The Trends Shaping Employee Communications

April 2023
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Strategies & Tactics asked three executive committee members of PRSA’s Employee Communications Section about the state of the sector.

• Ally Bunin, Global Communications Lead, Special Projects, Russell Reynolds Associates

• Becky Graebe, Senior Manager, Communications, SAS

• Amy Jenkins, Director of Client Strategy and Success, theEMPLOYEEapp

Here’s what they had to say:

How did the pandemic change employee communications?

Ally Bunin: Authenticity was always an important factor in employee communications, but it became a core tenet during COVID. Messages that felt too corporate, generic or lacking in empathy were rejected. Using an authentic delivery, leaders who could balance their messages with empathy and work guidance became the heroes. 

Video and live town halls also became more valuable. Employees were far more engaged with unproduced videos shot from our CEO’s backyard than with our HR emails or intranet content. Seeing leaders’ facial expressions and connections became critical, and that need is not likely to change any time soon.   

Becky Graebe: During the pandemic, as many teams functioned without the luxury of in-person meetings or with time for the cascade approach to sharing information, leadership looked to employee communicators for real business solutions. 

That reliance remains, as many organizations address hybrid work models, shortened workweeks and employee retention/staffing issues. Leaders never want to be caught off guard again without targeted, digital channels in place.

Amy Jenkins: Two lasting changes to employee communications stand out to me: communicators defining their audiences and communicators being seen as strategic advisers, versus comms producers/deliverers.

Employee communicators are creating personas and embracing the differences among their internal audiences. They’re implementing channels and strategies for each audience, moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to internal comms.

Communicators have also started to flex their strategic muscles in the boardroom. They are being brought into the decision-making process, versus just being looped in at the end to help implement those decisions. 

A new Gallup report finds that many workers, especially Gen Z’ers and millennials, are disengaged from their jobs. For internal communicators, what are the challenges and opportunities to help employees feel engaged and find meaning in their work?

Bunin: Putting the burden on communicators to drive employee engagement is directionally incorrect — unpopular as that may be. We have a responsibility to help our leaders communicate and engage colleagues about the business, the organization’s purpose and “what’s in it for me?” Individual accountability and manager accountability are critical factors for engagement.

Yes, communication plays an important role, but we’ve gone off the rails associating communications with making employees feel engaged in their jobs. 

Graebe: Good internal communication teams are doing more than cranking out communication deliverables. They’re working with leaders to offer ways to strengthen channels for listening to employees, so the company can be more responsive. They’re recommending ways to amplify and provide easy access to available resources and points of connection. 

Even in remote and hybrid work models, internal communicators are working to find meaningful reasons for employees to connect with leaders and to one another, so they can celebrate company rituals and accomplishments and create a sense of belonging. 

Jenkins: I’ve seen a significant shift in the workforce, in that Gen Z’ers want to work so they can live, versus live so they can work. And we need to understand that perhaps the days of people wanting to spend time after work at a company happy hour are gone — not because they don’t like the company or their co-workers, but because they value their time outside the office. 

Our biggest challenge — and opportunity — is to stop measuring employee happiness/engagement and to start measuring employee contentment and belonging — the feeling that you are appreciated by your company for your contributions and that you are allowed (if not encouraged) to be your authentic self every day. 

With workforces scattered, many companies are trying to figure out how to make meaningful connections with their employees. What best practices do you suggest?

Bunin: Virtual town-hall sessions, in-person meetings and events, and small group gatherings are essential for keeping colleagues connected. To be most effective, messages should be concise so leaders can cascade them down through the organization. 

Many employees report that their workplace experience is dependent on their manager. If their manager and leaders are strong communicators who can authentically deliver messages, then these forums become key. Conversely, if managers can’t rise to the occasion, then it can make a tangible impact in the wrong direction. 

Graebe: Meet employees where they are in their work journeys. For those who want to be in an office environment, optimize that experience for them. Make their commute and their in-house experience worth it. Double up on efforts to create social space. Most are there for that purpose.

For those who prefer to remain remote, look for ways to ensure that employees feel valued and connected. Make the virtual experience inviting, not an afterthought. When considering hybrid work arrangements, get employee input on what days of the week work best for shared work time and for important company events and get-togethers.

Jenkins: It starts with asking employees how they want to connect with others. Not everyone wants to be on camera every day, but they may be content chatting through collaboration tools. Give people options and encourage them to find the best opportunity for themselves. 

At a minimum, organizations need to enable leaders to bring their immediate teams together at regular intervals. If there’s a budget for travel or in-person events, then that should be considered. If not, then create team-specific channels or encourage regularly scheduled team meetings to allow people to connect professionally on projects and goals, and personally to build rapport and respect.

On May 1-2, PRSA’s Employee Communications Connect23 Conference in Orlando, Fla., will explore how to meet the new demands of “mixternal” communications. How do you explain the “mixternal” concept?

Bunin: “Mixternal communications” refers to the concept that every employee is a consumer; therefore, your messaging must reach them in the ways they prefer. This makes channel strategy just as important as the content itself. Many of us have the basic menu of channels for communicating with employees: the intranet, emails, newsletters, etc. But measuring engagement on these channels, and knowing where and when to reach your people, is the key.

Graebe: “Mixternal” captures the fact that employees are critical stakeholders in business today. They are the heart of what brand authenticity is all about, and they are the brand. Employees have the ability every day to enhance your organization’s reputation or to tarnish it.

Employees can become your biggest brand champions, social advocates, talent recruiters and storytellers if you inspire them, equip them and treat them with the same level of attention and care that you give to customers.

Jenkins: Anything communicated internally could become external, just as anything shared externally can affect employees, too. It’s time for these teams to collaborate on strategies and goals.

How can organizations clearly communicate their cultural values and strategies in the new world of work?

Bunin: Leaders have to connect the dots between the work that employees do and the organization’s strategy, vision and values. This is the trickiest communications role for leaders, because there's often a significant discrepancy between the work that employees do and the company's stated values. Reinforcing company values during team meetings, huddles and day-to-day work is a great place to start.

Graebe: With so many new employees in our workplaces, we have some storytelling to do. Leaders certainly set the stage and must do so authentically, but employees at every level live and breathe what’s essential to the organization each day.

We need space to hear from them often. The company narrative is every bit as valuable as the corporate balance sheet, and internal communications plays a vital role in sharing the stories that capture that narrative best. Sometimes those stories come from the top and sometimes they’re nestled in corners where most people wouldn’t expect to find them.

We must also work on fun and humor to get important messaging like values and strategy to stick. We’ve all been through a lot over the past few years, and levity allows us to share a few moments at the same level, making us more approachable and believable.

Jenkins: Encourage employees to communicate how they’re living the company’s values wherever they are. Yes, internal communications will own the initial messaging and campaign to drive understanding, but the only way to demonstrate that the values are real is to have employees authentically speak to them. Have a channel dedicated to sharing information about values. Create a social media hashtag to tie to any values-driven communication or employee-generated content, and ensure leaders use values-based language in presentations and communication.

Learn More

The PRSA Employee Communications Section Conference, Connect23, will take place on May 1-2 in Orlando, Fla. Register here.


Return to Current Issue Internal Comms | April 2023
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