Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Engage Employees

In the early part of my career one of the things I would do periodically as editor of the company newsletter was to follow the mail cart through the office when my newsletter was distributed to employees.

I’d maintain enough distance so that I could get an honest glimpse of how employees were receiving the publication.  As you might expect, the reception was varied.

Some would instantly grab the newsletter off the top of their mail pile and drop it into the nearest trash can without ever opening it up to read it. Thankfully, these individuals were few and far between.  Others would turn right away to the last page where we ran little blurbs on employee promotions, honors and other “people in the news.”  Still others would arduously start from page one and work their way through to the back.  Of course, I did readership surveys and other things to obtain reader feedback, but I found this was probably the most unvarnished way to see the employee newsletter at work.

The one constant, I noticed, was that whatever the response, the newsletter received the immediate attention of most everyone who received it.  It almost never accidentally slid to the side of the desk while employees opened other, higher priority mail.  Almost to a person, the newsletter received immediate attention.

What this told me was that regardless of the attitudes of employees towards their employer, the employer’s efforts to communicate to employees will get their attention.  The challenge, however, is to get the employee to give the employer a chance to deliver its message.

With this in mind, here are five tips to create ways that not only get employees’ attention but helps create positive engagement:

Speak to the self-interest

There are many ways to find out what employees care about, from focus groups and surveys, to simply walking around the workplace and informally talking to employees on a regular basis. Over time, you will find out what employees care about beyond pay and benefits, though these two items are always tops on the list of employee concerns.

They also care about job security, safety and health, work-life balance, job satisfaction and career mobility.  And each demographic and segment of the work force likely views these concerns at varied levels of importance to them.  A younger employee, for instance, will likely care less about the company’s 401(k) plan than an employee in his late 40s.  A male employee may be less concerned with the organization’s maternity leave policy than his female counterpart.

Personalize the message

Personalizing the message is an off-shoot of speaking to employees’ self-interest.  But it takes it one step further.  It’s one thing to discuss a new benefits plan that is good for employees, but it’s quite another to communicate the news in simple terms, avoiding jargon, legalese and corporate-speak. 

Use conversational language in your communications.  Create forums such as small group meetings, or in large group settings town meetings, where employees are encouraged to ask questionsCreate dialogue. Demonstrate that communication is not one-way.

Humanize management

October 10, 2013 - Southwest Airlines employees face off
for the 2013 Southwest Airlines Pigskin Plane Pull to celebrate
the annual Red River Rivalry game between the Oklahoma
Sooners and the Texas Longhorns in Dallas.
Source: Southwest Airlines
The age-old term for management in industrial settings was to call managers “suits.”  Usually this is a derogatory term that represents an insular management style.

It’s important for management to work to break such barriers down but to do so in genuine fashion so that employees understand the effort is sincere and part of a real commitment to engaging with employees. 
Everything from how managers dress and interact with employees to where the interactions occur all send a message.  Hosting a barbecue for employees where senior management dons aprons and serves up the food is one way some organizations work to help break down barriers.

Southwest Airlines, a company known as a model for strong employee engagement, holds a Pigskin Plane Pull each year to celebrate a football rivalry its employees in Texas and Oklahoma share. This is just one example of the kind of creativity at play in great workforce communications programs.

But such efforts need not be so elaborate.  The key is to find ways for managers to have face-to-face meetings with employees as regularly as possible so that both management and employees see each other as people first.

Acknowledge there is life outside of the company

If you were to stop by any break room and catch casual conversations among employees, as often as not, they are talking about life outside of work – family, weekend plans or activities, vacations, or just balancing the daily grind of both work and personal matters.

It’s good to tap into this reservoir of goodwill and understanding simply by integrating into certain employee communications channels acknowledgement of life outside the company.

Including employee family news in workplace media, hosting regular events beyond the summer picnic where families are invited, volunteer and other group activities where family members are included. 

Balance content

When creating company videos, Intranet articles or blogs targeting the work force, it’s easy to fall into the trap of populating the majority of the communications channels, top-down, with important information and messages management wants employees to know.  But it’s equally important to understand what employees want to know and need to hear.

It’s good to make sure that articles and features about changes to benefits plans, for instance, are offset by an article about a long-time employee who volunteers at the local animal shelter. 

The key to engagement is always to maintain the human touch.  That is what creates an environment where employees give employers a chance to deliver important information.

Credits to: @workforcenews, @Inc., @SouthwestAir  

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