Want to Retain Agency Staffers? Consider an International Desk Swap

Effort Proves Successful for Chicago Shop

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Marketing Store staffers who have swapped desks compare notes.
Marketing Store staffers who have swapped desks compare notes.

Offering valuable employees a raise in an effort to keep them from leaving is a common retention strategy. But sending them overseas for an extended stay? Far less common, but it's a tool that Chicago-based promotions agency the Marketing Store has discovered works wonders.

It all started with the idea of a global desk swap, a program launched about five years ago, said Dave Jaski, global human resources lead for the Marketing Store. The agency has 12 offices globally -- including in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, London, Mexico City and Sao Paulo -- and counts McDonald's among its biggest clients, along with Walgreens, Coca-Cola and General Mills.

The program was initially devised by the creative department so that employees could have, say, three-month stints in Brazil or Hong Kong to, as Mr. Jaski said, "help transfer knowledge, intellectual property and client experiences" on a temporary basis in lieu of hiring freelancers. In the early days of the program, for example, one office may have been short on talent in one discipline, like digital design, and looked within the network to have employees go to another office temporarily, often for a specific client project.

The program was temporary in part because the logistics of transferring employees can be complicated and expensive given labor laws and visa restrictions. As originally designed, the desk swap was a way for the company to easily transfer expertise within the network while also offering professional development.

Since then, however, the program has "evolved to a different place," Mr. Jaski said. The agency now does 10 to 15 swaps a year, and somewhere along the way, he said the shop realized how valuable it was in keeping employees around. "We had high-potential associates who were burned out and wanted to do something else. People we could have lost are now staying with the company because of new opportunities."

One of those employees was Taylor Host, who is now senior global director and head of mobile platforms in Asia for the Marketing Store. Mr. Jaski said that Mr. Host, who was a promising digital employee in the Chicago office working on clients like McDonald's, was being courted by other employers, including video-game companies. But the Marketing Store felt it couldn't afford to lose him. "We said, 'We need you, what can we do?'"

Mr. Jaski said Mr. Host asked to go to Hong Kong to launch that office's digital operation. The Hong Kong office's managing director put Mr. Host into the desk-swap program so he could build out a digital capability in Asia. A year and a half later, things have gone so well that Mr. Host works permanently in Hong Kong. "We're retaining people, we can expand our business, and in the end, it's a competitive advantage," said Mr. Jaski.

Getting agency management on board in the first place took some convincing. For one, Mr. Jaski had to lay out a case for why sending an employee overseas for three months -- including paying for flights and handling living arrangements -- was more beneficial than taking on local freelancers, which also cost a premium.

He argued it was much more worthwhile for the agency to have an employee relocate on a short-term basis than to hire freelance talent that would leave a few months later. His pitch was that it didn't cost much more to offer an employee a perk like a desk swap, and it kept the talent internal while also lending a fresh perspective to different agency offices.

The added benefit, he said, is that it also serves as a professional development program by giving employees hard-to-come-by global expertise. "Promotional marketing is different in the U.S. than it is in Brazil," he said. "How we work with clients varies in different locations."

The phrase "desk swap" implies that two offices would swap employees, and in some cases, that has happened. But in other cases, Mr. Jaski said, some offices will just take in an employee without swapping an employee out if there's a specific client need or large program that requires extra hands.

Those that join the program must meet some requirements. Participants are required to blog about the experience and what they learned, as well as produce video at the end of the program chronicling highlights. And just so the participants don't feel lonely, the host office provides an employee buddy that acts as a city guide for those participating in the desk swap. The guides show them neighborhoods, restaurants and other cultural activities.

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