Building Employee Engagement in Unlikely Places | Gagen MacDonald

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Building Employee Engagement in Unlikely Places

Nov 07, 2023

The power of tailored employee communications

In the many years that I’ve been studying employee behavior and creating engagement and communications strategies, one key principle has served as my guidepost: you must meet people where they are and deliver communications through a receiver-centric focus.

By receiver-centric, I mean this: What information would be appreciated by your employee audience? How do they want to receive it? And importantly, from whom do they want to receive it?

Also known as human-centered or user-centric communication, the key to a receiver-centric approach is meeting people where they are. My commitment to it has led me to some interesting places — such as the men’s bathroom of a utility substation in New Jersey. But we’ll come back to that.

It is well known that when employees feel connected to their companies through a shared sense of purpose, they are happier and more productive; tend to stay longer in their positions; and are quicker to adapt to change. To arrive at that shared sense of purpose across a culture, employees must understand and believe in the company’s strategic direction and be able to see themselves contributing to its success. They also need to be seen and understood in the communications they receive.

Truly engaged employees lead to engaged teams, and truly engaged teams are the drivers of change and positive business results. According to Seenit’s report The Talent Revolution 2022, investments in employee wellbeing can lead to a productivity increase of 23 percent, confirming what we already know: that organizations don’t transform, humans do.

In a period hallmarked by constant change — with employees bobbing in the wake of reorganizations, leadership changes and business transformations — it can be easy for communicators to fall into a cycle of reactivity: of feeling the need to communicate more to everyone. But more does not mean better, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Specific employee groups have different needs and desires for communications, and in today’s highly matrixed, digital communications landscape, there is no excuse for a one-size-fits-all approach. Companies simply have to do better.

Challenge: How can you reach deskless employees with limited access to technology?

This need for a return to a receiver-centric approach to communications has become ever clear through a recent Gagen engagement with a power company. The company has tasked us with evaluating their communications with field workers. These frontline employees spend their time performing dangerous work that demands their complete focus and attention. Experience matters; valuable employees are not easy to replace.

We began our work by visiting locations to learn about the employees’ daily routines and ways of working, taking note of the physical spaces, communication opportunities and trusted relationships at play. Immediately, we could see opportunities to more effectively use digital screens and common spaces.

Through focus groups, we learned that frontline managers are the “funnels” of all important information to frontline employees, and that frontline employees prefer to receive most information in face-to-face daily meetings, backed up by paper-based communications posted on bulletin boards. And not just any bulletin board — the specific bulletin board they look at every day to check their overtime hours.

Frontline employees’ information priorities include: the day’s work; safety, training and security updates; and updates on compensation, overtime and benefits. No surprises there. But they also shared how much they value updates about the company’s financial health, leadership changes and the future of their industry. To us, this suggests that they’re eager to be invested in the company’s future.

Through focus groups with their frontline managers, we learned that the sheer volume of email managers receive has become an issue, making it more difficult for them to curate relevant information for their frontline employees. (One leader confessed to twice deleting his entire email inbox in frustration. “I’m embarrassed to admit that. But if it’s important, I’ll receive another 10 emails on it.”)

Our recommendations? Meet them where they are.

Our research continues and we look forward to the results of a channel and communications survey (delivered via paper because that’s how frontline employees prefer to complete it) that will rate current communication vehicles and further define their priorities for receiving news from local and top company leaders. We hope to learn how they would like to be informed about industry and company news, financial updates and other “bigger picture” topics unrelated to their daily work.

In the meantime, we’re thinking through recommendations to move the needle on engagement with employees and managers. Instead of sending more to fill the information gaps, we’ll be advocating for sending less, and recommending an audit of frontline manager digital channels to prioritize and deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. By delivering receiver-centric, relevant content consistently, an organization demonstrates that it understands who their employees are and what they value. And that builds engagement.

Another recommendation will be equipping frontline managers with the tools and information they need to be effective communicators. As the most important people responsible for building engagement with frontline employees, frontline managers’ time is incredibly valuable. We’ll be recommending the development of ready resources — a weekly communications package of pre-curated, relevant content that is easy to share face-to-face, and easy to reinforce through digital signage and other channels.

Recognizing how much frontline employees also appreciate in-person conversations with leaders (versus printed or digital communications from them), we’ll be recommending the company’s leaders continue a regular cadence of on-site visits. And we’ll be recommending new communication vehicles to meet field employees’ desires for industry and company updates.

During our focus groups, we heard from seasoned field employees about how they used to post bulletins on bathroom stalls, affectionately remembered as the “toilet paper” campaign. The campaign had moved from paper to digital and employees missed the old way — which is how I found myself being escorted on a tour of the men’s bathroom, envisioning an updated version of the approach they preferred.

Employee engagement is about knowing your audience, and recognizing and intentionally navigating the human emotions and operational realities that drive their behavior.

When you’re truly committed to receiver-centric communication, you meet people where they are — wherever that might be.

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