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Mid-level agency employees are facing unique challenges as they look to succeed in the moment and set themselves up for the future. That’s why the Ad Club and Cassandra specifically asked employees with 3-10 years' experience what leaders need to do to attract and retain mid-level talent. Here are their five recommendations.

From ’Zoom fatigue’ to new definitions of work and life balance, much has already been written on how the pandemic is changing the nature of work. Employees who have eked out balance during the pandemic have thrived by creating boundaries and having the support of colleagues through what feels like a never-ending process. 

The advent of maintaining and sticking to an electronics shut down time and carving out designated family time and workout time have been other key ingredients to this balance.

Others who feel the pressure to always be ’on’ and available for one too many Zoom calls are experiencing higher burnout unless they create specific time outs. These are all helpful tactics for managing a new way of working, but scratch beneath the surface and there is something bigger going on here. We are at a seminal point in the future of work; changes that are made now can create a better, more inclusive, more productive work environment, or they can cement old biases and foster new ones. How we move forward as an industry is up to us.

Engine’s Cassandra partnered with The Ad Club to understand what today’s experiences mean for mid-career agency professionals. Often referred to as the ’messy middle,’ these are employees with 3-10 years of experience who have outgrown the training, support and mentorship that comes with entering an industry, yet have not fully developed networks and resources that come with more seniority and years of working. It’s a challenging time in a person’s career to navigate a work life and personal life when milestones in each tend to occur in concert.

We spoke to agency employees who are fellows, alumni and members of the Ad Club’s ’i’mPART’ young professionals program for this research, which uncovered new areas and opportunities for leaders to attract and retain mid-level talent for today and into the future. 

Here are some things to keep in mind as Covid-19 vaccines are distributed and plans begin for returning (eventually) to some form of a pre-pandemic, in-office, work schedule.

Create serendipity

All employees are missing casual conversations and easy, everyday encounters. But even more so for the mid-level executive, where the chance encounter in the pantry or the 30-second ride in the elevator may lead to a new idea, project or mentor. Explore ways to create this online with virtual drop-in play spaces or socially distant outdoor culture building activities. Maintain this beyond the pandemic to approach workshops, and on-site activities.

Increase the inclusivity imperative

Inclusivity became a key topic in 2020 and continues. It is important to move the discussion forward. There needs to be an open and raw review of your company to ensure that follow through continues to take place. Some want inclusivity training centered around hiring even if the company is on a hiring freeze. Additionally, working from home has helped minimize the feeling of ’otherism,’ such as not experiencing racial bias because some companies don’t use video calls, or everyone being seen as the same height on a video call. Top talent wants to work in a place that is inclusive; keep this top of mind.

One survey contributor said: “I believe that companies are currently paying much more attention to diversity, equity and inclusion than they ever were before, but I often wonder if it is too little too late.

”I think the added investment and value placed on DEI is important, but I worry that companies aren’t actually diving deep to get to the root of the problems and holding their leaders accountable when and if they do so. I think that right now, employers are looking to their Black employees to guide and tell them what to do, which can often lead to exhaustion on their parts and unfair and unpaid labor.” 

Double down on flexibility

Employees have tasted the upside of a flexible work schedule and management has seen that it doesn’t negatively impact productivity. Just because you can’t see a worker doesn’t mean they aren’t working. In fact, most employees would say they are working longer and harder from home.

“I work about 12-hour days now which is more than before,” added another study participant. “It’s harder to separate work and personal life. I’ve gotten tired of watching the news since it’s very negative and so my distraction from what is going on in the world has been work.”

In the future, employees will search out companies that trust them to work where and when they feel they are most productive and will gravitate toward companies embracing a truly flexible model.

“My fear of going back to an office environment is the inflexibility of scheduling work hours,” offered one agency employee. “I love being able to arrange my day based off my life and when you're in an office 9-to-5, you’re less likely to hold unconventional hours compared to the rest of your team. I also am very much scared of how easily viruses and colds can spread in the office setting. I used to constantly get sick when I worked in person, so I’m fearful of what that looks like in a new Covid-19 office world.”

A little goes a long way

Don’t force vacations on employees. Rather ensure they feel like they can take time off whether it be an hour, an afternoon, or a week. Companies should offer employees ways to personalize their work from home office space whether it’s money for a comfy chair or encouraging them to take a half-day or day off with a gift card to a favorite restaurant or DIY project.

“Our leaders are very vocal about making sure we take care of ourselves and family first and take our PTO,” noted one participant.

Making work work at home

Finding a physical place to work has been challenging for some. One agency employee noted that they did not have a designated home office space, so the ability to focus is challenging. “I don’t really have a good, separate set up that feels like I am ‘going to work,’ so I have trouble focusing for long periods of time,” they said. “I also miss my walk to/from work, which was a nice, healthy way to start and end my days. I am much more sedentary now.”

Make certain to ask your employees how your company can do more to support their new and emerging needs. With disruption comes opportunity, and with learning comes growth. And one of the best outcomes of the pandemic could be to emerge with a new, and better, way of working.

Retaining motivated employees from the “messy middle” may very well come from listening to their insightful recommendations, lessons-learned and powerful experiences during this unprecedented time for our industry and the world at-large. The Ad Club will continue to tap into this population of more than 21% of the workforce to be sure we retain these valuable future leaders.

Kathy Sheehan is senior vice president at Cassandra