A Guiding Principle for Employee Communications in 2018 (OK, three of them)

Among our internal team, and my follow travelers in employee communications, I have had more than a few discussions about new guiding philosophies to create better employee experiences in 2018. These “resetting” conversations should be happening all the time (and they do), but the beginning of a new year is an optimal time to turn these conversations into something that actually shapes our plans. These conversations are difficult at times because they challenge our fundamental beliefs as communicators.

In the past, these guiding principle conversations shifted us from trying to “control” information flow to favoring transparency. They moved us from one-way communications, to two-way conversations, and ultimately to a multi-directional flow of information. These conversations drove us towards images and videos, as well as from a centralized writing-only mindset to one of broad curation.

Before I reveal what I believe is the core guiding principle for 2018, let me acknowledge that if I allowed myself three guiding principles for 2018 (which I could because there are no rules to this game), it would be an easier exercise since I am not convinced that the one I chose is so much more important than the ones I did not. So I will half weasel out of choosing one, by briefly describing the other two “runner ups:”

  • Internal is external and external is internal. We have always assumed within internal communications that anything we communicate to employees is likely to go external since large corporations are leaky. However, today we have accepted the increasingly blurry line between external and internal as not just a precautionary assumption, but as an engagement strategy. As such, for my team, our partnership with our social strategy group is stronger than it ever has been, with both of us sharing common goals around employee advocacy. In fact, our work in preparing for our firm’s efforts at the World Economic Forum, has been a hand-in-hand campaign in recruiting an employee group of advocates we call the #DavosSquad. In addition, as I have mentioned in this blog, we have created an entire role, the People Marketer, around this blurring line.
  • Every great decision should have analytics behind it. We have been talking about importance of data for a long time, so it feels evolutionary that the idea of People Analytics, which has also been discussed for years, seems like it is coming in for a real landing in2018. According to Josh Bersin, 69% of companies are integrating their data to build a People Analytics database. And much of the same data analytics that will change HR will also change internal communications. Conducting what was once traditional customer analysis (e.g., conjoint analysis) on employees to find out what makes them more engaged, happy and/or productive in their job can only improve our decision-making ability on how, when, why and what to communicate.

Arguably, both of these guiding principles will impact the future of employee experience and communications, and frankly, the future of work. However, the one principle that I chose was more of a philosophical shift than these other two. Like any principle, it is something that has been evolving for a while, but at least for me, it was going into this year when it (finally) fundamentally changed my planning. For those of you who have been living this principle for many years, I salute you.

  • It’s time to go where employees already are. I came to this principal partly because I finally acknowledged that employees now control their channels, not us. I also came to it out of exhaustion; I got tired of working so hard with so little return to get employees to come to the channels we created for them. I do remember that when I finally adopted this principle, I felt the relief of a person who had finally stopped swimming upstream.

    Driving people to the channels we chose used to be so much easier. It used to be (back in the early days of 4 or 5 years ago) that our technology at work was more advanced than many our employees had back home. Also, people at work weren’t inundated with information, so their attention was easier to attract. Most people were tied to a particular desk in a particular office making them truly captive audiences. I won’t say that they read whatever we wanted them to read, but we were able to limit where they could read information (which sounds sort of authoritarian, and maybe it was).

    All of that has changed dramatically, and the degree of difficulty in getting employees to focus on the channels (let alone the messages) you want them to focus on seems to jump a level every few months. And it is not that smart engagement efforts to get people to come to your channels today have stopped working; it is just . . . well, why bother? If they are already all on WeChat in China, why are we trying so hard to get them to use Slack? If they are all trying to build their brands on LinkedIn, then why are they forcing them to read articles only on our Intranet?

    Of course, there are good answers to those questions. Having everybody on the same communications system allows for enterprise-wide collaboration and easier alignment in a much more efficient way. And frankly there is still plenty of information that is not appropriate for external social channels, especially if you are a publicly traded company.

    However, what we can do is to present better channels that are more mobile and cloud-based to acknowledge that people are mostly checking their smart mobile devices every few minutes. We can replicate the features of popular external social platforms within firewalls (FaceBook Workplace, anyone?). And we can, while we build a more sophisticated cloud-based system, find ways to use channels in the interim like WeChat, Slack, Dropbox, etc., that employees are already using.

    Of course that means Communications has to develop a more sophisticated content engine and distribution process to go along with the use of multiple channels. Feeding everybody through one door didn’t need as sophisticated a distribution system as a strategy that involves multiple doorways. We also need to work closely with our technology group to understand the usage, integration and security limitations and risks of using such channels. Finally we need to define what channels are fulfilling what needs the best: which are being used for collaborative working, for information sharing, or to read the latest company news?

For those of you who are new to internal communications, the idea of going to where employees already are may not seem like a shift at all. In fact, it must seem almost embarrassingly obvious. However, it really is a fundamental philosophical shift as many veterans know. It goes along with the other shifts happening in the workplace that allow employees to have a more personalized experience and creates choice where there was none.

The future of work contains many elements that can make some nervous: AI, robotics, and the implications of longer lifespans. However, one that is more universally exciting is the increasing autonomic power of choice that digital tools offer. And we in employee communications must embrace and enable it or continue to swim upstream until the current over takes us.


One thought on “A Guiding Principle for Employee Communications in 2018 (OK, three of them)

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more on your 3 guiding principles for employee communications Adam. Thanks for articulating the trends so clearly. The communications environment and pathways sure are more complex, but it’s more interesting and ultimately engaging for communications professionals.


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