Staff mobility – the barometer of business confidence?

The annual staff satisfaction survey conducted by Asia Research among research professionals in Asia shows that significantly more staff expect to stay with their employer in 2012 compared to the previous year.

This could reflect the cautious sentiment of businesses as they go into uncertain economic conditions in 2012.At the end of 2010, 24% of staff who worked for agencies stated that they would ‘risk’ a job change in the following year.  In the latest survey, this had fallen to 15% with the majority of staff (66%) expecting to stay with their current employer by the end of 2012 (the remaining undecided).

Among those working client-side, intentions to switch jobs has not changed much in the last year, with 60% expecting to still be with their current employer by the end of 2012, although slightly more this year (18% compared to 11% the previous year) are expecting to leave their current employment.

However, the survey does show that there has been significant improvement in staff satisfaction with their employer over the last year.  Satisfaction correlates very strongly with staff commitment to their employer and evidently agencies have implemented a number of measures over the last year that has improved staff loyalty.

This might be as a result of realignment of responsibilities among those at middle management.  Most notably, in this year’s survey those holding the title of Associate Director (usually responsible for managing teams), are spending less time on sales and marketing  (just 25% of their time this year compared to 40% of their time two year ago), and as a result they candevote more time to managing their teams.

Staff satisfaction levels have increased across most management levels, but most significantly among those at the traditionally disenfranchised group – the Project Managers / Directors.  Here, 61% of staff gave a score of seven or more out of ten (on a ten point satisfaction scale) compared to just 33% the previous year.

The increase in overall staff satisfaction is driven by higher satisfaction levels with some of the more important attributes of employment including satisfaction with the immediate line manager and the level of independence / autonomy given to staff.

There is also somewhat less pressure on middle level staff, with a fall in the number of hours they work each week.  The average project manager now puts in 49.9 hours a week compared to 54.3 hours a week 2 years ago when many agencies had headcount freezes due to the recession.

Those making up for sales and marketing activity within the agencies are the more senior management, with Directors and MDs spending more time in this area compared to 2 years ago.  Interestingly, those in more junior positions such as Research Executives are also more involved in sales marketing spending an average of 17% of their time in this activity compared to just 5% 2 years ago.

They’re not going home

The survey shows that research agencies in Asia are still heavily dependent on expatriate workers.  While expats were sometimes viewed as ‘short term fixes’, they now seem to be ‘permanent fixtures’ in a region that is not encouraging enough local people to join the industry.

38% of those representing agencies in this year’s survey are expatriates.  This has climbed from 32% in the previous year.  Much of this growth has been driven by movement of Asian researchers within the Asia Pacific region.  Last year only 4% of those describing themselves as “expatriates”were from other Asia Pacific countries (excluding India), but has now risen to 11% in this year’s survey.  Some comment that these “Asian expats” are sometimes more valued then their Western counterparts, bringing both research and relevant language skills to other parts of the Asia Pacific region.

Some things though don’t change – senior management is still biased towards males (72% of Directors and Managing Directors), whereas females are more prdontevalent in client side positions making up 59% of clients although somewhat down from the previous year at 68%.  The level of experience in research among clients is growing.  Clients now have an average of 9.3 years in research compared to 8.7 in the previous year, and only 7.8 years prior to that.

In contrast, the level of experience at some management levels in agencies has been declining.  In previous surveys conducted by Asia Research such as the annual research buyer survey, some clients have complained that researchers within agencies have been promoted too quickly, perhaps in response to retaining staff who are being tempted by better offers from rival agencies.  Notably, those holding the position of Associate Director now have an average of 9.0 years in research compared to 12.9 years in 2009.  The level of experience of Project Managers and Research Executives has also fallen progressively over this period although not as sharply.

Once again, the Asia Research staff satisfaction survey shows that research agencies headquartered in Asia have more satisfied staff compared to the global research firms headquartered outside the region.  68% of staff working for Asian agencies are satisfied compared to 54% of those working for the ‘Big Four’ agencies (see Special Report), and 56% for those working with other global agencies.

The results from this year’s Asia Research staff satisfaction survey show that agencies have made significant improvements in their HR management, specifically through the line managers.  While improvements in employee satisfaction are partly driving loyalty, the underlying sentiment of caution suggests that 2012 will be a slower year for the industry – once again recruitment might be challenging.