The following is a round table discussion of how to retain the best corporate talent,  featuring senior executives from some of our sister WPP companies, including our very own Mike Coates – newly appointed president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Americas region. This was originally published in the 2014 third quarter edition of the WPP newsletter The Wire.

To attract and retain the best talent, your agency or company needs to truly engage and motivate your people. Our round table ponders what makes a great place to work.

Meet the experts (from left to right): Jon Cook, Global CEO, VML; Mike Coates, Chairman and CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Canada; Maria Otegui, Communication consultant, Y&R Uruguay; Angela Ryan, HR director, GroupM Asia; Paul Bartlett, Head of Employee Solutions, Grass Roots Group

WIRE: What’s the ultimate objective in engineering a great working environment? Is it about motivating your people, or is there a more profound objective?

Jon: A great work environment is not engineered but nurtured. For VML, a great working environment has always been natural and organic. We put emphasis on the person, not just the work, thus creating a chain reaction leading to motivation, innovation and overall client benefit. By focusing on factors such as meaningful work, purposeful collaboration and communication, we have been able to keep our growing global agency feeling like a tightknit community.

Paul: The objective is ultimately to improve performance through a highly engaged and motivated workforce. How you measure that performance will depend largely on your objectives. Research has shown that innovation, retention, productivity, health and safety and profitability are all positive outputs from creating a great working environment.

Angela: Think of a time when you were totally in the flow, either working by yourself or with others, when you were so totally absorbed in what you were doing and focused on doing it really well that it didn’t feel like work at all. That experience is what we try to inspire when we think of creating great working environments.

Maria: Our main goal in creating a Great Place to Work (GPTW) is to generate the conditions to be the leaders of the market for our staff, for the clients and for society. An excellent working environment enables innovation and a higher standard of work. We believe that each employee’s tasks are important but even more important are the motivations, the needs and the aims of each member of the team.

Mike: Our clients tell us repeatedly the top reason they trust us with their business and reputation is because of the people who work for H+K Canada. So creating an environment that attracts and retains the best people and makes them feel engaged, appreciated and motivated to perform will always be our top priority, as that drives client satisfaction and, in turn, ensures strong and growing financial results.

WIRE: What does a great place to work look like? How much is down to ‘hard’ factors like the physical environment, as opposed to ‘soft’ factors such as the culture that determines how people behave and interact?

Maria: From our experience, both hard and soft issues are important; with the correct balance. Investment is made in both the latest technology, and the best talents. Soft factors, such as the relationship that the staff have with their bosses, are as important as providing the resources to enable staff to fulfil their tasks properly. Not having a suitable PC or Mac may cause a feeling of frustration. But hard factors are easier to solve: they are more complex, and require more attention, dedication and commitment from leaders to be solved.

Mike: Creating the right culture is critical. My experience has been that you strive for high standards and build the systems and controls that encourage a collaborative work environment. You can then put your trust in people and not micro-manage them. The physical environment is a way of reinforcing your culture – as we have done in Toronto, for example, with our move to a newsroom-like, open concept that helps drive collaborations.

Angela: There is a saying that people join companies and leave people – so culture, for me, is the most important factor. Of course a beautiful office, lots of gadgets and free food help, but they are the icing – not the cake. When I come to work, do I want to be here, do I have a good relationship with my manager, with my team, with my client? Do I feel respected? Do I choose to give more than I am paid to deliver? If I get all that, the office décor is still nice but less important.

Paul: Workplaces are complex and unique environments and whilst there is no formula that defines it as a great place, we are aware that the combination of Culture (including environmental factors), Leadership, Reward and Purpose are the chemistry which will define how good you feel about where you work.

Jon: We’re a company founded in the Midwest in Kansas City, US. The evolution of our unified global culture, across 25 offices, transpired when we stopped trying to replicate Kansas City cultural elements. By taking the focus off of repeating the tangible elements of ‘place,’ we ensure that we repeat the ‘values’ of that place: a sense of community, fellowship, generosity, sharing, and sense of achievement.

WIRE: What are the main business benefits? Is it in terms of better recruitment and retention or does it go beyond that?

Paul: The business benefits of creating a great place to work go far beyond attracting and retaining talent. Increased innovation, productivity and customer service and reduced absenteeism, workplace disputes and health and safety issues are just some of the business benefits that were highlighted in the recent Nailing The Evidence report produced by a UK Government Taskforce. With companies typically spending 80 per cent of all their costs on people, inspiring employees is the most effective lever in improving performance.

Mike: Having a happy work environment is key to retaining and recruiting staff, and motivating them to do the best work possible for our clients. I have seen the impact of a culture of fear and politics in other agencies that has become a shortcut to financial underachievement. It may seem counterintuitive, but I often tell prospective clients, “My most important job isn’t to look after you, it’s to look after my people.” That’s because a year from now, I know our clients will hold me responsible for the quality work product and stable, consistent support my teams provide.

Angela: Instinctively we all know that ‘happy’ people leads to improved individual performance and ultimately, happier clients. There was a Harvard Business School case some years ago that provided evidence for the link between higher levels of satisfaction, discretionary effort and revenue. A stable high-performing team is always the goal, creating an environment where great people want to invest their careers for more than the typical three years can only be good for our agencies and our clients.

Jon: Knowing that the advertising industry is heavily comprised of Millennials, loyalty to a job or company is low, but VML has a higher than average retention rate. Recruiting the right people, empowering them to grow professionally and personally as leaders at VML is motivating and beneficial to all parties involved. Satisfied employees equal increased productivity, and our clients benefit from our attention to development.

Maria: We receive hundreds of CV per month since many students and professionals consider us as the company they aspire to work in. Also, the more we let the team know that we appreciate the work of each person the happier they are to work here. The more we respect them, the more committed they are. The more committed they are, the better work we offer to our clients.

WIRE: What are the most successful ideas you’ve seen in making a company a great place to work? Where do you look for inspiration?

Angela: You have to create something authentic for the business you work for, simply copying ideas from other companies does not mean you will get the same result. The question is always, “what do we want to be known for” and what can we do to make that come alive in a way that brilliant, talented people are going to connect with? If I want to be inspired, I will generally go and ask people who work for us for their ideas.

Paul: The simple act of recognising or thanking someone for displaying the values that enrich the workplace has been transformed by embracing social techniques; the original act of recognition can be amplified as colleagues join in the celebration of what is great about your place of work. At Grass Roots, giving employees a voice – for example through video questions and ballot boxes – has also been integral throughout.

Jon: The simple answer is that inspiration comes from the people within our own walls. The most successful ideas originate when people stop saying “what can I get?” and start saying “what can I give?” This mindset has literally laid the foundation for one of VML’s most successful elements of culture, The VML Foundation. Nearly 75 per cent of VMLers make ongoing financial contributions through payroll deduction and last year, the VML Foundation passed a milestone of giving $1,000,000 in grants to local communities.

Maria: Teamwork and transparency has always been a key to inspiration. We share information that is relevant to the staff and we create channels that allow them to share feedback. Also, participating in different volunteer activities, such as building houses or participating in the annual fundraising with TECHO (international NGO) has brought our staff together, participating in extra-work activities.

Mike: A great place to work doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a process of continued improvement where each year you try to do a better job of employee satisfaction and retention. There are a variety of benchmarking metrics we use, and we are committed to surveying our company annually – in good times and bad – to get honest feedback. Then we have a transparent discussion about the findings and put a plan in place to make improvements for all to see.

WIRE: How can you measure success in this area? How do you know you’ve really got one of the best companies to work for?

Paul: Employee engagement can be achieved by focusing on improving key drivers and conducting regular ‘pulse’ surveys against these drivers. But surveys and metrics only tell part of the story. Intangible things like culture are picked up by appreciating the sentiment. We look to build ways to capture sentiment in to all employee initiatives so there is a constant stream of activity that companies can improve upon.

Maria: Every year we measure ourselves with the climate survey of GPTW, and we’ve been doing this non-stop since 2003. We have been in the top-10 ranking of GPTW for 11 years now.

Jon: We’ve found the most obvious examples of success in culture occur when substantial things that make VML a great place to work are created by groups of VMLers. Three examples are our adoption assistance program, our Guide for New Moms, and The Ministry of Fun.

Mike: Good culture leads to consistent financial success, and we’ve enjoyed more than 12 years of consistent growth. We’ve also been rated – for eight years in a row – as one of the Best Workplaces in Canada, which involves an in-depth survey of our employees and a detailed external examination of our workplace culture.

Angela: Checking my Linkedin in-box is a start, when I see the increasing number of people asking how they can get a role with us. Or when I read what people say about us on Glassdoor and other social networking sites. When I go into an office and feel the energy and goodwill I know we are getting this right.