2009 Year End Staff Satisfaction Survey

In December 2009, Asia Research undertook its second annual cross industry survey of people working in the market research industry.  This included people working client-side and agency-side; agencies spanned the full range of management levels from Researcher to Managing Director.  The survey represented the large multi-national agencies, medium sized agencies, and smaller boutique firms.

Comparing the results from a similar survey conducted by Asia Research a year earlier, overall staff satisfaction with their employer has not changed significantly, with around 60% of those working in agencies rating seven or more out of ten on overall satisfaction, including 20% giving very high satisfaction of nine or ten out of ten; similar sentiment to a year before.  There was some increase in the ‘dissatisfied camp’ – those rating one to four out of ten, accounting for 20% of employees compared to 14% the year before.

But these results hide a more complex picture that highlights disparities in sentiment between senior and middle management – Managing Director sentiment has increased very significantly with 60% now ‘highly satisfied’ compared to only 38% in the previous year’s survey.  The timings of these surveys might be influencing sentiment of these senior managers.  The 2008 survey was conducted at the very beginning of the economic crisis when many heads of research firms were gripped by fear and uncertainty about business prospects.  A year later, the affect of the economic crisis is not only a ‘known factor’ but, in Asia at least, it is probably less severe than people had previously anticipated.  The high satisfaction among MDs is probably a reflection of having survived the worst of the crisis, and their general optimism going forward into 2010 and beyond.

However, MDs will not be so satisfied when they hear that the sentiment of their middle management had fallen significantly in the last year.  Only 43% of Project Managers, Project Directors, and Associate Directors (often regarded as ‘the engine room’ of research houses), give scores of seven out of ten on satisfaction with 25% implying they are dissatisfied (scoring less than five out of ten),  This compares to just 13% the previous year.

Notably, the sentiment among the staff surveyed has declined in the last 6 months of 2009.  29% report a decline in their satisfaction with their employer compared to 18% stating an improvement whereas in the previous year the change in sentiment was split evenly.  Again middle management, particularly those at Project Manager / Project Director level report the largest fall in sentiment in the last half of the year with 46% stating their satisfaction with their employer had declined.

The factors underlying dissatisfaction among middle managers reflect the consequences of cuts and recruitment freezes that were so widespread in the research industry throughout 2009.  Two-in-five Associate Directors, often heading departments, are not satisfied with the level of human resource provided to them, and a quarter not satisfied with their working relationship with their immediate line manager.  This suggests that Associate Directors have requested more resources from senior management, but have had these requests declined.

Associate Directors and Project Managers / Directors are less happy about promotion prospects in their company implying that not only have there been recruitment freezes, but also promotion freezes.  Results suggest that around a third of middle managers feel they deserve promotions, but are being held back by the commercial pressures affecting their company.

Project Managers / Directors have a wider range of issues with their employers.  Since 2008, staff satisfaction at this management level has declined for both remuneration and hours worked implying that companies, many of whom have had to retrench staff, are overloading their remaining employees while at the same time freezing their salaries.  Other cuts have also been noticed, shown by higher dissatisfaction with training and even with IT facilities.  There is lower satisfaction with job variety, suggesting perhaps that there are fewer of the more interesting ad-hoc projects being commissioned by clients.  Indeed the results from the Research Buyer Survey in 2009 (reported in the Q2, 2009 of Asia Research) confirm that ad hoc research has been cut more than continuous or tracking studies.

Small and Asian is still beautiful, but only just:

Comparing employer type, satisfaction ratings among those working for Asian businesses is slightly higher compared to the ‘Big 4 agencies’ or other global research firms as shown by more people in the ‘very satisfied’ camp (22%).  However while satisfaction ratings among the Big 4 agencies have held up since 2008, those working for all other types of agency and also those working client-side has fallen significantly in the last year.  Note though that there are major variations in employee sentiment between the big four Multi-National research firms.

The largest fall in sentiment is found with those working for global groups, who are not in the big four e.g. GfK, IMS, IPSOS, etc.  These companies were highlighted as the best performing employers in the previous year’s survey, but show the largest fall in sentiment across all employer types.

There has also been a drop in sentiment among those working client-side where only 57% rate seven or more out of ten compared to 68% the previous year.  The dissatisfied camp has increased from just 8% to 18%.

Some of the areas where those working client side are less satisfied include promotion prospects (27%), flexibility in working arrangements such as ability to work from home (27%), training (22%), sufficient human resource support (22%), IT facilities (20%), remuneration (20%), their company’s commitment to innovation and progress (18%), leadership in their organization (18%), and being appreciated in the company (18%).  Again the fall out of budget cuts are showing through in lower satisfaction across a range of factors buy generic cipro us with a fall in satisfaction seen in client’s relationship with their immediate line manager.

Pressure to sell:

The other consequence of the 2009 recession is that staff across a range of management levels is now being required to sell.  Even among the more junior management positions such as Research / Senior Researcher, 16% of staff are undertaking sales and marketing (up from 11% the year before), and more of those at senior levels are being required to sell.  Most noticeable though is how the role of the Associate Director in the research agency is changing.  Today nearly nine out of ten Associate Directors are involved in sales and marketing compared to just half the year before.  Most strikingly though is that nearly two thirds now have profit centre management responsibility compared to just one-in-four the year before.  Since Associate Directors are usually heading teams or departments, companies appear to be turning these into profit centres perhaps driven by the commercial pressures and a need to increase accountability.  Some feedback suggests that this is causing antagonism in the workplace as departments and even whole offices fight over business and clients.  For example a researcher in an Asian agency commented in the survey that they wanted to see a fairer system of project assignation and account designation in their company.

Among those involved in sales and marketing, about half state that at least 25% of the business now has to been found by prospecting for business as opposed to reacting to inquiries that walk into the business.  Proactive business development of this nature is higher among those working in the global firms and those companies based in Singapore.  Note that Singapore is generally considered to be the market that has had one of the toughest years, and is also one of the most oversupplied research markets in Asia.

It’s a labour of love:

An agency-side market researcher in Asia works, on average, 54 hours a week, according to the feedback from the Asia Research survey.  This compares to an OECD average of 37 hours a week (2007 figures), and the hardest working country (being Korea) at 48 hours a week.  While there is a tendency to exaggerate the hours one works, the results certainly illustrate the labour intensive nature of the research industry compared to others, and the dedication that researchers have towards their employment.

Contrary to popular belief, those working in the multi-national agencies are not working significantly longer than those in the independent firms.  Another myth largely dispelled in this survey is that those working in Australia work significantly fewer hours than in other parts of Asia.  On average, a research in Australia is putting in 53 hours a week.

But those working client-side do have it somewhat easier working on average 48 hours a week.  But taking out those who are evidently working part time, the average is around 50 hours a week.  Often a shorter working week is an attraction to those working agency-side to move client-side, but the differentials are perhaps not as great as people think.

Across the range of management levels, the average number of hours worked in a typical week is fairly consistent at 53 to 56 hours a week.  However, there is significant variation within management levels, for example about one-in-four Associate Directors (who are now taking on many more duties) is working more than 70 hours a week.  But the prize goes to two individuals working for Nielsen and TNS recording a ‘typical working week’ of 100 hours!  This does demonstrate how even the most time poor people can be convinced to take part in on-line surveys if the topic coverage is of interest to them.

While those dissatisfied with their employer tend to be working longer hours than average, there is otherwise a weak correlation between overall satisfaction with employer and the hours worked, and an even weaker correlation in terms of staff vulnerability suggesting that it is indeed a labour of love. To prove this point, we quote from someone working 65 hours a week in one of the Big 4 firms: “The hours are **it, the pay is **it (at least at the bottom / middle levels), but the people are good (a little boring but good), and the analysis can be pretty stimulating – that’s why I stay in the industry.”

So what?

In 2009, the recruitment business was flat on its back.  However with a new year and some restored optimism many expect the agency merry-go-round to get going again.  20% of staff expects to leave their current employer in 2010.  Those showing higher likelihood to leave their employment include those who have spent between 3-5 years in their company and those holding the title of Senior Researcher, e.g. those anticipating their first move.

However, evidently there are many ‘push factors’ beyond the usual motive to move up the corporate ladder.  Clearly those less satisfied, are more likely to move (about half), particularly those who satisfaction with their company has declined in the last half of 2009.  Some of the factors underlying staff attrition are less related to remuneration, but instead softer factors such as working environment, leadership in the organization, and feeling of ‘being appreciated’ by the company.

Although remuneration does rank high in importance, employers can do a lot through by simply listening to staff, changing management attitude and implementing a range of measures to improve transparency and sense of fairness in their organization.  The open-ended feedback highlights many measures than can be implemented by companies with little extra investment.  Those who do research and implement measures based on the findings will benefit most.  Clients should listen too!