Have you ever caught a glimpse behind the scenes mid-way through a restaurant meal and regretted your choice of venue? If you enjoy eating out, it’s a moment you’ll probably have experienced. The swing doors to the kitchen part for a few seconds: just long enough to confirm your best or worst impressions. Does the calm, clean and orderly environment that you have experienced front of house carry through back stage? Or is it a scene straight out of ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,’ complete with stressed chefs, colourful language and rubbish-strewn work surfaces?
Before the advent of the internet and social media, insights such as these were rare. Customers who wanted to find out what really went on behind the façade at any business were mostly limited to word of mouth and the occasional press exposé. For brand owners, it was easy to maintain a customer-friendly external face, whatever shape the business was in, confident that the company’s inner workings would remain unseen.
Now, with easy access to the internet and social media, currents of information flow more freely through every business. Employees can blog to the outside world. Customers can broadcast their experiences free-to-air in online forums. Campaigning websites show up on the same Google searches as official company sites, for all to see – and sometimes higher up in the search results. In effect, the swing doors to the kitchen are now wedged open, 24/7.
For companies and brand owners, there are a number of important implications. Perhaps the most important is that all employees - not only those who are customer-facing - need to feel part of the organisation, if they are to play their part as brand ambassadors in the real world and the online world. In the jargon, they need to be engaged. That goes for finance, IT, HSE, production and distribution … any and every employee is now in a position to affect corporate reputation and the corporate brand. Because information circulates freely and networked individuals can have a disproportionate impact, you really need all employees to be on your side.
As well as acting as ambassadors for the organisation with relatives, friends and associates, motivated employees can be counted on to support operational initiatives – for example around efficiency, innovation, or corporate ethics. With un-engaged employees, the more likely response is surface compliance accompanied by Dilbert-style cynicism. Engaged employees are by definition more effective – so why would you not want those who control mission-critical support functions to feel part of your organisation and its future?
From a communication standpoint, there are a number of principles we at BergHind Joseph believe are essential in order to engage employees both in support functions and in the wider business:
1. Involve all of your people in corporate re-branding and values initiatives. Employees will not buy in unless they have a voice. Far too many corporate values and re-branding programmes are driven from the C-suite, based on senior management’s version of reality (itself often inspired by external communication priorities and a marketing mind-set). Corporate values that seem unconnected to the reality of the business are usually rationalised by their sponsors as ‘aspirational’, but while employees understand the need to set a positive course, they tend to be more concerned with the here and now. Management-inspired ‘happy clappy’ values will only undermine their trust and create cynicism. Authentic values, drawing on business reality as it is experienced by employees, will help you gain their trust. Genuine consultation and listening are essential here: there is no short cut. But be prepared for surprises. Employee consultation exercises around corporate values sometimes throw up fundamental operational and behavioural issues that will need fixing. This is often the case in companies that have no tradition of employee consultation: they may encounter a backlog of issues that need to be addressed ahead of, or at least in parallel with, any re-branding or values-based engagement exercise.
2. Talk to employees about what works well – not just what needs fixing. Workshops and feedback sessions can easily turn into ‘whinge-fests’, so make sure you involve enthusiasts for change as well as those who may resist it. It is usually best to ask experienced external consultants to carry out research with employees and to design and facilitate workshops and events. With no corporate baggage to carry, they are best placed to walk that fine line between acting as advocates for necessary change, and listening and responding to employees’ concerns. In the online world, intranet-based consultative forums must have clear ground rules and need moderators who are fully briefed on the case for change. Left to themselves, internal blogs and chat rooms can easily lock into a downward spiral: just a handful of employees whose glasses are half empty can set the wrong tone. Use well-briefed moderators to create balance.
3. Communicate consistently to employees and other stakeholders. Employees, shareholders, customers and NGOs now share the same sources of information, so it is no longer possible to target messages at discrete sub-groups. Avoid uncritical re-purposing of external communications, and be aware that supposedly ‘external’ media reach internal audiences as well. Employees compare what you say to external audiences with what they know as insiders, and glaring disparities will undermine their trust in all your communications. As insiders, they are best placed to appraise the veracity of your organisation’s claims, and success-stories that sound convincing to customers and investors can easily be undermined by knowledgeable employees. Remember that word of mouth now extends to social media, multiplying its impact. Internal communications should be authentic in tone and style as well as truthful in substance: employees don’t appreciate management-speak, corny stock library photographs and gushing case studies.
4. Tailor internal communications to the needs and working environments of all the people you need to reach. Think about language skills, time pressure and attention spans. Many international organisations have chosen English as their official working language, but significant numbers of employees will only have a working knowledge of the language and will not be motivated to spend valuable time with English language communications that emanate from a remote corporate HQ. And if the company can’t be bothered to talk to them in their own language, what does that say? In emerging markets, some employees and sub-contractors may not even be literate: in-person briefings are always best but in this case they will be even more important. If you want to reach employees who work in industrial as well as office environments, remember that they will not have access to the same media. Intranet-based initiatives may make an impact with your peers at corporate HQ, but they will not get the attention of hourly-paid machine operators whose attention is focused on the production line all day. And online video-based campaigns won’t reach subsidiaries that lack the necessary IT infrastructure.
5. Make your internal communications activities imaginative and inspiring. Give employees a reason to get involved in the conversation: if you want to cut through the noise and inspire them, you will have to expand your horizons beyond the standard newsletters, posters and PowerPoints. Remember that the secret of engagement is belief in each other, as well as in the company and its mission. That means you will have to bring the emotional - as well as rational – faculties into play using stories, images, video and even music. It’s not enough to explain the corporate strategy: you need to give people a reason to believe in it. And especially when you want to inspire people that work in essential but non-customer facing functions such as finance, HSE and IT, you may need to create esprit de corps where none presently exists. That means giving atomised individuals an understanding of the value their team creates, and a conviction that the team’s success depends on each of them. In global organisations, it can mean bringing people together in person for the first time, because they know each other only as a voice on the phone.
Q: How many employee engagement consultants does it take to change a light-bulb?
A: Just one – but the light-bulb has to want to change.
Employee engagement is down to each of us as individuals. It’s an attitude, so it’s about what we want to do, not what’s written on our job descriptions. It follows that engagement cannot be ‘done’ to us – we will become engaged employees only when and if we are inspired to do so. And because it’s about attitudes, engagement is organic, not mechanical: you can’t build it, it has to be cultivated. Like quality assurance, corporate ethics or the desire for excellence, it’s a process, not a state, which is why a true employee engagement programme will never be completed. But it will all be worth the effort, because – as many case studies in the business literature show - engaged employees do great work even when they don’t have to.
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About the author
Ian Brownhill, Managing Director of BergHind Joseph and has over has over 20 years’ experience of working in research, project management
and strategic leadership roles for a range of organisations including Which?, London Transport and the Prince of Wales’ Charities Group.
We've teamed up with David Zinger - the employee engagement expert - to develop a workbook that works through the myths associated with employee engagement - designed to help you uncover your thinking on the topic and better engage your workforce.