on with everything that goes out the door. Unlike the major agencies whose remuneration models cut staffing to the bare bones, we don’t leave it up to juniors to make critical decisions for clients. We guide them through to find solutions, but they’re never abandoned with the hope they’ve made the right call.

And senior staff literally sit alongside less experienced staff. Our teams have access to management eight hours a day. I personally like to say that I know I’m doing ok with the team if I’ve got people regularly at my desk with questions or requests. I like that and encourage it. It has been my experience that in the large agencies this just isn’t practical and the weighty hierarchies often discourage the interaction of junior and management staff. I can name everyone who works here. I’ll bet few of my counterparts in larger agencies can say the same.

We’re also able to tap into training, resources and development programs that other boutiques struggle to deliver to their staff, because of our place within the Omnicom Media Group. We truly have the best of both worlds in that respect. And we don’t have a culture of long hours – we work hard from 9-5 and rarely have people complaining that they’re working a lot of overtime. My personal view is that people who consistently work long hours are either ineffective during work hours, or workaholics. Or they’re afraid of their dysfunctional managers who also work this way. In either case it is a cry for intervention, not a cause for praise. Ironically, the agencies that have the most glamorous offices and the biggest set of in house toys are often the ones we hear described as ‘sweat shops’.

Now there’s still a lot of room for improvement and providing a more structured in-house mentoring programme, and providing greater opportunities for professional recognition will be a focus in the coming year. Gen Y want these things delivered in a less formal and more inclusive way than may have been popular in past years. Its not about telling them but motivating them. Remember these employees have come through a schooling system that required them to learn very differently than older generations so this has to be accounted for.

Ultimately we want our staff to feel valued, not ‘bought’.

Too often workplaces underestimate (or abandon?) the Gen Y employee by throwing the shiny toys at them. I sometimes wonder if this trend was all started by a David Brent-esque Gen X or Baby Boomer management consultant (the same one who said bean bags made great office chairs in the early 2000’s?). The Gen Y’s I know are too smart to be bought off with ‘things’. Let’s face it, most of them are far more educated and qualified to be here than I am. It’s time they were respected as professionals with a lot more to offer than mad ping pong skills.

Rachael Lonergan is the head of strategy at Foundation.  


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