Jonathan Hopfner | November 11th, 2022

As businesses face a new year rife with uncertainty, at least one thing will remain constant - the focus on talent, which even after Meta’s brutal reality check is set to remain scarce.

Our previous article on the topic started with the pressing shortage in the tech sector, but triggered a host of conversations with, and questions from, clients in all industries. Many of these boiled down to the same perceived dilemma: We know communicating with current and future employees is important, but what are the best ways to do that? And what exactly do employees want to hear about, anyways?

Now, as my learned colleagues have pointed out, trying to manipulate any message to please an audience can be a self-defeating strategy. There are times telling employees precisely what they don’t want to hear is the only right thing to do (as a certain Mr. Zuckerberg will no doubt attest). But our discussions nonetheless point to a persistent disconnect between large firms and their workforces that many fear is only widening as remote and hybrid work grows more entrenched.

Some clients mentioned feeling at a loss to compete for employees’ attention, or to work out what genuinely interests people in various roles - beyond the near-universal fascination with pay slips, of course. There’s an overall sense that a lot of the communications intended to inspire and motivate employees, to let them know they’re valued and engaged in important work, is failing to land, let alone stick.

Troublingly research indicates these concerns might be justified. Firms like Gallup have not only charted an ongoing slump in employee engagement but also a rise in those who are actively disengaged, or, to put it in plainer terms, angry. A few of the professionals I’ve spoken with have openly wondered whether they should be trying to reach their people at all.

A matter of principles

Like any kind of communications, those directed to employees can’t be based on a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and the most effective will be rooted in the organisation’s own context and goals. Nonetheless in helping our clients with employee-facing campaigns there are some basic principles that have emerged that we’ll share in the hopes they’ll allow those tasked with this difficult mission to get 2023 off to a promising start.

It’s not just about you: There’s rising awareness of the importance of communicating some kind of organisational purpose and mission beyond profitability, and more evidence this isn’t just a priority for Gen-Z technologists. A recent survey from Deloitte found that well over half (62%) of workers consider an organisation’s purpose in any decision to sign up, and that over 36% even view this as important as their compensation package.

The issue is that when purpose is communicated, it often stops at articulating something that’s important to the company, rather than a vision or mission that can be shared by the organisation and the talent it’s looking to engage. If the stated raison d’etre is vague or impossibly lofty (‘making the world more sustainable’) or refers only to customers or shareholders, it can be hard for employees to figure out where they fit into the process, or how they can contribute.

Consider whether communications on the company’s values or goals implicitly offer people the chance to get involved, through their formal roles or via other initiatives that emphasise action rather than listening. Setting up an incentive-based programme to encourage employees to reduce their personal environmental impact can speak volumes about a commitment to sustainability, for example.

The ‘micro’ matters: In the same vein, communications on the corporate mission or important developments tend to take the form of a single, organisation-wide ‘broadcast’ – such as slapping a statement on a website – which is easy for employees to dismiss or view as impossibly distant from their individual roles, or work on the ground.

Just as external communications target different stakeholders or customer groups, organisations, and large organisations in particular, need to remember their employees are not a monolith, and that messages may need to be broken down or tailored for different roles if they’re to be truly impactful. Experts have noted employee engagement (and productivity) tend to peak when individual employees are convinced their own work connects to what they care about and the organization’s goals, meaning all possible opportunities should be taken to show where these things intersect. Rather than a ‘message’ think of it as an ongoing dialogue that’s taking place at various levels …

Meet employees halfway: … and via various channels. It’s typically for the right reasons (security, compliance) but a lot of employee communication is still confined to e-mail at best; at worst to aging portals with clunky interfaces that do little but drive off people now weaned on seamless interaction and hyper-optimised user experience.

More enterprises are exploring LinkedIn as a means to connect with talent, but we’d encourage more to push this further and look at platforms like Glassdoor, Instagram and TikTok, even if these aren’t typically used in the customer-facing context. Remember these networks are a two-way street, rather than platforms on which to drop posts and run, and that a spirit of openness and transparency will produce results. Glassdoor research for example shows companies that take the time to respond directly (and non-hysterically) to employee reviews there benefit from significantly enhanced perceptions.

Building it yourself

Some of our more tech-minded clients have had significant success cultivating active employee networks on self-developed apps – but almost always by ensuring the app performs useful functions (such as allowing bookings of parking or workspace) and providing space for the community to develop organically around that, rather than setting out exclusively to build a community from the beginning. These employers are also an active presence in their communities, checking in regularly to participate in conversations and responding to inquiries, even criticism, which helps ensure they remain vibrant.

Above all as your organisation enters the new year keep in mind employees are as likely to be troubled by uncertainty and instability as any business, and that now more than ever, communication needs to be a steady, reassuring presence, rather than an occasional proclamation or lecture that implicitly ups the pressure, or shows how far removed the company is from everyday concerns.

Rather than setting out to convince or convert, in 2023 consider making the more modest resolution of getting an honest conversation with employees started, and keeping it going. In the process the organisation may get some welcome help defining and articulating its purpose in a way talent can understand and appreciate, and see its own people blossom into its most effective ambassadors.

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