Put employees centre stage

Claire Rudall, managing director, corporate and brand, Brands2Life, shares the findings of a joint CorpComms Magazine and Brands2Life survey of in-house communicators on the importance of employee engagement

Put employees centre stage

Are you willing to take a risk? Employee engagement is moving up the corporate agenda, and fast. But what does it actually mean?

Is it about giving employees more content? Or communicating more often? Do we simply need to apply the lessons we’ve learned from brand communications?

At Brands2Life, we believe we must go much further. Treating employees as consumers represents a step change in many internal communications programmes. It means devoting time, budget and creativity to shaping content that will cut through and increase engagement.

But is this really going far enough?

Organisations traditionally control the message and cascade it down through set hierarchies. Leader-led communications prevail.

At best, communications teams use this approach to identify ‘catalysts’ within the business who can influence their peers and become the (well-briefed) ‘voice’ of the company.

But at worst, the cascades fall to managers who are too often ill-equipped for the communications job, and the message is lost.

Employees have always talked about their jobs — their likes, dislikes, what needs to improve, why it’s working or not working, and of course how they could do a better job than the boss. Nowadays, with access to social channels, they can talk more loudly and to a wider audience.

So how do we truly connect with and engage employees?

We need to look at the traditional balance of power, and turn it on its head.

THE STARTING POINT

From a recruitment and retention perspective, we know that human capital is now the driving force within the global economy. And we know that power has shifted from employer to employee in terms of the war for talent.

But have our communications models really kept up? Do they truly reflect this shift?

Millennials expect more transparency, more honesty, and a more personal approach. So how better to achieve this than to engage your true influencers? And by this, we mean handing over the reins to employees to tell your story from the inside out.

Engaging employees nowadays is not just about giving them the script; it’s about ensuring employees are the story.

As communicators, our job is to address employees, our most significant influencers, in the same way as we would external influencers. To truly engage, we need to understand what motivates them, what entertains them, who they like to spend time with, who they’re connecting with, what their preferred communications channels are and what they like doing.

This will help us to work with them to shape the right stories, the right content, delivered in the right way to nurture relationships and ensure that they feel part of a bigger community. Our biggest risk is doing nothing.

THE CHALLENGE

Let’s consider what in-house communications teams are up against in this space: employee engagement is the number one challenge facing companies around the world.  Getting it right delivers increased productivity, and ultimately stronger business results.

Research has shown that 75 per cent of employees in companies with strong financial results describe themselves as ‘engaged’. And in turn, expectations from CEOs have changed.

According to our study, 57 per cent of respondents cite employee engagement as a high priority for their CEO.

The time spent on employee engagement by in-house communications teams has increased with almost one third of respondents saying this has gone up significantly in recent years.

Half of respondents now spend upwards of 50 per cent of their time on employee communications, but almost two thirds spend 25 per cent or less of their overall budget on employee communications.

And 55 per cent of respondents believe that their current budget allocation for employee communications is not enough.

So we need to find better, more effective ways of involving employees in our story, but with limited resources. What better time to get employees more involved in shaping your company narrative and telling your story?

YOUR STORY, YOUR PEOPLE

There’s a perceived lack of interest in internal communications amongst employees according to 42 per cent of respondents in the study.

To counter this, empowering employees to get involved in shaping as well as sharing the story is the most compelling way to deliver authentic communications. The quality of content being produced is another stumbling block.

While we’re prepared to be creative and take risks with content for customers, this is not yet regularly reflected in the quality of employee content according to more than one fifth of respondents, who said: Making our vision understandable and translatable to all grades remains a challenge.

Taking a different approach with employees and understanding them as true influencers will force a shift in direction. Looking to employees to generate both demand and supply for quality content will ensure that communications are pitched at the right level to their peers and will present more varied and informal opportunities to challenge, question and comment.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM BRAND COMMUNICATIONS?

To achieve cut through, employers are increasingly having to compete with the personalised, quality content that employees are used to sharing and interacting with in their personal lives.

We know some employers are getting this right and setting the bar high. But one third of respondents said employee communications are less creative than external and this needs to be challenged — what message does that send about how much you value your audiences?  

As employees are your real influencers, is this the right approach? Macro trends in communications such as visualisation, gamification and peer-to-peer content apply equally to employee engagement.

The ultimate goal is to involve employees, let them become part of the story, and give them the opportunity to engage in two-way dialogue at every turn. Understanding a diverse audience and tailoring communications accordingly will reap stronger results internally, just as it does externally.

We have four generations in the workplace nowadays, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z. As communicators, it’s our job to understand them better and to let them tell the company story.

UNCOVERING CHANNEL INSIGHTS

To complete the picture, we have to think harder about the channels we’re using to communicate with employees. We know from research that existing channels, such as intranets and email, are considered to be one of the barriers to engagement according to 25 per cent of respondents, with 54 per cent citing email fatigue as a reason for low engagement.

When we look at the multitude of creative ways we target consumers and influencers, it’s not surprising that internal email updates don’t quite cut it.

What is interesting is that despite the ever growing power of technology, face to face is still the most sought after channel for employees.

From our research, people talked about wanting ‘more personal, conversational and engaging dialogue’ and management is encouraged to ‘engage, not transmit’.

Again, a move towards employee-led communications supports this and opens up opportunities beyond annual or quarterly events to interact face to face.

Half the respondents in our research cite a disparate workforce as one of the key challenges they’re facing in employee engagement, as well as 42 per cent citing lack of online access.

And our research showed that just one in four respondents believe that the response rate on employee communications is either good or very good.

If channels are not genuinely driving two-way dialogue, we need to question what value they are delivering.

THE FUTURE FOR EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

So what is the opportunity for in-house communications teams to deliver employee engagement that has a clear business impact?

1. Take the risk  Your employees are your most critical influencers. Understand their needs and empower them to lead communications. Take the time to uncover audience insights as you would with external communications and step away from traditional, leaderled communications.

2. So what’s new? Be prepared to disrupt. Ask the difficult questions. Understand what your employees expect from communications and push to deliver in different and unprecedented ways.

3. The rules of engagement Employee communications now have to compete with tailored content that employees share and interact with in their personal lives. Receiving a monthly pay pack from a shared employer does not align a workforce. Shaping communications that match the quality of external content will take us half way to success, empowering employees is the next step.

4. Mirror the macro trends Trends such as visualisation, gamification and peer-to-peer content apply equally to employee engagement. Empowering your people to communicate with peers will deliver more relevant, more credible content.

5. Uncovering channel insights Be ruthless about channels that are not adding value, particularly with a disparate workforce. Taking a back seat and enabling your employees to do the talking fosters more opportunities for direct conversation, as well as more engaging peer-to-peer content.

6. Cultural fit Having an open and honest culture is essential to successfully land employee engagement programmes that deliver business impact. There’s work to be done before initiating a shift from leader-led to employee-led communications and getting this right is key.

7. Make the case Demonstrate to decision-makers what true engagement can ultimately deliver, from employee advocacy to enhanced customer service. Research respondents cite: ‘Improvement in sales, more interaction, more understanding’ ‘Productivity, staff turnover, absence rates’

According to the research, 34 per cent of in-house communicators do not currently measure employee engagement.Is ROI any less important internally?

Allowing your employees to take centre stage it is the only way to succeed in a world where individuals, and particularly the younger generations, are used to controlling what they say, how they say it, where they say it, in the knowledge that they can more easily than ever before command an audience, and keep that story going.

Understanding that your employees can be more powerful than your customers, more authentic than leaders, more effective than managers, and more relevant to each other’s day jobs than communications or HR teams is the first step in differentiating real employee engagement from internal communications of the past.

Be bold and take the risk. Getting your story right and truly owned by your organisation, then shaping content around it, are the critical elements to success in employee engagement and ultimately, delivering positive business impact.