Are Your Communication Strategies Really Engaging Employees?

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The frequency with which the word “engagement” appears in any discussion about employee communication has begun to make me wonder whether we clearly understand what the term means. More important, do we understand what our clients, particularly CEOs, mean when they talk about engagement? We have engagement tools, but can we really say that these tools actually engage employees in the process of change? Or are employees merely engaged with the tool itself?

There is only one question that you need ask to find out whether your employee communication strategies are going to engage employees, rather than simply inform them. That question is: Can you establish whether the tools and methods you are using to communicate with employees are changing attitudes and behavior, or providing information?

Employee engagement is a shared understanding of the issues that affect the business, and that understanding leads to changes in employees’ attitudes and behaviors. Unless employees truly understand business issues and make a meaningful connection between their jobs and those issues, their attitudes and behaviors will not change. To achieve engagement, three things have to happen: The business issue has to mean something to the employee personally, the employee has to understand the issue (and I mean truly understand it, not just read about why it is an issue), and most important, each employee must be made to feel a part of the change process.

As communicators, we have the opportunity to be creative in how we communicate and engage employees. The ultimate aim in employee communication must be to create the “Aha!” moment. This is the moment when employees have the necessary information and can say, “Now it makes sense,” “Now I understand,” “Now I can do something about it.”

Tools are important in this process, but generally they just communicate information. What we need to strive for are creative communication methods that engage employees in the process of change.

Here are five steps to consider in determining what will produce that “Aha” moment:

  1. Focus group research. Ask employees about their thoughts on the organization and its competitors.
  2. Identify the largest gap between what customers think and what employees think customers think.
  3. What would create a paradigm shift in employees’ thinking?
  4. Can you measure the impact of the change in thinking?
  5. How significant is it to achieving the business objectives?

So let’s look at an example that would be familiar to communicators: the annual report announcement. Typically, an online annual report would be made available to employees via the intranet. Some employees read it, but most tend to scroll down to the last pages to check the annual salaries of the senior executive staff and then close the document.

Let’s imagine that the results in this annual report are very poor and the CEO is determined that employees understand the issues surrounding the poor results and become fully engaged to help turn the company around. Here’s how the organization could accomplish this.

The company holds four hour-long brown bag lunch meetings over four weeks, in which employees can hear from an outside professional about how to invest in the share market. Importantly, there is no obvious link between the meeting topic and the organization the employees work for. At week three, they are analyzing annual reports and generally deciding whether they will invest in a particular company based on the information contained in the report. By the fourth week they are given another annual report and asked the same question, “Would you invest in this company?” The answer is overwhelmingly no. And of course this last company is the one they all work for, which brings them to the “Aha!” moment. Now the organization’s employees understand and are engaged and ready to become involved in turning the company around through teamwork and new initiatives.

Here are some steps you can follow to ensure that you come up with creative ways to communicate with employees and engage them in the process of change.

To challenge beliefs that your employees have about your organization, you need to have facts. The marketing department is an excellent source of facts about the business, with research on brand image, customer satisfaction, customer and non-customer views on competitors and information about market segments. Each of these areas provides valuable information on opportunities to link employees with business issues that can be measured. For example, the organization should have facts about how customers feel about the service provided by the organization’s call center. Employees will also have an opinion about how customers perceive their service. Sharing the results of customers’ feedback with staff often creates an “Aha” moment because customer feedback is typically better than what employees anticipate. Once you have shared this information, the objective is to then explore ways that employees can become engaged in further improving that customer feedback.

Focus groups are another excellent way to find out what employees think about different aspects of the organization; offer ways to challenge employees’ beliefs as you help them better understand the issues that affect the business.

Key sources of business data include customer experience data, business results by product or service stream, competitor customer feedback, and measures of the attributes of your brand. You can use these sources to measure improvement as a result of your employee engagement strategy.

When selecting business outcomes as a measure for your employee communication strategy, you need to be quite certain that the strategy you implement can actually affect the business outcomes you have decided to focus on.

Finally, when it comes to any employee engagement strategy, whether it be total transformation of a business or improvement in one particular aspect, you can rarely go it alone. Partnering with other areas of your organization, including marketing and human resources, will ensure that the optimum outcome is achieved for your organization.

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