Thinking of your own workplace, what are the most commonly used face to face communication and engagement tools that you see being used?
Depending on your sector or industry and your employees’ roles, this can be very different. Traditional (pre-pandemic) methods might be:
- face to face staff meetings
- in-person town halls
- education days
- sponsored events
- guest speakers
- company conferences
These are all methods that companies use to inform, involve, and educate employees in the company’s strategic plans, mission, key projects, new priorities, and culture. They can also be means of exchanging information and hearing from employees.
What are the barriers vs opportunities for dispersed workforces?
In a company with a large, distributed workforce, spread across a big geography, including all your staff in these face to face methods can be challenging at the best of times. If you have in-person events concentrated in certain cities (usually the ones with the critical mass of staff numbers and where senior leadership is based) it can be more difficult to create the same sense of inclusion and foster a cohesive culture if it’s perceived that there is an “us and them” or “mother ship” versus “the rest of us”.
Add to that employees who have shift work, remote work, or roles that don’t allow for taking time out of their day to attend an event, and you can see how face to face engagement doesn’t work for all.
Key point: This doesn’t mean that in-person staff engagement events don’t matter. I am still moved, 12 years later, thinking about a simple, modest, afternoon tea that a former employer organized for employees marking a long-service milestone. There were no lavish budgets, no tickets sold, no corporate sponsors – just a very grass-roots events held on site in the hospital’s 70 year-old auditorium, advertised in our now long-gone-but-not-forgotten paper newsletter that we printed and distributed by hand on the hospital campus.
None of that mattered to the employees. They put on their best outfits, and proudly brought daughters, sons, grandchildren, and partners to share in this special memory of their employer honouring them. That memory etched in my mind what really makes employees feel included and valued.
To be effective, organizations must think past 'one-to-many' communications
Today, technology, demands of work roles, employee needs, and public health requirements influence how we pivot from more conventional methods of communication to more virtual, and asynchronous approaches.
The traditional “one to many” approach of communications (e.g. the CEO all-staff email that is sent out on a Tuesday morning) for some industries is a staple that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But “one to many” communication has been increasingly overtaken by the “many to many” model.
Think of the way your favourite social media platforms work. Every user can be a creator, a publisher, a distributor of content, a point of view, and a thought. Every user can solicit feedback, start a dialogue, and respond to comments.
Companies who have adopted a social intranet have already moved to this model to try to foster more two-way dialogue between employees and leadership.
Warning: It’s not a model for the risk-averse. This model only works if your C-suite is committed to participating and answering employee questions transparently. If the thought of an employee being able to post to the entire company some tough questions to your Chief Financial Officer about how money is being spent makes your stomach turn, then you have some work to do internally.
What do you need to do engage remote workers and who owns this?
If you’re like me, you’ve likely seen ‘employee engagement’ living within different areas of the organization. Sometimes it’s owned by Human Resources, other times, maybe Communications. So who should own this transformation to virtual tools of engagement?
Depending on your sector, and the skill sets in your workforce, this will look different for different companies. What should be consistent, is the commitment – from the highest levels of senior management – to innovation, improvement, risk-taking, and a culture where some failure is acceptable.
Also needed is a dedicated resourcing of staff who will be ambassadors and community managers to lead the effort to virtual tools. Wherever they are embedded in the organization is less important – it may even be beneficial to have cross-functional team from different areas working together (e.g. Instructional Design, Human Resources, IT, Communications, Customer Service).
If all of this feels like asking the question: “How do you eat a dragon?” then the simple answer is: “One bite at a time.”
If you don’t have one already, this could be the ideal time for you to lay a foundation for an Innovation Lab to test some new solutions and scale them to work for other teams. (Hint: You’ll know it’s working when you start to hear the “I heard that XYZ department is using______. How can I get one of those, too?”)
Building a business case for virtual solutions and employee engagement
The good news is that external factors of late have helped you build the foundation for a business case for more virtual tools of engagement. Because of the restrictions on face to face meetings, or in-person training, organizations have had no choice but to approve and adopt solutions like video-conferencing, or teaching courses on-line.
Find examples in your company where business units have had to pivot. Ask them how their experience has been. What have they been surprised by? How do they see these tools being part of their longer-term operation? Capitalize on that and build a case for more innovative solutions.
You might be surprised how resilient and innovative people can be.
by Tracy Tang
Tracy is a communications professional and instructor with over 15 years’ experience in the private, public, and non-profit sectors. Born and raised in Vancouver, Tracy has taught digital communications strategy at the UBC Sauder School of Business and Camosun College. She has held communications roles at Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations and Integrated Marketing, FortisBC, BC Children’s and BC Women’s Hospitals, the Provincial Health Services Authority, and the University of British Columbia. Tracy has delivered workshops for organizations like Bridges for Women and the Metro Vancouver YWCA on how to incorporate digital communications into a job search, and networking. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Tracy is currently Leader of Digital Engagement for Island Health.