INTERVIEW: Elke van Tienen, Global Head of People, VMLY&R Commerce on people, pandemic, and the future of work

INTERVIEW: Elke van Tienen, Global Head of People, VMLY&R Commerce on people, pandemic, and the future of work
Elke van Tienen was appointed Global Head of People by VMLY&R Commerce. (Supplied)
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Updated 02 July 2021

INTERVIEW: Elke van Tienen, Global Head of People, VMLY&R Commerce on people, pandemic, and the future of work

INTERVIEW: Elke van Tienen, Global Head of People, VMLY&R Commerce on people, pandemic, and the future of work

DUBAI: In March 2021, advertising group WPP’s creative commerce company, VMLY&R Commerce, promoted Chief People Officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Elke van Tienen to the position of Global Head of People.

With more than 15 years’ experience as a talent professional, van Tienen has created and delivered talent initiatives such as The Incubator, a work experience program offering students from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to operate as a mini agency; #CreativeComeBack, in partnership with Creative Equals, a returners program fast-tracking women back into the creative industry; and Pitch Your Passion, a quarterly contest that spotlights employees’ inspirational side-hustles.

Arab News spoke to van Tienen to talk pandemic and people in the agency world.

Tell us about your previous role and the transition into the new role.

Before stepping into the Global Head of People role at VMLY&R Commerce, I was the Chief People Officer, EMEA, at what was then Geometry. I had primarily two roles: the first was to provide strategic support to the UK business, as one of the biggest markets within the EMEA region, and secondly supporting the other markets by partnering with the leadership teams and people teams to form a talent strategy that was focused and aligned with the business strategies and our growth priorities for each local market.

What’s the difference between a “people” officer and a Human Resources (HR) professional?

The needs of our business, our industry, our clients and their customers and, in particular, people are changing. And so HR, as it was, or in some cases still is, needs to really evolve in the way in which it supports the business, clients and its people.

The intent behind the shift from HR to people is to indicate a move away from what is considered a more traditional, reactive approach that’s based in compliance, policies and processes to one that is a more people-centric, strategic approach and that is more focused on employee engagement and experience.

It’s also about developing an inclusive culture where people can really thrive. A lot of the traditional practices under HR are obviously still important; they form the foundation of what we do. But, for businesses to stay competitive, people teams are now looking to understand employees holistically as individuals and design those experiences to make sure that they’re attracting and retaining the best talent.

How have hiring trends changed in the last couple of years?

It depends market to market. We are a global network, so the career opportunities are not limited to the market in which an employee is recruited. For us, it’s really about that fluidity of global talent; mobility is something that’s just inherent in our culture. Obviously, there hasn’t been a lot of mobility over the past year but as markets open back up, we’ll start to see a lot more talent mobility and that’s what we need to be prepared for.

Has the increase in digitization and e-commerce influenced the positions you’re hiring for?

The pandemic has accelerated the demand for commerce-based solutions and new consumer experiences, and this has poised our business quite well in terms of growth. Over the past few months, a big priority has been upskilling our talent before looking externally.

But there is definitely a need for people who have commerce capability and who are digital natives. Traditionally, we have hired people within one practice or discipline and now, regardless of the client, we need to have people who are more digitally literate even if that is not the core of what they do.

In terms of company culture and creativity in an agency, it’s almost imperative for employees to be physically present. How did the agency maintain culture and creativity when employees were working from home?

So much of agency life is being with people. We have really invested in our culture and we had flexible working practices in place and the technology to support it before the pandemic. While it was a huge disruption, and we had to change and adapt our way of working, the fact that we had a strong culture that was grounded in trust and empathy helped us to adapt quickly and effectively. We also had the tools to innovate and collaborate – essentially a virtual collaboration hub – which we also use in partnership with our global clients.

From a culture perspective, we were able to shift a lot of our programs virtually to ensure that our people stayed connected. We have also seen a real shift in how our leaders need to lead and manage and engage their teams remotely. We have implemented a number of initiatives to help our employees and their families to feel supported, as well as training sessions around adapting to remote working and building resilience, which is something that I think has been really important during the pandemic.

With that in mind, what kind of changes do you foresee in the future of work and the workplace?

It is going to be a challenge but also an opportunity, and it will be really central to how companies are able to attract and retain talent. The pandemic has completely disrupted the way in which we work, particularly for our industry, which was not traditionally centered around flexible working. This disruption has already started to shape the way in which we will connect, collaborate and innovate in the future.

There was always this viewpoint that you’re only working if you’re in the office, but we have proved that’s not the case. Companies are going to need to carefully consider what the future of work is going to look like and there is no doubt that it will be different. Companies are already reducing office space; we have reduced space in a number of our markets, and that already is an indication that we are going to sustain some of this flexibility in the future.

The approach may be different from company to industry, but I really hope that we take the positive learnings from what has been a challenging and difficult time for our people and sustain some of those positive changes in order to stay competitive.