Charting the Path Forward for Employee Comms in the AI Age

March 2024
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To learn more about the current and future state of employee communications, Editor-in-Chief John Elsasser caught up with three members of the executive committee for PRSA’s Employee Communications Section.

• Erica Goodwin
 Lead Consultant
Radiant Communications, LLC
(Watch a video interview with Goodwin here)

• Jennifer Hirsch
Vice President
The Grossman Group

• Laura Wentz
Manager, People Communications
Gulfstream Aerospace

On May 15-17 in Atlanta, they will hold their annual Connect24 Conference, themed “Connect AI: Navigating the Future of IC in an AI World.” 

What challenges or opportunities has the rise of AI presented for employee communications? 

Erica Goodwin: The challenges we’re seeing with AI are similar to those we see with other new technology adoptions. They involve trust, ethics, security, change and their effects on humans and relationships. 

AI is evolving at hyper-speed, which can make it hard to comprehend and hard to trust. For example, we must be vigilant about catching and correcting bias when we see it. 

Strategically integrating AI into processes and systems can create efficiencies. AI can help personalize communications and interpret data to provide insights that we can act on in the future. The possibilities seem limitless.

Jennifer Hirsch: Two challenges for all AI users are data privacy and misinformation. AI platforms employ varying policies regarding how data is collected, stored and used, which raises privacy and security issues. 

It’s critical that AI-generated content is not treated as an off-the-shelf offering. 

However, AI is helping employee communicators work faster and be more efficient in producing content. I advise all communication professionals to advance their knowledge of prompt engineering — AI is only as good as the prompts you enter. Think about how you would train a new intern and use that mindset as you use AI.

Laura Wentz: It’s unknown how artificial intelligence will shape our roles, transform how we work and possibly change how we communicate with employees.

We need to learn about the experiences of other communicators who are ethically using AI daily to find efficiencies, improve productivity, create content and more. 

This year’s Connect conference will be an opportunity to gather those best practices and explore how we can make AI work for us as communicators. 

How can AI enhance internal comms without the messages losing their authenticity?

Goodwin: We maintain authenticity by taking information created by artificial intelligence, assessing it, adapting it and then finally articulating it. The last three steps must be done by a human.

Like writing, we start with a first draft. We review it for errors and then add our tone of voice. We read the text again with others in mind, before sharing it with our audience.

Hirsch: I love to bounce ideas off AI platforms when developing content or working through data analysis. But I view the content that AI generates as a starting point for insights and inspiration, never as the final product.

I recently connected with a former colleague who advises on the intersection of technology and communication. He posed a challenge: Whatever AI generates, add something to it, or introduce alternatives. I consider my organization’s culture and values to ensure the content remains authentic. 

By treating AI as a starting point that requires additional critical thinking, communicators can ensure that the technology remains a supportive tool rather than a replacement for our own work.

Wentz: Employee communications is all about connecting with the people who shape your company’s culture. It’s an important component of the employee value proposition. For many internal communicators, we’re a team of only one or two people — or the IC function is just one part of a job description that includes public relations, social media, marketing, graphic design and other duties.

Having new ways for small teams to expand their reach to large, and geographically and technologically dispersed, audiences is a game-changer. AI can be our brainstorming partner to generate creative ideas that resonate with employees. 

We can get beyond the blank page quicker with an assist from generative AI and then deliver content in new and innovative ways. The key is that AI is only a partner in our content-creation process — there is not a replacement for the human element that internal communicators provide in crafting engaging content.

Policies for hybrid and flex work continue to evolve and can be a source of contention between employers and employees. What impacts are return-to-office or hybrid-work policies having on internal comms and employee engagement?

Goodwin: Such policies can widen the gap between employees being engaged or disengaged, especially when they feel tired of changes. As internal communicators, we continue to listen to employees, use the best channels, send clear messages, equip leaders and managers with the right information, and measure the results as we go. 

Hirsch: In the ongoing debate over post-pandemic work policies, employers may be overlooking the well-being of their employees. While internal communication is essential for policy updates, it can’t address the root issue — which is that many employees are uneasy about returning to the office and desire flexible work arrangements. 

No amount of internal communication can substitute for demonstrating empathy, humanity and authenticity.

Wentz: Remote and hybrid work have become the norm for many, but we’re doing what we’ve always done as communicators — finding the best ways to engage with the different audiences we serve. 

Communicators can help counter digital burnout by auditing our communications and listening to feedback from employees. 

What steps can be taken to actively build a community among employees through meaningful experiences and connections?

Goodwin: Creating different avenues for potential connection, both virtually and in-person, helps foster a sense of community. Dedicating a day to volunteering for a cause that aligns with company values and encouraging [global] teams to share pictures from the day can help employees feel part of a greater whole.

Telling stories about employees and teams recognized in peer-to-peer recognition programs and celebrating milestones and achievements is a powerful way for employees to get to know one another.

Amplifying employee voices by giving them a platform to share personal experiences and allow others to comment to create an inclusive workplace.

Hirsch: The first step is listening – understanding what matters to your employees. There are a number of ways to do this (focus groups, quantitative surveys, informal Q&A sessions with leadership, etc.), but ultimately it comes down to demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn from your employees, being transparent about what you heard, and then acting on those learnings by implementing offerings that will make a difference for them.

Years ago, ping pong tables in the break room were the gold star of “experiences” for employees. That certainly doesn’t cut it today.

Wentz: We share essential information to help employees do their jobs and use their benefits, but we’re also the storytellers of our organizations. We can create content that helps people leaders build more inclusive teams and employees engage, connect and build community at all levels.

Employee resource groups or affinity groups are a great source for stories that show people coming together from across the company and around the world to build and foster belonging and community.

Communicators are often asked to develop campaigns around the latest DEI initiative, but the real value comes when we’re seamlessly weaving it into all our communications and interactions with employees to enhance connection to each other and the company and providing exceptional employee experiences, in-person and virtually.

What do you hope employee comms will look like in five years?

Goodwin: In 2029, I hope employee communications will feel and look as genuine as they do today. I hope AI will have become more of a partner in our work to create content, personalize messages and synthesize data. 

Maybe we’ll use augmented and virtual reality to meet and communicate by then. I hope employee communications will have a more complex understanding of employees, so we can proactively keep them engaged.

Hirsch: In five years, my hope is that companies will prioritize employees as their most important stakeholders — and as a result, have robust, well-resourced internal communications in place, complemented by AI.

Employee communications needs to be an integral part of any company’s business strategy, not an afterthought. As the adage goes, when you take care of employees, they’ll take care of business.

Wentz: I’m certain we’ll still be talking about the pros and cons of AI in 2029, but I want to ensure that our most important audience is always at the forefront of that conversation — the employees. I hope we will harness the power of tech tools in an authentic, ethical way, so people-first company cultures become the norm. 

I hope that even the smallest internal-communications teams will use technology to deliver personalized content to help employees and managers connect to one another and their company.  

Return to Current Issue Employee Engagement | March 2024
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[sebastián hernández]

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