Employer branding, the real estate industry is also developing its own brand.
People are having to work increasingly longer. So not only do employers need to find people who are a match with their business but also keep those people on board. How does employer branding help the real estate industry position itself as an attractive employer in the market? That is the topic of our podcast with Stijn Baert, professor of labour economics at Ghent University, Jonas Heuts, managing partner of employer branding agency Insilencio and Florence Leterme, HR director of project developer ION.
In todays’ labour market we see a shortage of workers and that also applies to the real estate industry. What role can employer branding play in filling those vacancies?
Stijn: ‘The labour shortage is a fact. As it stands, one out of 20 jobs in Belgium are not filled, which is twice as high as the European average. The VDAB (Flanders Public Employment Service) compiles a list of bottleneck professions each year. In the real estate industry, the profession of syndic, of property manager, stands out as a bottleneck profession. On the one hand that is because only a few people attain a postgraduate property management diploma and on the other, because you need soft and hard skills for the profession and that combination is not always self-evident.’
Florence: ‘At ION, we focus on project development. We are mainly faced with a shortage of technical profiles, people who do construction supervision, engineers and architects. For a long time, there has been a lot of talk about the war for talent and – let there be no doubt – talent has won. This sometimes creates distortions in wages and bonuses, but above all it is becoming increasingly important to retain the talent you have attracted. A business must commit to developing its own identity and culture to create engagement in that way.’
Jonas: ‘Indeed, that is the core of employer branding, and that notion has gained in importance in recent years. Businesses are increasingly aware of the need to communicate an identity. That starts with the position you adopt as an employer towards your own staff, and values, norms, culture and rewards play a major role in that. To ensure genuine sustainable anchoring, attention must be paid to training, there must be opportunities to develop, and employees must be given opportunities.’
Earning money is clearly no longer the only motivation for employees when choosing a company. How can the real estate industry respond to this trend?
Jonas: ‘In the real estate industry but also in other industries, it is important that employers properly determine what engagement you expect because it differs per company.’
Stijn: ‘Yes, as has been said we had the war for talent and talent has won. I believe we must deal with that in two ways. On the one hand, we see there are many people available in the labour market, but they just don’t have the right skills, or the right diploma and training is crucial in that. On the other hand, there are also inactive people who do not have jobs and are not looking for one. The government could increase their efforts to attract people to the labour market, for example by making the difference between benefits and wages large enough. That is a typical election promise that is never carried through with any commitment. Also, the concepts of “life-long learning” and “on-the-job training” could offer a solution to the tight labour market.’
Florence: ‘Indeed, that is a massive challenge for numerous businesses. The problem is that in practice there is virtually no time to train people. Beside the substantive knowledge, you also need to free up managers to spend time on that. Within the real estate industry, the skills are so specific that it is difficult to find a feasible solution. Internally, we consistently harp on about training, both when it comes to soft as well as hard skills. However, certainly with internal training courses, we see that people drop out as soon as an important project comes around. That also has to do with culture. In Flanders, people often have the tendency to prioritise that which is visible in a business, and they see training as less vital to further develop their career.’
Jonas: ‘Compared to some industries, the real estate world is indeed a tough and result-oriented industry. That certainly doesn’t make it any easier, because the KPIs centred on growth and figures naturally surface much faster. That is why it is handy to create a kind of barometer which will demonstrate whether five per cent of the time is actually spent on learning and development on an annual basis for example.’
According to research, only 34 per cent of Belgians trust project developers. So that is not the best image and image is crucial in employer branding. Does that work against you when trying to attract new people?
Florence: ‘That hasn’t been an obstacle for us when attracting new people. We look at the technical profiles and they are often the people who have done a specific additional course in the real estate industry after their university education or have a Bachelor of Real Estate. They know the industry and have a down to earth view of it.’
Stijn: ‘Image is indeed important. People want to do something valuable. At the end of the year, not only do they want to have earned money but also have spent their time doing something useful. That doesn’t work in an industry where the values and image don’t match those of the employee. For example, an engineer will choose the real estate industry rather than the IT sector based on other criteria than a syndic bases their choice for a specific company.’
Florence: ‘We concretise the ION story to people. We certainly see young graduates who are extremely happy to take up the challenges of developing projects in which we are committed to innovation, to sustainability and to architecture. As a business you must try to separate yourself from a certain perception that exists around the real estate industry.’
ION ’s innovative reputation works to your advantage of course. Can that confidence be stimulated even more?
Jonas: ‘The most impactful step is involving your staff in the narrative. Studies show that the voice of staff is assessed much higher than that of the CEO, and certainly higher than some tagline or other from a marketing agency. If as a company you succeed in getting your staff to tell the true story, then you naturally create an authentic image, certainly if you are also brave enough to show what challenges you face as an employer. You reach the target group that really fits your business when you dare to say what you stand for, what your strengths are and where you still need to grow. That profile is clear at ION. It is not only about technical skills but mainly about DNA.’
Stijn: ‘From a study by my colleague Greet van Rooij at the university, it appears that word of mouth advertising is indeed very important. That not only concerns the business’s own staff but also applicants, they too share the story of how they were welcomed. People can read reviews about a business and give it star ratings on platforms such as Indeed, StepStone or Jobat. It has a massive impact if your business gets an average of 2.8 out of 5 or 4.1 out of 5.
Being aware of your company’s image and actively communicating on that basis is the order of the day. Looking further than just at results and focusing on the wellbeing of your staff is increasingly gaining in importance to attract and retain people. Which initiatives work in that sense?
Stijn: ‘From a recent study at Ghent University, it appears that about two out of ten people are genuinely happy in their job. Notably, despite that we stay in the same job longer. On average, people in Belgium work in the same job for 10 years, which is rather long compared to other countries. We call that the golden cage effect. Furthermore, people often feel they have a greater workload than they can cope with because we currently need more people than are available in the labour market. Those are a couple of indicators.’
Florence: ‘On an individual level, it is important for a business to organise nice things that put a smile on the staff’s faces. You must attempt to uncover where people experience frustration in connection with the team and the organisation. Are the expectations you have of the staff clear to them? After all, research has shown that role conflicts are one of the most important factors that could lead to a burnout. We are going to tackle that issue intensively in the coming time. Also, a lack of communication and team leaders who receive insufficient recognition or appreciation are underestimated phenomenon that cause frustration and stress. A lack of the right tooling is also a factor that increases stress levels and that is why we are implementing a digitisation process, but there too we must be attentive that the right information trickles through to the people. After all, the intention is that this process is perceived as progress and not as a weighting factor. I’m convinced that you must keep a close eye on all those different blocks and take measures that ensure people feel recognised, involved and trusted. Then you have created wellbeing for your staff.’
In what way is wellbeing part of employer branding?
Jonas: ‘I believe that wellbeing is the logical consequences of inspiring people to get engaged and involved. If you are involved in a company, you feel better about yourself at work. As it stands, lots of businesses hold a large satisfaction survey once every two years and get the results months later. At that time, you have already missed the boat since new people have joined by then, a new tool has been rolled out, etc. All these things impact wellbeing.’
Stijn: ‘That ‘old school’ approach has indeed had its day. Not everyone has the same needs after all, look at telework for example, at meeting culture, there people don’t only look at what’s needed per position but also individually. I believe that the HR policy within the industry should above all be a policy tailored to what the staff need.’
Authenticity is the key word for effective employer branding. That way not only will you get the right people within your company, but you will also manage to keep existing staff on board. That is vital in this tight labour market, in the real estate industry and beyond.