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.


5 Internal Communications Opportunities for 2018

At the turn of every year, like many of  you, I feel a sense of promise as I put together my annual internal communications plan. Just like my annual “this is the year I lose the extra weight” New Year’s resolution, I have that buoyantly hopeful sense of  thinly re-enforced optimism.

However, this year, for the first time in my over 20 year career, I feel a real momentum shift in our workplace. To be fair, the signs have been there for a long time: how long have we been using the phrase “new normal” and spoken about the ever-increasing pace of change in the workplace? How long has our employees’ consumer digital experiences been outpacing their work experiences? We’ve been talking about the effects of Millennials for so long that now Gen Z is college age and interning in our offices.

The idea that this is just talk is over; our workplaces are already changing. To me, these changes translate into real opportunities to expand the boundaries and influence of what we do in internal communications. So looking at 2018, I see 5 opportunities for internal communications that have a foot in the past, but also feel new, pressing, and exciting:

  1. Creating a true Digital Workplace. ESNs will be around for a long time and so will e-mail (no surprises there). But what is different are the growing cloud-based digital work systems , accessed anywhere, anytime, and fully integrated. To me the epitome of this model is Microsoft Office 365, although Google has some claim here.An integrated, cloud-based system refocuses the point of innovation and creation from the individual to the team.  Even more amazing, because an integrated set of tools sees who you are collaborating with, what documents you are working on, and who you are e-mailing, it is able to use machine learning to recommend other relevant documents and experts in your company who can help you with a current project. Yes it’s a little creepy, but it does fulfill the true potential of working in a large corporation by connecting you to people who you would not normally think to connect with. Finally — and here’s the real philosophical, late-night, dorm room question — if everything is in the cloud and is integrated, does that mean that everything becomes the intranet or perhaps nothing is the intranet. Discuss.*
  2. The Rise of People Marketing. My CMO, Jeanniey Mullen, coined the term “People Marketing” to talk about the importance of engaging employees in external marketing campaigns and converting them into advocates. When I was a marketer, some of my biggest failures were because I forgot this rule; and this was back in the stone age before social media. Now it’s not just about playing defense, but playing offense. On January 1 of this new year, I have a new “People Marketer” starting on my team. It is a brand new position who focuses on three things: (1) working with marketing to make sure every major external campaign has an internal campaign embedded within it; (2) collaborating with social to continue to recruit active employee advocates; and (3) partnering with sales enablement to ensure our customer facing colleagues present the full Mercer brand instead of just the piece they happen to be selling. With this role, we are attempting to create a catalyst in  blending the external with the internal.
  3. Talking about Automation in the Workplace. This is a tricky challenge that many of us have been facing, or will soon need to face. As robots and AI are introduced into the workplace, Internal Communications is going to have to help leaders understand how to talk about it with employees. In a 2016 study by the World Economic Forum of 15 major economies concluded that the rise of robots and AI will destroy a net 5 million jobs by 2020. And Pew Research  Center found that 72 percent of Americans were “worried” about a future in which robots and computers substituted for humans (there was less worry in other countries, particularly those with stronger public safety nets for healthcare and retirement). Very few, if any, workplaces will be spared this phenomenon, and helping employees embrace this inevitable change will be one of our biggest challenges as a profession.
  4. Getting Comfortable with Change.  The ideal of a “change adaptable” organization is something we (with our partners in HR) have been trying to puzzle out for a few years. Related to my 3rd opportunity, I have a feeling that this could be our last year in which having a work culture that is comfortable with change still may be considered a competitive advantage versus what it will inevitably become: table stakes. What I have learned is that simply launching one change after another is not going to be enough to help; no matter how many times employees are asked to accept changes, they still hold out hope that this will be the last one. Great change communications help with each change, but not in evolving the culture and frankly, human nature which is organically anxious about change. If anybody has any thoughts in this area, I would welcome them.
  5. And yes, measurement, of course. I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before. It is starting to sound like the “this is the year I get in shape” New Year’s resolution. However, every year, the output/activity metrics get better and better. Especially, as we move to a digital workplace, measuring how people are communicating and collaborating will become easier. Of course, the difficulty still is in the outcome metrics of around what business good was achieved. It is frankly one of the reasons I continue to work closer with our social team. Employee advocacy has real measurable outcomes that are tied to real revenue and retention.

These are, of course, just a few of the challenges that my team and I will need to focus on in 2018; however, these feel to me like the ones that will move the needle significantly in terms of the value we can add to our organization’s success.

What have I missed? What are the major opportunities you are facing in your company?

*By the way, if you want to read from someone who is truly expert in this space about what is on the horizon, I recommend Paul Miller, CEO of the Digital Workplace Group. For instance, his recent My 10 digital workplace predictions for 2018 is excellent.