Employee Engagement, Recession-Style

Internal communications just might be the most multifaceted of all communications’ sub-functions. After all, it’s one part employee relations, one part HR/talent management, one part crisis communications, one part change management—and, thanks to the recession’s dismal effect on the job market, one part therapy. Indeed, managing all these dimensions is a monumental challenge on its own. Too bad that for most communications execs, it’s just one of their many responsibilities.

Regardless of the lack of time on these execs’ hands, they must still be mindful of the critical role the employee stakeholder group plays in organizational success. Specifically, a series of industry studies revealed the following tangible bottom-line benefits of engaged employees:

• 44% higher retention rate;

• 56% better customer service;

• 50% more productive;

• 33% more profitable; and,

• 43% higher revenue.

Couple these bottom-line benefits with the grim realities of layoffs and plummeting morale, and the need for stepping up efforts to engage employees is more compelling than ever. Below are some tips for doing so, come hell or high unemployment.

â–¶ Get leadership front-and-center in driving mass and face-to-face communications. Ongoing dialogue is a core component of employee engagement, but, to be effective, “Leaders must drive conversations from the beginning and reinforce messages throughout,” says Karlenne Trimble, MS&L’s global practice leader for employee engagement. She identifies two variations of employee engagement in this context: Big “IC”—internal communications—and little “ic,” or intentional conversations.

“Big ‘IC’ is communications that informs, involves and inspires employees to achieve company goals,” Trimble says. “Little ‘ic’ stimulates and sustains effective, directional and inspirational conversations between managers and employees.”

In terms of communicating bad news—say, layoffs or a brewing crisis—make sure the leadership proactively informs employees before they hear it from someone else.

“Employees want to hear news from the company first—especially bad news,” says Paul Raab, SVP and partner at Linhart PR. “Be the first, best source for employees, but understand which questions you can answer and which you can’t.”

â–¶ Be sensitive to people’s natural aversion to change. Human beings by nature tend to resist change, especially when that change happens in a context of uncertainty or vulnerability. Thus, with widespread layoffs and diminishing budgets across all industries, the current business environment easily qualifies as one in which change must be managed delicately.

To successfully manage everyone’s needs during a change initiative—be it M&A, organizational restructuring, workforce reductions or leadership transitions—Trimble recommends balancing between employees and the business process.

“In a people approach to change management, the key focus is the impact to employees. Less attention is placed on making hard decisions and on timeframes that drive desired business outcomes,” she says. “In a process approach, the primary focus is instituting process changes; little attention is paid to stakeholders affected by the change. A balanced approach [between the two] is best.”

â–¶ Revamp existing tools. Most organizations already have internal communications tools and processes in place, many of which may have been implemented during less turbulent times.

To make this infrastructure more budget-friendly, “Take stock of existing resources,” says Amy Stevens, system director of marketing communications for Wellmont Health System. “Spend your limited dollars wisely and incorporate metrics into everything.”

The Wellmont team used these very strategies for its own internal communications tools:

Employee Newsletter: They redefined this vehicle to be an interactive e-letter that is produced in-house and distributed via e-mail. The platform provides employees with multiple feedback mechanisms, and the tool’s effectiveness can be easily tracked through the number of unique page views.

Intranet: According to Stevens, Wellmont’s old intranet was “one-size-fits-all,” so the team redesigned it in-house to include “unique entity news with a system presence.”

E-mail: “[Wellmont] previously relied on text-heavy e-mails, and there was no way to track readership,” Stevens says. “We revamped our strategy to rely on video, which made readership trackable.”

When revamping existing internal channels, be sure you aren’t trying to fix something that isn’t broken, and always ask employees’ for their input.

“Adapt channels to employee preferences and the workplace environment,” Raab says. “Empower frontline supervisors to serve as key communicators.”

Ultimately, while employee engagement is as critical as ever in a business climate like today’s, situation-specific strategies aren’t unlike those that should be used during better times.

“Communicate the same way in bad times as in good times: honestly, openly and actively,” Raab says. “Be compassionate, but don’t forget: You’ve got a business to run.” PRN


Paul Raab, praab@linhartpr.com; Amy Stevens, amy_d_stevens@wellmont.org; Karlenne Trimble, karlenne.trimble@mslworldwide.com