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.

 

10 Steps to Pulling Off a Multi-Office, Immersive Internal Communications Campaign

I remember lying in bed at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling, heart racing while I tortured myself – as you do at 3 a.m. — by retracing over and over again how I’d gotten myself into this mess. One stupid act of bravado. One “I’ll do it” in the middle of a meeting, not really understanding what “it” was, took me down in hindsight a very predictable pathway to where I found myself now, which I assumed was a humiliating end to a long career at my company.

We’ve all been there for different reasons. These particular thoughts of doom originated when I agreed to lead the first-ever multi-office immersive campaign in my company. By “immersive,” I mean that activities would be happening face-to-face in each office. Also raising the difficulty level, all of this activity was supposed to happen in a single, galvanizing day.

Why on earth does a company something like this? Well, in this case, the idea was to have leaders all over the world speak about our new strategy to our employees, saying generally the same thing with some customization for their region and business. Also, the act of all employees “pausing” on the same day to take in the same information projected two other important ideas: (1) the company is saying clearly that the learning the new strategy is a priority, and (2) we are one company. For the many companies out there that are trying to become less silo’d, a galvanizing day like this can really act as a catalyst to a more unified culture.

Why on earth volunteer for this? At 3 a.m. I could think of no rational reason, but now in hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made because I learned so much (and it didn’t hurt that it turned out so successful that the company has repeated it every year since then). I know many of you may have created campaigns like this, but if you are planning to do it for the first time this year, I have 10 hard won lessons I can share; some of which came from an amazing team I worked with, and some . . . well, we got lucky.

  1. Find your People. Of course, for any multi-office campaign, you need to build a top notch project team. That may go without saying. We also hired a fantastic agency, Instinctif, to help us, and thank goodness. They not only came in with experience, which we lacked, but they brought in fresh engagement ideas, and another source of project management to keep us in line. It is worth the budget, if you have it.

    You also have to find your people on the ground. Every office has that person (and in bigger offices, it is often several people) who plans the team lunches, makes sure the birthday cards are bought and passed around for signatures, and sits at the front row at every work event.  They can be the site office leader, the local communicator, or an administrative assistant. These are your ground champions. You need to recruit at least one in every office to be your “champion” to set up and run the local festivities. Usually the site leader can identify that person (or people) fairly quickly.

  1. Make it easy for the ground team. Any student of change knows that a key piece of the puzzle is to make it as easy as possible for the people who you are asking to enact or live the changes. “Shrink the change,” as the Heath brothers say in their wonderful book Switch. So even if you recruit the most engaged people in every office to be your champions, you have to remember that you are asking them to throw a site-wide event, and promote it. So among other things, you should . . .
    1. Give them time: Unfortunately, when we planned the global event the first time, we simply didn’t give the champions enough time. To be fair, we had no idea how long things would take. How much time you give them should depend on what you are asking them to do, and if this is their first time, or have they thrown an event like this before.
    2. Give them instructions: This we did get right. We created a PDF booklet that gave the Champions step-by-step instructions of what to do when. For example, they knew exactly when they would get images for the posters and exactly when to start displaying them. No guessing.
    3. Give them cover: Because we had the site leaders handpick the Champions, the Champions knew that their time spent on the preparations for this event was fully sanctioned. Very few people have slack in their schedules, so when you ask them to do something like this, it means they are not spending time doing something else – usually the job they were hired to do. You have to make sure that they know that their time spent on your event is totally blessed from the top.
  2. Get your leaders to commit early. This was something that we could have done better. As we got closer to the day, one of the things that kept me up at 3 a.m. was wondering if the CEO was even going to participate in the day. He had not committed to any one activity either on the Intranet or in person. However, about two weeks before, something changed (can’t say it was anything I did) and he committed to participate in several activities. Once he committed, the rest of the executive team also came on board, and so it went down the line.Actually one of the great wins of that day was having so many leaders participate. They showed alignment in a way that I had never seen before, and their participation energized them. After the event, my Chief Communication Officer noted that as great as the day was for our employees, it may have done even more good for our leadership.
  3. The cake should be global, but the icing should be local. I regretted writing that phrase as soon as I had finished, but I can’t think of another way to say it (and I love cake). At the center, we supplied the scripts and the decks for the leaders to deliver, as well as an entertaining video from our Chief Strategy Officer, promotional materials, and some gifts to hand out. Not to mention the step-by-step instructions. Then we asked them to do whatever they thought would make the day fun.With that, the reason we were able to attract over half of our 50,000-person population to live events from Australia west to California was the amazing work the local champions did in adding a local flavor to the event. Whether it was pot luck meals, games, or cupcakes with our logo on it, the Champions did far more than we ever thought we could even ask them to do. We at the center made the day informative; they made the day memorable.
  1. Create a bit of a competitive atmosphere. This tactic of course helps spur that local activity. We encouraged the Champions to “show off” by posting pictures on the Intranet of the cool things they developed for the day, creating a bit of competitive atmosphere among the different offices. But I really recommend only a “bit” of competition, especially if your goals are similar to ours. While site competitions can be effective and fun, in an exercise where the goal is for people to feel like they are part of one company, too much competition can work against that goal.
  2. Have activities that lead up to the day and have something that follows it. We had a lot of promotion prior to the day, and also some activities which included a buzzfeed-type quiz on our intranet about our new Strategy that assigned people “personas,” depending on their answers. People then posted their personas on their profile pages. The second year, we had employees opt in to be randomly paired with another employee from another country and business. The two employees had to find things in common and post them on the intranet to be in a drawing for a prize. These and other activities started to present the themes of the day, acted as another source of promotion, and created good buzz that led to a more successful day.

    The bigger question is what to do after the day is over. Certainly, you can just go back to business, but that felt like we were leaving all this momentum on the table. So we tried 21-day challenges. The idea was to get people managers and their teams involved with the strategy by having them commit on our intranet to do something for 21 days after the event that would advance the strategy. It felt like a good idea, but the reality is that we had low participation. I have some theories about why, but the main one is that even though the day is fun, once people get back to their jobs, they just want to get back to their jobs. After I left the company, they moved away from the 21-day challenge (which was smart) and were going to try a “mini” day later in the year as a reminder and reinforcement of the ideas that were part of the original event day. I have to admit that I have not heard whether that worked better, but it did make logical sense as a tactic.

  1. Measure! In terms of measuring outcomes, in our case, we were trying to increase people’s knowledge about the strategy and change attitudes about a one-company culture. So we did before-and-after surveys to measure knowledge and attitudes, and were happy to see improvement, especially with knowledge. Attitudes always take longer to change.

    In terms of measuring activity, we wanted to find out how many people “participated” in the day. If you are dealing with three offices, that may not be so difficult, but when you are trying to figure it out for more offices (in our case, over 100), it is trickier. For the first two years, we begged the exhausted Champions to report back to us after the event about how many people attended the meet-ups. This was an inexact science, to say the least. It also took a long time, which was not appreciated by our executives who were anxious to get a sense on the success of the day.

    After the second year of frustration with the metrics, I checked in with a Marketing Analytics specialist on staff. When I told him we were manually counting, he looked at me like I had two heads. He asked why we didn’t just send out a two question survey right after the day on whether people participated in an activity during the event and which activity, and then extrapolate a number from the sample we got. He said it would not be that much less accurate than the way we were doing it with manual counting. I left the company before getting a chance to try it, but it makes sense. He said we could even continue to ask for the manual counting to validate the sample results, but at least would get a sample number to provide to executives earlier.

  1. Don’t forget your work-at-home folks. This is an often growing part of the employee population and includes many very critical people to the success of the business (including field sales). For them, we had a 24-hour intranet chat during the event day where every hour a new set of executives would answer questions. (Of course, we had different leaders in different time zones, so no one was up at 1 in the morning answering employee questions). We also held a few virtual meet-ups with leaders who gave the same presentation as the in-person meetups.I am not convinced that we replicated the experience for them because so much of the day was about local activities with colleagues. The second year we had a “Work from Home” Champion who helped us make the day a bit more interactive for them.
  1. Social advocacy!! Like measurement, this can be filed under “yeah, of course.” However, to show how times have changed, in my first year doing the event (which was about 4 years ago), we were pleasantly surprised that many employees posted pictures of the day on their social feed, even though we had not encouraged them. The second year, we encouraged them to do that and got more postings. Today, in my new company, we are planning a multi-office internal communications campaign, and we are starting with social media as part of the promotion leading up to the event.
  2. Encourage regional organized events. If you are doing a multi-office internal event to create a greater sense of unity, and you are in several countries, I recommend having offices within a region or country organize a few activities together. In our second year of the event, our offices in the Middle East held a regional photography contest as part of the day’s activities. This type of activity creates an even stronger feeling for employees that their company extends beyond the four walls of their office or the people on their team.

 

I highly recommend these types of events, particularly for larger companies. Even with these tips, you still may have some sleepless nights, but I can guarantee you, it’s worth it!

I would love to hear your experiences with these types of events and tips that you may have. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out through my blog or @adschair on Twitter.

 

 

Mistakes Were Made: 5 Ways I have Screwed Up Employer Branding

Why do your employees choose to work at your company? As the search for the best talent becomes more competitive, this question — your employer brand question — is more important than ever.

I am a great believer in the power of a strong employer brand as part of internal communications and employee engagement, and have been fortunate enough to be involved with the launch of a few of them over my career. A good brand should illustrate the reason why your best employees were attracted to you and stay with you.

The best lessons come from mistakes and failures, so the cliché goes. And while I have made many many mistakes when it comes to employer brands, I have chosen to share five of them that I would have never discovered without the hands on experience of making them personally.

Before I open those old, proudly-earned wounds, I do want to say we got a few things right with the brand:

  • We based the brand on a lot of leader and employee input and validated it with focus groups in every region we had offices.
  • We translated and transliterated it (when a translation wasn’t possible) in 7 different languages.
  • We created visual and written guides, and built an automated template builder to make it easy to use.
  • We mapped out the significant touchpoints the company had with employees throughout their career lifecycle (e.g., performance management) and created special “banks” of brand language for each area
  • We created training videos on how to use the brand, and a newsletter that reported on its roll out and usage

Ok, so our hearts and often our efforts were in the right place. But mistakes were made, and I want to share five of them with you:

  1. We didn’t help employees “fit” the employer brand in with everything else. Before we launched the employer brand, we had recently launched a new company purpose and values. We also had a corporate brand that was in the middle of being refreshed (more on that below), and a relatively new enterprise strategy from our relatively new CSO. While we had a wonderful slide that showed how the employer brand fit in with all these other things, we didn’t take the time to really explain it to employees; at least not enough to help them answer the perennial question, “why should I care?”

    So we got a lot of employees with questions about when they should use each component, and very likely, a lot more employees who saw the corporate lingo stew, threw up their hands, and didn’t see enough relevancy to their jobs to even ask the question. My takeaways were (1) you need to make it crystal clear how the employer brand relates to and fits in with your purpose, your values, your mission, your strategy and whatever else you have launched that offers a roadmap to employees, as well as how all of these things relate to their employee experience and job; and (2) unless you can launch them all together as a very tight package, space out the launch of these various things, because when they come out in close succession, employees start to feel overwhelmed. Alternatively give employees a roadmap of the launches so they know when things are coming and how they will fit together from the outset.

  2. We didn’t bring in talent acquisition early enough. This was just silly. Most employer brand efforts start with recruiting. Somehow, we got fixated on how the employer brand would improve the employee experience for current employees by tying together their employee experiences and relating it back to the unique proposition of the company. Which wasn’t a wrong thing to focus on, but somehow it distracted us from how it might relate to sourcing external talent. Because of that, we didn’t bring in talent acquisition until after we had decided on the brand and started to put together launch plans. Not surprisingly, Talent Acquisition felt little ownership of the brand. As a result, their efforts to launch the brand in our recruiting materials were delayed and half-hearted. It was hard to blame them.

    Although most of you won’t make this particularly egregious mistake, it does point to the fact that you need to be as inclusive as possible when creating a brand. Just like Marketing forgetting to include Sales and Service in the creation of an external brand, it is easy to miss key groups internally. Although including more teams earlier on in the process may increase the difficulty in coming to a consensus, it will be worth the early pain for later success in execution.

  3. We decided against a Big Bang launch. This was the classic case of cold feet. We had put a lot of work into developing the brand and chose a launch date. However, as we got closer, some in our senior leadership started to express concerns that it would interfere with other launches going on, and that managers already had enough on their mind. So I agreed to a “soft launch,” which in this case meant an e-mail to all employees and a post on the intranet. I had convinced myself that if we did a good enough job of embedding the brand into those employee lifecycle moments, and of training those who would most use the brand (e.g., communicators, HR, and recruiters) that the brand would become integrated into the fabric of our culture without a Big Bang launch.

    Good theory, sort of. Without a Big Bang launch that made the new brand seem important and exciting, however, people got the message that it was not that big of a deal. It was bad optics.

    The truth is that there will always be other launches going on and managers will always have too much on their plate. If you are launching a way of defining the unique experience of working at your company, it is a big deal and needs to be treated that way no matter what else is going on. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic in the timing of your launch, but when you do it, it should be BIG. It goes without saying that today, employees don’t need to just be engaged in the brand; they need to be turned into social advocates for it. That will take attention-getting tactics, and it can’t be done with a respectful hush that you saved for trips to the library.

  4. We didn’t create a troop of brand advocates, ambassadors or champions. I have no good explanation or excuse for this, but especially with the growth of employee advocacy, this would have been an even bigger mistake today than when I made it a few years ago. So at least I have that thin shred of dignity to cling to.
  5. Our employer brand didn’t mesh with our corporate brand. About six months after we “launched” the employer brand, the Brand team launched a refreshed expression of our external brand. There were several issues with this. (1) Referring back to Mistake #1 above, we again had competition for employee attention. Since the newly refreshed external brand was the shiny new object and did have a Big Bang launch, guess which brand won that competition? (2) The two brands had no connective tissue: the employer brand focused on the unique culture and how we worked together (i.e., without going into details, it centered around how the company demanded diversity instead of homogeneity), and the external brand spoke about why we existed as a company. No matter what we tried, the two felt separate and unrelated. (3) In the battle between the how and the why, the why is always going to be more resonant. (see Simon Sinek, Start with Why).

It was Mistake #5 that really undid us. No matter how culturally true our employer brand was, it was unconnected to what we did and why we did it. So this is my final thought: I don’t believe an employer brand works unless it is connect to the company’s purpose. Some part of the brand must relate to what good your company puts out into the world. We had focused on our culture and values as why we were a uniquely great place to work, which is fine, but that did not feel connected to what we did or the impact we were making in the world.

What is your experience with employer brands? Do you think I am wrong that an employer brand needs to be focused more on purpose than on culture and values? I would love to hear what you think.