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Case study: motivating millennials

Founded in 2008, I Heart Studios are a digital content creation studio based in Bermondsey, South London, delivering photography, video, post-product, art direction and a host of related services to the fashion & lifestyle industry. When Sjors Bos became Managing Director in late 2012, the business had a turnover of £500,000 and employed just six people. Today turnover has increased to £5 million and headcount has risen to 90. Over the next 12 months, I Heart plans to take on a further 30 staff and increase turnover to £7 million.

Sjors is a member of Glenn Watkin’s Academy Group 88 and perhaps more than most Academy members, has huge experience of recruiting, retaining and motivating a particularly young and dynamic Millennial workforce. We spoke to him about the challenges that comes with this territory

Fashion is obviously a young, dynamic and creative industry. So what is the demographic profile of your workforce?

Most of our workforce are between 20 and 25. This is a very young group of talented, creative people who come with a host of unique challenges. We have learned that the millennials differ from Gen X and Gen Y, that they have a different outlook on the world, different motivations and different objectives. This meant that we had to structure our recruitment and reward strategy accordingly. In general, we find that they leave after a couple of years, leaving you with limited time to train them and generate a return before they move on to their next challenge.

We employ a very diverse workforce, with people from all over Europe. There simply aren’t enough skilled (British) people in London to fill the available jobs!

Sjors Bos

Sjors Bos
Academy Member

Millennials don’t take on a job because they have to but because it brings them a sense of self-worth. It’s just not about ‘I need a job’ any more. That has gone. It’s ‘I want a job where I feel good and can contribute’. They want to work somewhere where they feel appreciated and go home with a sense of achievement. So it’s a much more ‘feeling-centic’ approach to work.

You have an incredible growth rate. How are you managing to recruit and retain the talent your business needs?

We pride ourselves on offering a great work environment where people are happy and motivated. Most of our competitors use mainly freelance staff, whereas all our people work full-time on the payroll. We have found that this leads to greater consistency and quality of output as well as better engagement.

Another thing that sets us apart from the competition is that we provide fully comprehensive health insurance regardless of age or seniority as part of a holistic approach to employee wellbeing. This also includes support for mental and emotional problems – something that is actually of more relevance to a younger workforce that than the physical side of things. We have had great feedback on this insurance plan.

Why did you think this was necessary?

The baby boomers, Gen X and some Gen Y, were raised in a more driven and structured economy. But today’s 20-something Millennials have grown up in a more fluid and dynamic environment. What we have observed is that they sometimes struggle with making the transition into work – what they consider a rigid structure – which causes them to question what they want out of life and who they are. These are all important questions and we would rather help them to work through these issues rather than leave to go and try to `find themselves` elsewhere.

It’s important to listen to what your people have to say and act as a sounding board, to let them say what’s in their heart. I think some of them have a hard time figuring out what life is all about. Just becoming self-sustaining is more a challenge today; buying a house is a huge issue and so there’s a certain level of angst which they have to deal with, and I don’t think there is much of a support structure for that.

Some of them worry that if they don’t figure out who they are and what they want out of life that they’ll get into a cycle of working just to pay the bills and find themselves stuck in a cycle of cause and effect. 

What else do you offer staff?

We also provide a pension plan where we contribute a similar level to what the employee contributes and we have over 85% uptake. I was quite surprised as you wouldn’t necessarily expect young people to think about this sort of thing. The package is designed to be portable so they can take it with them if they leave.

When it comes to holidays, we offer 25 days off each year as opposed to the legal requirement of 20 days. This means that they can invest an extra five days each year into pursuing other interests or simply taking time out to enjoy life.

They join because of the employee experience we can give them. We celebrate everyone’s annual ‘anniversary’ with the company and we work hard to create a fun culture. Every Friday we have special breakfasts; there are drinks at the end of each month, a summer BBQ and so on.

What about non-material motivation?

Mastery is an important motivator for the Millennial generation and it’s also something that resonates for the Gen X and Gen Y groups. We have struggled with this issue at times. Millennials perceive achievement differently. For example, if they feel they have done a good job they will expect some sort of reward or recognition in a relatively short timeframe. You have to explain in a language that they understand that we have a system that includes goal setting, a six month review and a review at the end of the year, and that they have to consistently deliver over this period if they want a promotion or salary increase!

They are also looking for a sense of belonging. As soon as they feel that they don’t belong or cannot achieve mastery, they lose interest and move on. In this context, ‘belonging’ means feeling that their contribution makes a difference, so it is linked to their sense of mastery. 

It must be quite a challenge for the business if a significant proportion of your workforce leaves after two years. How do you deal with the challenge of retention?

We have clearly defined career progression, with a ‘mid-tier’ level for people in their mid 20s to early 30s where they can take on additional responsibilities such as becoming a team leader or manager and be rewarded accordingly. Having that clear career path is a critical thing as far as retention is concerned. And it also means that the managers in the business speak the same language as the employees and can understand each other better than if older managers were in charge.

The good news is that the 20% of people who stay beyond that point tend to stay for a long time. There’s a strong ‘the grass is always greener’ sentiment in our industry and a lot of photographers, stylists and post-production professionals are attracted by the prospect of freelancing. They believe that there is more to gain financially as well as more choice in the type of work they can do. The reality is that it’s hard to make a living that way and after a year or so trying they will return to the market and look for a more secure full-time job. We try to help them to understand this reality.

How do you communicate what it is that you stand for?

We only want to attract people who share our values. A lot of organisations have values on paper but don’t live them. We have very simple values; honesty and openness. It’s all about doing your best and being a part of the family. We also have a genuine interest in helping our people to grow and to develop their potential to the full. We’ve even got plans to start our own Academy to help train and nurture talent for the future.


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