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Reflecting on 2021: a year of change

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Posted: Dec 2021

As 2021 draws to a close and we look to embracing a new year ahead, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on how the last 12 months have treated the comms industry. Where to start? It’s been another eventful year, with comms professionals continuing to undergo shifts as confidence returned and companies started to look at shaping their futures once again. After the uncertainty and ‘wait and see’ landscape of 2020, the industry came out of its 2020 hibernation – and came back with a bang. Many in-house comms teams talk about how the pandemic has increased the value of corporate reputation management both internally and externally. Most corporate agencies we have spoken to have benefitted from strong growth and margins.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the shifts that defined 2021.

Pivoting to survive

With the global pandemic still dominating throughout 2021, we all continued to learn to adapt (yet again) as businesses and society transitioned from remote working back to the office, either full-time or as part of a hybrid working model.

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is to be nimble. In 2020, we saw companies pivot to adapt to the needs of a team that started working from home. And then pivot again in 2021 to reintroduce in-office days. It’s a refrain that has become common for many in the comms industry as the speed of change feels like it moves up a notch every year. We believe that the companies that can continue to quickly adapt to whatever is thrown their way next, will be the ones that continue to succeed.

The rise of hybrid working

Hybrid working has always existed, but its prevalence has been turbocharged by the pandemic and our subsequent remote working experiences. We talked to numerous companies who are discussing their future working models, and what working practices might look like next year and beyond, and one thing is clear – a full return to the office will never be on the cards for most businesses, and employers will be hard pushed to find people who are keen to work in the office 5 days a week.

Professionals have no desire to return to the conditions that prevailed pre-pandemic, and employers will need to continue thinking about how they are going to act upon employee expectations of new working patterns. We have spoken to so many senior professionals who have indicated a preference for remote working at least part of the time, so employers need to take heed of this if they are to remain an employer of choice, and stay competitive.

People leaving their jobs – in droves

The pandemic hammered home the fact that, put simply, life is too short. As such, throughout 2021, employees found the courage to ditch roles that were making them unhappy in what has been dubbed the ‘The Great Resignation’. Professionals started feeling confident enough to think about acting upon their time of reflection and wanting to move; many of them made big decisions too – completely changing careers, setting up their own businesses, leaving the industry, relocating out of London, or moving overseas. 2021 unleashed some of the highest turnover we’ve seen in recent years with some agencies reporting a 33% staff turnover.

Navigating the talent shortage

Without doubt, the talent shortage has presented us with our biggest challenge in 2021 – and finding people to fill PR agency roles at every level has been particularly challenging. For us, this includes CEOs, MDs, Partners, Directors, and Associate Directors. We have also needed to stay agile with our executive searches and move interview processes through faster to avoid losing great candidates as they get other offers. The hiring market has ‘heated up’ as more companies hire and Comms Managers have been ‘snapped up’ as they have been in high demand. The Heads of Comms and Director of Corporate Affairs roles we have filled have all been newly formed roles confirming the value of reputation management.

And I don’t think the ‘war on talent’ ends here. It will continue to be in full swing next year. To win, business leaders must take immediate steps to understand their people more deeply than ever. This starts with having clarity on diverse characteristics within their team and what makes them tick. Only by doing this can they attract and keep the talent required to win.

Things have changed – what do employees really want from, for example, a reward package? Just like flexible and hybrid working, companies that address this will find things easier. Get rid of expensive, obsolete benefits and replace them with things that are really valued. It’s not all about pay, which we observed with candidates getting multiple offers, lining them up next to each other, and comparing benefits.

The even more powerful allure of in-house roles

Let us not forget, agency leaders, just how staggeringly high the desire of in-house roles remains (69% of comms professionals polled in our annual salary survey saying, once again, that they want to move in-house when they move jobs). While the way we work has changed fundamentally for the long haul, comms professionals’ desires have not wavered, and in-house roles still win hands down in terms of desirability.

Moving forward, it will be crucial for agencies to be ruthless in reviewing their hiring and interview processes – understanding what has worked, what hasn’t and where there is room for improvement when it comes to lowering turnover and becoming more competitive.

Looking after mental health

We have been really impressed by how many businesses are really thinking about the wellbeing, especially the mental wellbeing, of their people. With mental health symptoms surging during the pandemic, nurturing mental wellness has become a collective social responsibility.

Across the last several years, employers have offered new benefits to support their employees, for instance, expanded parental leave. The pandemic has brought wellbeing to the forefront as employers are more aware than ever of the impact of mental health on employees.

In summary…

We didn’t expect it to be such a pacy and changeable year for corporate communications and executive search. We are delighted that the industry has bounced back strongly and adapted so incredibly well to the changes. Thank goodness for video conferencing – this has enabled us to continue to thrive although we do miss building relationships face-to-face. Nothing replaces that.

May I take this opportunity to thank everyone who has recommended us to fill a great senior level role or recommended someone fabulous for it. We are grateful for your kindness and support. We will continue to share our knowledge, insights and network with you.

Wishing everyone a wonderful and relaxed Christmas break. Stay safe, stay healthy and let’s see what 2022 brings.

Sarah

To read our full Salary Guide, click here.

The Works Search: a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications. We have unrivalled matching abilities and known for finding the top 5% performers in the industry - the ones who deliver and make your reputation great. For more advice or market insights, do get in touch with us on 0207 903 9291 or email sarah@the-works.co.uk

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