Will an upturn spark a revival of interest in the idea of employer branding?

Employer brandingYou may recall that a few years ago there was a voguish interest in the idea of employer branding. This is the kind of thing that has always gone on but can always be defined and popularised,  in this case following the publication of a book on the subject in 2005. By 2008 Jackie Orme, the head of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, was calling it ‘an integral part of business strategy’. Still, it appears to have dropped off the radar a bit over the last few years, a fact we might put down to the effect of the recession. Firms certainly seem to have their mind on other things. Research published last year by PriceWaterhouseCoopers showed that  in 2009, 54 per cent of businesses said they placed a special focus on retaining talent. By 2012 that had dropped to 36 per cent.

Now, this is a bit odd for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it seems perverse that in a knowledge economy, firms may be placing less emphasis on recruiting and keeping hold of the best knowledge workers. Secondly, it makes no business sense. The CIPD recently reported that over a third of employees are planning to change jobs once the recession is over. The recent report from PWC emphasises how expensive this might be for employers.

This matters to us because there has always been a close link between the labour market and office design. In the wider business community, the conundrum that has dominated management thinking over the last two decades is this: if your main asset is knowledge and that knowledge is largely locked up in people’s heads, how do you attract those heads to your organisation? Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this riddle that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking and why workplace design has focussed increasingly on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. It has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the growth of break-out space and the focus on the team. And, of course, it has pushed on the idea of employer branding.

While some might assume that employer branding is a straightforward idea for those of us involved in workplace design and management to address, of course it is anything but. It is no longer enough to print logos onto carpet. As with many of the issues that we have to manage in one way or another, it is complex, multi-faceted, ongoing and demands a multi-disciplinary approach. It is certainly likely to require input from FM, HR and IT and will attract the interest of general managers across the organisation. It incorporates a wide range of factors from working culture, working methods, interior design and the physical environment.

When it comes to employer branding nothing can be achieved in isolation. That may have been the case in the past, when branding in the workplace may largely have focussed on replicating a corporate identity, but now there is a far greater focus on reflecting important values to staff. It is important to understand  how the company addresses business and environmental issues, the intelligent use of colours and materials to convey ideas and emotions.

As usual it is new technology that is making all of this feasible, both in terms of the designs it makes possible and the equipment and materials needed to deliver them. Indeed this technology is moving so rapidly that it can be hard to keep up with just what is possible.

What is needed to make this work is a holistic approach. It demands people who can integrate and resolve the demands of its many elements and stakeholders, develop clear briefs and ensure delivery of complex and potentially conflicting objectives. Much of that will depend on the development of clear objectives and a clear brief in the first place.

What is important is to understand how employer branding works in its many facets and recognise the role that it can play in achieving organisational success. Creating the right environment to attract and retain the best staff has always been important but the growth of the knowledge economy and the recovery from recession will make it increasingly important in the coming years. It is a situation that is both challenging and an exciting opportunity for those of us involved in the design and management of offices to further demonstrate our value to the organisation.