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What is the role of corp comms in employee engagement?

employee engagement corporate communications

In our series on employee engagement and workplace culture: 

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Damian McAlonan, a leadership communications and training expert, is Managing Partner with The Boost Partnership, a training delivery business in London, UK. We talk to Damian about corporate communication’s role in improving employee engagement.

Good internal comms to strengthen engagement

Surveys and employee engagement specialists confirm that active internal communication impacts employee engagement. It can show leadership, boost morale, and inspire success. What are some of the key things organizations can do to implement and sustain good internal comms to strengthen employee engagement?

It has a difficult balancing act that involves what information to release, including when and how to release it.

It’s recommended with their skill set the communications department should take an active role in consulting leaders on what should be announced as well as how best to deliver it. Simple things make the difference.

Some companies have conducted surveys and then not fed back any of the results. By closing this loop with open communication you can instantly improve transparency and trust, which leads to better advocacy with your people. You can also empower people to recognize the issues and pursue solutions.

Two-way communications

I recommend working with a communications department on building a variety of two-way touch points to relay company intentions. This includes why it’s carrying out the work, what’s been learnt, what’s been prioritized, and finally when it will happen.

An annual schedule of communications ranges from a program of interactive TED talk-style events to lunchtime learnings, leadership Q&A webcasts, video announcements, infographics, interviews, and much more. It’s designed to open up a dialogue where people can involve themselves in the process to create a great workplace.

Another way to strengthen engagement is to make communication light, fun, and human.  The channel of delivery is just as important as the message, and the same is true for engagement.

It still amazes me that with so many social channels, some businesses still default to the dullest (and most expensive) ways to make contact.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you communicated with work colleagues on Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat? Why not? I’m not advocating exchanging your personal pages with colleagues. Instead, discover if communication is easier with social environments for either teams or departmental groups allowing employees to create the tone and content.

When I’ve suggested this method of communication in the past, most HR directors’ faces turn white. I often explain that communication is not the issue. At the very least, the company must be in a position to trust its people to act as adults.

Leaders must act to ensure engagement success

Some leaders think that employee engagement belongs to HR or the communications department. This likely has a negative impact on engagement. How can communications staff and employees as a group work towards changing this? 

Ultimately, engagement is everyone’s responsibility, despite wrongly being associated as a HR initiative. However, for engagement to flourish it requires a responsive culture which is primarily determined by the actions and behaviours of its leaders.

I say this because culture is reflected in what leaders pay attention to. It’s also reflected in what gets rewarded and punished, and where they choose to allocate resource and attention. All these factors determine the type of culture and engagement you will receive.

Unfortunately, most leaders are unaware of the real impact they have on people and culture in either a negative and positive way.

Leaders need to start exploring different ways to gain feedback, not just about their business, but also themselves.

I recommend focusing on first results and the importance of people. To do this I’ve implemented approaches that are tailored for the character of the leader.  Below are just two routes that might help when you’re getting a leader to take responsibility for engagement.

The Informed Route

This is about giving references during meetings, projects, or reporting to case studies about leading executives – in or out of your sector – who have tapped into their culture. They’ve been able to take the lead, got everyone involved, and created major positive results through engagement.

This is a campaign approach that over time involves sending articles, interviews and data of companies who’ve had leaders place engagement at the top of the agenda.

Another angle is to identify a specific issue your organization has and connect it with an engaged leader who has tackled the problem using their people and engagement.

The idea is to inspire others to do the same. But before you do this make sure you’ve plotted the route you want your leaders to take, alongside expectant results from doing it. With the example and plan in place, why wouldn’t they do it? The results of the exercise  furthers the belief that their involvement in engagement is important.

The Uninformed Route

A story I tell is about a time when I was a negotiator in FTSE 100 acquisitions and mergers. I was the guy they’d wheel-in as the last person to negotiate and reach a final settlement. I worked out a way that could reduce the business’ asking price significantly by asking three simple questions.

I’d address the CEO and CFO asking if the most expensive cost to buying the business was people? After agreement, I’d follow with the reason for this must be that they’re the biggest asset of the company. Once that received agreement I’d ask my final question: “We’ve seen the sales, product and market strategy, can you show me your people strategy?”. This is always greeted with silence.

I’d then ask the CEO if I was right in suggesting that they had made absolutely no provision or strategy for the biggest asset and cost on the table?

I won’t continue, safe to say that not being able to answer that has cost company shareholders up to £30 million on their company valuation. Obviously, that information isn’t disclosed because it makes the CEO and their board culpable.

Once sharing that story its difficult for leaders to ignore the importance of their people the engagement strategy what involvement they need to have.

Corporate communications: custodians of engagement

It’s true though that corporate communications practitioners and HR professionals do have an important role to play in employee engagement. How do you define that role, and what kind of skills should managers look for in PR/comms staff who are going to be working in employee engagement?

Corporate communications is most certainly very important to the role for engagement. It’s  worth reiterating that engagement shouldn’t be seen as anyone’s sole responsibility.

However, as skilled experts in connecting people with information and the brand, the communications team should do everything it can to become custodians of people engagement. They must proactively provide content and different ways for the senior team to engage with their people.

Studies demonstrate that the closer people feel to the CEO and executive board, the greater the level of employee engagement. So I also recommend that communications coach leaders on a more personal approach to the content to enhance the connection.

Thus, the skill set managers should look out for is a high level of interpersonal skills similar to HR, as the communication team must be adept at handling people from all areas of the business. They’ll need to be persuasive, likable, enthusiastic, and engaging.

Working with leaders and front-line staff

Therefore, to have a communication skill set that relates to both C-suite and front-line people equally is also incredibly important.

Interestingly, the role of HR and communications are intrinsically linked. For example, how well HR does its job in recruiting can affect the perception of a company. If the company maintains a positive image internally and externally, HR is likely to have greater success in recruiting top talent. Therefore, both departments have a vested interest in employee relations, engagement and communication.

So, while the technical skills are different, similar interpersonal skill sets are the most important for PR/comms people entering engagement.

Next up – taking actionable steps to improve employee engagement

Employee Engagement expert Damian McAlonan

Damian McAlonan is Managing Partner with The Boost Partnership. He is based in London, U.K., and has held senior managerial and board executive roles at Express Newspapers, United News & Media, WFCA Plc, EMAP and AOL Time Warner.

Find out more about Damian on Linkedin, and follow him on Twitter.

© Communicate Influence. Please see Communicate Influence’s Terms and Conditions for information on sharing, adapting or attributing content.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning writer, journalist, podcaster, and poet based in Toronto, Canada.

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