The power of engagement

By Anthony Spargo

In my formative working years working as a journalist I had very little understanding of what internal communications or employee engagement was all about.

In fact, even years later after I had ‘jumped the fence’ and gone into a corporate role after working as a journalist, I still believed that the true value of a communications function came from the external side. It was easy to believe that, after all, the majority of the kudos and public acknowledgement seemed to come for those working in media, external affairs or investor relations. If the media team worked an angle with a journalist and it ended with a solid piece running in the media, senior leaders would take notice. “Great work”, they would say.

Meanwhile another group, the seemingly poor cousins of the corporate communications function, would be battling away with little or no fanfare in the background. Receiving little praise, little due respect from most, and working hard day-in, day-out.

That group, the internal communications team, were the key drivers of employee engagement, or in other words, the less sexy side of comms work. Writing internal messages, managing internal events and town halls, putting out internal ‘all staffs’ and organisational newsletters, ghostwriting executives internal messages…the tasks were endless and often thankless.

Later, as I began to work more across the communications function and then began to manage corporate comms functions, my understanding and respect for these soldiers of the function began to totally change. I realised how wrong I had initially been. The internal comms team aren’t “a nice to have”, they’re a “must-have”. They drive discretionary effort through their many under-noticed and under-appreciated tasks, they are the backbone of an organisation’s culture and they do it all knowing that unlike their external neighbours, they can expect very little or no acknowledgement.

I’d always smile inside when the latest internal staff surveys would come out — more often than not, there was, and is, a direct correlation with the work that the internal comms team would be doing across an organisation. The writing, the videos, the posts, the events, the little things…that all add up to big things.

The amount of executives who still take employee engagement as an add-on, rather than owning it as part of their key responsibilities, still startles me. Clearly they’re missing the facts. Gallup, for example, suggests a 20% or better boost to productivity and profitability for companies with high engagement. The bottom line is something good leaders shouldn’t and can’t ignore.

But many still do.

There are some leaders however who do understand the value and treat engagement — and as an extension the internal comms function — as a critical part of their armoury. They are the ones who listen to advice from their internal communicators, who turn up on time and every time to staff events and who see communications as a frontline action to help drive discretionary effort. And therefore profitability.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with senior leaders who would bend over backwards to thank, celebrate and reward staff. One senior leader in particular was absolute gold class in understanding the value. In nearly 10-years working with him, he never missed an event, never complained once about the time out of his day and indeed viewed engaging with his staff as a privilege, rather than a chore. The very best senior leaders actually embrace it, acknowledge it and value it. They are smart enough to understand the culture it helps build and in a more commercial way, the profits it helps make. According to research conducted by Towers Perrin, companies with engaged workers have 6% higher net profit margins.

Surely, that says it all.

One of the few positives about this challenging COVID-19 world we’re all living and working in is the importance of employee engagement and internal comms has all of a sudden come to the fore. A recruitment boss recently told me that organisations were desperately seeking quality internal communicators. Though remote workers are highly productive, the turnover risk is much higher. A 1Q20 Gartner Survey of more than 5,000 employees found that 48% of fully remote employees exhibit high discretionary effort, versus 35% of employees who never work remotely.

It is internal communicators who are the ones central to ensuring remote and diverse workforces are united, engaged and continuing to collaborate. The internal comms teams, it seems, are finally receiving the respect they so rightly deserve.

Of course, there are still many organisations and as an extension senior leaders, who don’t actually know what to do to help drive engagement. Some still need to understand that they have to co-own the task of engagement with their internal comms and HR teams.

A senior journalist colleague recently was interviewing a high-profile business leader for a major media organisation. The leader was waxing lyrical about the value of employee engagement. Which is great — an excellent step forward. The problem was when the journo asked for some live examples for the piece around what the leader and the business were doing to drive engagement, the leader couldn’t point to one thing. Not one.

The worst thing to do with employee engagement is nothing. Do something, try something, say something. Silence is the enemy of engagement. Ironically, many CEOs tend to go to ground when there is a crisis or major issue. Which is the opposite to what they should be doing?

During a crisis, especially an internal one, open comms, regular updates are more important than ever. There have been times when as a senior communicator I couldn’t convince group executives to do this — and I failed. But equally, I never stopped having a crack at it because I know how much staff value being kept in the loop.

I’ve seen many great internal communicators in my 20+ years working in, managing teams and partnering senior executives. The below, which is a few simple tips for senior leaders, is just a couple of examples of what those great colleagues have proven to me that works in driving employee engagement.

Just do something

Many leaders are scared of communicating with their staff. Worried they’ll say the wrong thing (whatever that is), over-rehearsing and over-orchestrating their messaging and corporate “narrative”. Realistically, it is better to be authentic, be yourself and just communicate. Senior leaders should let staff ‘in’ more. Explain who they are, what they are passionate about. Staff react well to personal stories which they can relate to. They don’t need perfect comms — they need real comms. So don’t wait. A personal blog, a short video message, a Q&A with an internal communicator or staff member, a fun staff event — it all matters: do something.

Thank your staff

The strangest thing about engagement Is it doesn’t take that much. Especially to just say “thank you” to staff. All staff appreciate and respect a thank you and some recognition. A team huddle, a staff call out, a highlights video, a pre-meeting call-out. Who doesn’t appreciate a call-out! A thank you often is simple but ends with a happier staff member. Which equals increased discretionary effort.

Have some fun

Work can be tedious. Let’s face it, we spend more time with our work colleagues than we do our own families, so surely we can have some fun! A team fun session once a week — perhaps simply a snack or drink during a meeting, helps change the tone and relax people. Fun events, dress-ups, casual days, family days, pet days, whatever…all help. As we go further and further into a new working virtual world, some of these events will be harder, but not impossible. They can all be done, and tailored, for a virtual event. We’re all working more from home, most likely blurring the lines between work and home, so fun is more important than ever.

Experiment with channels

There are so many channels — video, blogs, newsletters, social media, face-to-face, round tables, town halls …the list goes on. The key to good internal comms and leaders making the most of it, is to change it up. Work with your communicators and change up the employee engagement calendar. It makes it less tedious for the senior leader and communicator. And more importantly, the audience.

Show some humility and authenticity

Being yourself has never been more important for a senior leader. It’s ok to get things wrong occasionally, we all do. Senior execs have for too long been against admitting failure or apologising if they got something wrong. Staff actually respect if a senior leader explains a miss. Again, they can relate to it and it doesn’t come across as spin. It’s authentic and humanises the leader. Never before have humility and authenticity been so important internal comms, and in leadership.