Interviews

Karan Tattersfield, Head of HR, VMLY&R

Businesses that want to succeed and retain the best talent should heed Karan Tattersfield’s advice that sometimes, a cup of tea and a bit of humanity will succeed where structured policies might not.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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“We have a physical contract that we all sign, but there is also a psychological contract [which employees agree to] in their minds.” Karan Tattersfield, Head of HR at VMLY&R, is explaining the importance of recognising that while employees may sign a piece of paper when they join a business, they are also emotionally investing themselves in a company, and as a result they expect that emotional investment back. For an industry which rises or falls on the talent of its people ensuring this emotional investment is both rewarded and supported cannot be neglected.

For Tattersfield, in order to create the best, most supportive workplace possible, meeting this challenge demands that employees and employers alike share their experience. As she says there is a degree of power that comes from hearing people’s stories and a bravery that comes through the sharing of them. “I want to speak out more about best practice and what I think can be done within the industry,” she adds.

Tattersfield was on stage at NABS’ WellFest 2019 speaking about her experience working as a chalet host and later in recruitment for the same winter sports company. She revealed that it was only when she was behind a desk back in London that she realised the distinct lack of support that existed for individuals working for ski companies.

At that point, Tattersfield realised her interest in taking care of people’s mental health and set about shifting the business policies. As she says, the idea of any kind of support or safety net wasn’t spoken about: “There wasn’t anything to catch people.”

From cruise ships to property and into event production, Tattersfield’s CV hadn’t previously seen her working within the creative industries. Before joining VMLY&R in April 2019, she had, she admits “no preconceptions about how agencies were run. I knew nothing, apart from how people work.” A fresh perspective that has been a significant strength for Tattersfield.

We have a physical contract that we all sign, but there is also a psychological contract [which employees agree to] in their minds.

Karan Tattersfield

Heightened pressure

Having hit the ground running, Tattersfield was immediately struck by just how intense the pressure around pitches really is, a problem she believes is industry wide. The speed of the turnaround, the competitiveness and the leanness of the teams all contributes to an environment in which people frequently feel totally unsupported and overwhelmed. “People feel deeply about [the pitch]; they want to do the right thing,” says Tattersfield. “They don’t want to be the team that lost that pitch.”

She also points to the constant Top 10 culture that permeates the industry, the “pressure to be the best” whether that’s agency, individual or team. This is what causes the often unsustainable levels of competitiveness in the industry, that sees a heightened protectiveness around ideas. It’s an unforgiving culture which perpetuates the myth that if you are not the first, can you ever truly be the best?

For Tattersfield, attitudes towards the pitch process need to be led from the top. This means pushing back on clients or declining a pitch altogether if their expectations are unrealistic, something she says the agency has done in the past.

The importance of internal boundaries

In this intensively competitive environment looking out for each other is vital. “If you work in a company, you need to know somebody’s got your back,” Tattersfield explains, pointing to the importance of valuing everyone’s time equally and acknowledging the lives people lead outside the office. “You need to know for your own sanity and mental health that you’re not going to be thrown to the wolves,” she adds.

While she believes policies are important and act as a vital reference point, Tattersfield feels that they are worthless if they aren’t reflected by the senior leadership team. Otherwise those policies, she says, can become “a token gesture.”

“I recognise the importance of policies; I think we should have them. But we almost like to hide behind policies,” she explains, adding that “I’ve got further with a cup of tea and a chat with somebody than I have with a tonne of policies.” Instead of endless policies she advocates for keeping humanity front and centre and recognising the person you’re speaking to and the individuality of their problem, rather than cloaking them in policy: “People want to be treated as human beings.”

“The way that policies are written, they’re written from a fundamental point of distrust basically; they assume that you are going to do something wrong,” Tattersfield adds. She believes that if you can change the language in which policies are written, as she has done at VMLY&R, you can change the mindset of the business.

If you work in a company, you need to know somebody’s got your back. You need to know for your own sanity and mental health that you’re not going to be thrown to the wolves.

Karan Tattersfield

Environment matters

For Tattersfield, what she places at the heart of her day-to-day life and that of the agency is the prioritising of empathy and kindness in business. This empathy extends to dismantling the presenteeism that permeates across the industry and the recognition, she adds, that stress destroys creativity.

If a person is stressed, their clarity of though diminishes and, Tattersfield adds, their “productivity literally dives off a cliff.” Time spent in the office is not what people should be clocking, believes Tattersfield. Indeed, she says, “I utterly believe that the majority of people out there could condense their working week into a four-day week.”

While Tattersfield is a vocal supporter of the brilliant work NABS does in the industry, she feels that what also needs to be developed is an internal support framework, “of things that can catch people and help.” This can help to create an environment in which people feel they can speak up for what they want and what they need to do their job to the best of their ability.

Building a sense of community

Since her arrival in the agency, Tattersfield has set about building a sense of internal community, with her attitude being to “approach every situation from a point of being in the light rather than in darkness and distrust.”

She says that ironically, when people have a problem HR is often the last place they’ll go. What she constantly stresses is the importance of putting the human back in human resources, of understanding that “you never know what’s going in peoples’ world.” This equally extends to providing support for managers, not simply presuming they can manage from the get-go. Providing managers with training and developing their skillset is key to instilling them with confidence. “They can be key in sorting a lot of issues out,” Tattersfield adds.

She is focused on the importance of “synchronicity; people do really well when they’re in groups together and all doing the same activity together.” This helps to grow and develop the sense of community. “That’s a de-stresser itself,” she adds.

With the internal initiatives she’s introduced, Tattersfield has taken a therapeutic angle, from breathing workshops, a contemplation room, investing in the Headspace app for all staff and encouraging walking meetings. One of their strategy team also launched an agency choir last year that was open to everyone. “HR doesn’t always have to come up with the idea,” she says.

The agency network has an annual Foundation Day that happens at the end of September where they give back to the community. This year 30 people from the London office worked with Living Under One Sun in Tottenham Hale, spending the day gardening on an allotment alongside the organisation’s founder, Leila.

Over the course of her career, Tattersfield explains, “I’ve definitely learned that in human resources, unless you can get all these people on side and genuinely have a good relationship with them, you won’t get anything done.”

Approach every situation from a point of being in the light rather than in darkness and distrust.

Karan Tattersfield

The power of switching off

Tattersfield’s most important piece of advice is to “get yourself away from a screen…No one needs to be behind their desk for that amount of time.” Stepping away, going for a walk, chatting to the person next to you, all of these things help to build the community that Tattersfield believes is integral to creating a supportive and successful workplace and workforce.

This extends into the flexible working policy that the agency offers, something that is available for everyone. “It shouldn’t just be the domain if you’ve got caring responsibility or families with young children,” she adds.

Tattersfield believes in the power of both the collective community but also in the individual to bring about change: “I feel like if everyone is doing a little piece then hopefully it gets better.” Behaviour and kindness are reciprocal and both vital to running a business.

For Tattersfield, the attitude and community each person experiences at the company should be channelled right from the very first moment they walk through the door. “It’s giving people a hug when they come into the company; it should be two arms. But quite often it’s a pat on the back,” she explains.

As we move into the new year, new ways of working are emerging, ones that don’t follow the traditional career ladder. Businesses that want to succeed and retain the best talent should heed Tattersfield’s advice that sometimes, a cup of tea and a bit of humanity will succeed where structured policies might not. Kindness and empathy have the power to becoming the differentiating force to build a competitive, yet compassionate, creative culture.

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