Journal and News

Blog: Recruitment and Retention Reflections

Having just gone through a recruitment process at ITC I have been reflecting on the current state of recruitment and retention in independent theatre. We were fortunate that our recent recruitment process generated some strong applications, and we were able to make an excellent appointment from it. However, the number of applications was significantly lower than we would normally expect, and we had an unprecedented number of applicants pulling out at the last moment because they had been offered other jobs.

We have been receiving a lot of calls from members struggling to fill key roles particularly in finance, management, and administration. I have also had communications from people leaving their jobs with ITC members and expressing their intention of leaving the arts all together. These are worrying trends particularly at a time when the industry needs to be working full steam ahead to get up and running live again as we emerge from the pandemic.

It is important to recognise that ITC companies have been hugely active during the pandemic. Creativity has not stopped in our part of the industry. On the contrary, it has flourished as lockdown descended and companies quickly started developing online and outdoor activity and new ways of working. Many initiated extraordinarily innovative and socially useful activities to serve their communities. ITC companies have been some of the first to start creating live work again and taking it to audiences who need it most. It has been an inspiration to see the imagination and commitment of our practitioners to the challenges of the pandemic.

Despite their resourcefulness it has been a very difficult time for companies. Our advice service has dealt with a higher-than-average number of cases involving grievance, disciplinary, performance management and mental health issues.  Staff being furloughed and working from home have felt isolated and it has been extremely hard for managers to adapt their practices to supporting staff under these circumstances. The context and emphasis of people’s jobs has changed dramatically. Essential administration, logistics, and problem-solving tasks, which have felt rewarding and valued in a creative, people-focused, energising environment, feel bleakly procedural and unsatisfying when tackled alone. The key element that has been missing for most people is the recognition and comradeship of working as part of a purposeful team. People report feeling bored, lonely, and extremely busy.

For a long time, engagement in an exciting, creative team has been expected to make up for poor pay and working conditions in the performing arts (wrongly of course). Sitting alone at a laptop and barely meeting the rest of the team have exposed the cracks and tipped the balance in people’s roles leaving them questioning their commitment. Let’s be honest – a lot of people are unhappy.

So, here are a few suggestions for measures managers can take to manage morale:

  • Acknowledge the stress and unhappiness. Spend some structured time listening to staff.
  • Make sure staff take some real holiday. Acknowledge that they are doing this and ensure they are not contacted during it. The lines between working and home life have become dangerously blurred whilst working from home. The boundaries need to become clear again and people need a proper rest. 
  • Get back into the office/workplace and celebrate being together again (whilst paying attention to people’s continuing nervousness about the pandemic). Listen to people’s concerns and make them feel safe.
  • Be ready to accommodate hybrid working while people get used to coming back. Celebrate the achievements of working successfully from home and build them into consciously adopted new working practices.
  • Provide clarity and guidance. These are still uncertain times and none of us is treading with full confidence yet. People are finding it hard to commit to things and to plan in a meaningful way. People need structure, hope and a genuine stake in planning the future.
  • Many staff members may benefit from a process of re-induction back into the workplace. Don’t take anything for granted. Be ready to offer additional support.
  • Offer additional training, professional and personal development with an emphasis on well-being.
  • Generate networking and connecting opportunities. We have all lost the habit of live communication. There is a lot to talk about – create space for it. Socialising and conversation are not a waste of time.
  • Build in time for formal support and development conversations. Refresh and reinstate your appraisal systems.
  • When people leave your organisation make time to hold a meaningful exit interview. Listen carefully and learn. Build that learning into even better practice

Regardless of the issues thrown up by the pandemic and the preoccupation with navigating our way through this unprecedented transition, there is a deeper vein of concern which we need to pay attention to.

The independent theatre world is a small one and workers inevitably migrate between companies to develop their skills and careers in the arts. For this reason, we have a collective responsibility to play our part in nurturing and developing this uniquely skilled and committed workforce. If a practitioner leaves an arts organisation feeling burnt out, disheartened, deskilled, and undervalued – vowing never to work in the arts again, it is a loss for us all that we can ill afford. If a worker is mistreated or discriminated against it has a detrimental effect on our whole industry. Being an ITC Ethical Manager is not just a kitemark for your own company it has a meaning and benefit for the whole arts sector. Most of our organisations are too small to offer viable promotion opportunities to develop staff so we rely on each other to provide the next step, the empirical knowledge, and the good experience that informs and spreads good practice.

I suspect that we will be facing a recruitment crisis in the arts as we emerge from the pandemic. Good people have been lost due to redundancy. People have left due to loss of confidence and morale. Brexit and the wider skills shortages in our economy will affect arts organisations too. The future of the arts looks uncertain as we wait for audiences to return. There are strong reasons to work in the arts, but we will need to be proactive in encouraging people into our industry and mindful about nurturing and developing them when they join us.

The performing arts is very dependent on freelancers, and they have undoubtedly been the most isolated and disadvantaged group of workers throughout the pandemic. Many ITC members have been acutely aware of this and have made efforts to support and engage freelancers wherever possible. Livelihoods have been lost though and work, as it begins to be created, is still uncertain. Many companies are reporting skills shortages, particularly on the technical and stage management side.

ITC is committed to working with the unions to ensure that our companies offer the best possible working conditions for both employees and freelancers working in and helping to rebuild a thriving Independent Theatre sector.

There is work to be done to regenerate and heal our workforce. We would be very interested to hear from members about measures you have taken: What recruitment and retention issues have you been experiencing? What have you done to support and develop staff and freelancers through these extraordinary times and what support do you need from ITC in meeting these challenges?

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