A little lipstick goes a long way

Firms must look attractive to entice freelances back into jobs, says designer Jonathan Shalit
Employers are increasingly discovering that the old rules do not apply. It's not just the way that companies, the employers, are evolving toward the millennium. It's also becauseemployees' attitudes are changing.

Dominic Stoltz is a brilliant civil engineer. Between leaving university and the end of the Eighties, he had just three jobs. Since being made redundant, he has worked for more than 20 companies, or "clients" as he calls them.

Mr Stoltz is typical of the new breed of employees emerging in Britain over the past five years. A job with one firm - from leaving school to retirement - is a thing of the past. So, too, is an individual who sticks to a single career or trade.

The shape and style of employment has changed radically. First, it was the recession that forced men and women to adapt to survive. But then people such as Mr Stoltz found that they enjoyed the variety and independence brought by this new arrangement. So they are opting less for full-time employment with one company - Mr Stoltz has actually turned down three job offers in the past six months. Instead, they are taking on consultancy or fixed-term project work.

Rick Holmes, a writer and former international adman who works with Sigmund Shalit on corporate communications projects, says: "We used to be called freelancers, but now, at the senior level, it's genuine consultancy. It's the way the world's going. It's a way of life, and many of us never want to be employed again, in the old-fashioned sense."

Many, such as Pauline Bass, an experienced public relations executive made redundant from her multinational at the start of the recession, are happy either to work from home or to turn up to various companies for a day or two a week. During one period, Ms Bass had five different "employers", all at the same time.

This approach has forged an independent spirit among many in the workforce. In some cases it has created a shortage of people with the right skills willing to return to traditional employment.

To attract back such people, some of whom are among the best and brightest, company personnel directors are having to rethink their approach. And designers of recruitment literature of the Nineties, must reflect, visually and verbally, the new attitudinal context.

These attitudes that are not just localised to the new generation of "consultants" but are also beginning to permeate the whole professional workforce. No longer are potential employees won over by offers of security and steadily developing careers. They remember the first shock of redundancy and the many broken promises of a few years ago. People have begun to realise that they can survive without a steady job; and in many cases actually prosper.

To counter this, human resource departments are having to increase their investment in sophisticated marketing techniques and apply greater thought to "selling" their companies. If companies are to attract people back to regular employment, or to win high-quality school-leavers and graduates looking for their first job, they must sell themselves in fresh and exciting ways.

British Aerospace recently asked us to communicate the flexibility of the company in terms of employment. We were asked to be highly visual in the way we communicated the message. This is absolutely right: when potential recruits have been used to seeing the very best in marketing communications, a drab piece of employment literature may jar, and even be rejected.

Accordingly, we structured the brochure visually around the ideas of showing aspects of the company dramatised by light-filled graphics with a front-cover focal point of a prism with different strands of light to reflect different aspects of this hi-tech company. The brochure itself was entitled "Aspects". The result? A brochure that communicated the modernity of the company and talked the language of the "new worker".

Mercury Communications, a youngster in the historic context of telecommunications companies was, if anything, even more vocal than British Aerospace in its briefing to us to "do it differently".

It has an internal philosophy expressed in the slogan "If you can imagine it, you can do it", and wanted its recruitment brochure to strike a chord with like-minded, highly imaginative and flexible people. In short, the new generation of employees in all senses of the word.

We adopted the "imagine" slogan as the theme of the brochure, displayed it boldly on the front cover on a very abstract ground and then composed each spread with imaginative photography in which flowers, beans, butterfly wings, violins and weights symbolised not literal parts of the business but attitudes to creating and a better and more successful corporate culture.

Companies that insist on clinging to a staid approach are in danger of being left behind. Their message is out of date and their way of communicating it may soon be superseded as well.

For some of our clients we are exploring the possibility of supplying schools and colleges with computer-based brochures on CD-Rom, and even the Internet. The fact that companies are likely to switch to these most modern forms of communication automatically raises the likelihood of attracting a more computer-literate recruit, a skill that will continue to grow in demand.

It is also essential that recruitment literature reflects the current nature of the company - and not something that existed some time in the past. If it fails at this first hurdle, it will falter along the entire path of attracting the right staff. It will still have old-style managers applying for jobs, with their insistence on high levels of control, while new-style facilitators and enablers - people who lead teams rather than manage departments - will go elsewhere.

And, most important of all, the company will fail to attract people with a pan-European global perspective, a prime requirement for any company wanting to remain competitive.

Companies that ignore this new trend are taking a serious risk. They will still be employing sometimes 19th- or early 20th-century attitudes, when they should be looking for the best ways of attracting 21st-century employees.

The writer is managing director of the design consultancy Sigmund Shalit & Associates.

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