Sunday, 18 December 2016

Don't say we didn't tell you...

Everyone makes predictions at this time of year, don’t you find? People turn into the employee engagement equivalent of Mystic Meg with a set of sound and apparently sensible projections of what lies ahead for our profession in 2017.

Well, we don’t see why we shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon, so here are a few thoughts on likely events over the next 12 months, and what communicators can do about them…

1. Communicators will continue fighting for attention
Despite all the surveys and statements suggesting employee engagement is a priority for leaders, communicators will still struggle for time, attention and budget. As a profession, we will need to articulate an ever-stronger case, clearly and persistently, to help us turn stated priorities into actual practice.

2. Employee advocacy will become all the rage
This is, surely, a case of the emperor’s new clothes, but ‘advocacy’ is being cited more and more as the end-goal for engagement efforts. The volume of this commentary will increase in 2017. Let’s accept that, forget it rebadges common sense and make the most of the attention the idea generates to help us succeed.

3. We’ll stop generalising about generations
Not really. Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. We’re bound to see plenty of further surveys and infographics purporting to offer wisdom on the contrasting needs of different generations in the workplace, not least so-called ‘millennials’. Surely finding the overlap between all ages based on attitude, mind-set and behaviour is a more fruitful pursuit? Can’t we all focus more on that?

4. Employer brand will enjoy a renaissance
It’s not about attraction. It’s not about recruitment. It’s not even about retention. It’s about all these and everything else that shapes the experience of current and potential employees, in every area in and around an organisation. We’re going to see this broader and more integrated view take a greater hold in 2017. It will mean communicators and HR need to work together ever-more closely and our organisations will be all the better for it.

5. No-one will know what to do about Brexit
Despite the flood of advice on communicating re: Brexit, our profession does not know any more than anyone else and we may not have any greater insight for much of next year either. There is so much yet to be determined that even the most ardent advocate of ‘what if?’ scenario planning would struggle to cover all the bases. Far better at this stage to focus on what we know and can control, now, and communicate little and often – even if it’s to say the same thing.

6. Email’s not going anywhere
There are so many new and emerging messaging and collaboration tools that it can seem overwhelming. And when we’re uncertain or confused, we default to what we know and trust. So while technological innovations offer exciting opportunities, they aren’t about to expel email from our lives.

7. We’ll be more appy than ever before
Despite prediction no. 6, we’ll continue to embrace more and more apps as a profession. The choice will keep growing, from those designed to help us reach remote workers to ways of enhancing performance management. But we’ll need to remind ourselves that apps aren’t the solution for everything, for ourselves or for our people. Otherwise we’ll lose track of what we’re seeking to achieve and apps will become like the wallpaper on our smartphones.

8. Facebook will help ESNs take root
Workplace by Facebook will spread through the corporate world and signal that Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) have become business tools, not just communication channels. A familiar and intuitive platform, plenty of potential for development, reassurance over security and no ads: a formula that looks set to make Workplace a real success.

9. We’ll still talk about evaluation – but won’t crack it
Is the employee engagement survey dead? Is Net Promoter Score more insightful? Are pop-up questions more effective? Should we employ a blend of many methods? The discussions will continue to ebb and flow, but when it comes down to it, as a profession we still won’t have established evaluation as part of ‘business as usual’. Something that we simply have to address.

10. We’ll stop making predictions…
Ah, but we can’t, can we? We love them and they make for headline-grabbing articles and blog posts. Let’s count the number of ‘top five’ predictions or lists we see next year, shall we? We’ll try and make sure Sweet Comms isn’t too guilty…

Friday, 4 November 2016

“Can you tweet something like…”

You might think that another social media storm over a footballer’s tweet merits little attention. But this one reinforces the importance of earned rather than expected employee advocacy.

The story in essence: Sunderland AFC are struggling at the foot of the English Premier League table. A couple of weeks ago, they lose a match and, in the aftermath, one of their players - Victor Anichebe - tweets a rallying cry to his followers. He thanks fans for their “unbelievable support” and says the team will move on from the “hard result to take” and “go again”.

So far, so good. However, when publishing the tweet, Mr Anichebe leaves in an instruction he had clearly received - presumably from the club - reading “Can you tweet something like…”.


At a stroke, the slip laid bare the role that Mr Anichebe was being asked to play as a ‘corporate’ mouthpiece. The words did not come from him, but from someone who felt they would help the club retain the confidence of its supporters.

The incident just lays bare the real issues involved with ‘expected’ advocacy. It is at best risky, at worst unethical.

It’s risky because it is open to perfectly human slips like this. You can ask someone to say something on your behalf, but if they don’t believe it, they can say other things in different contexts or simply not live up to the spirit of the words they have been given to parrot. It’s like a house built on sand that can quickly collapse. Respect, credibility and confidence are quickly lost as a result.

I’d argue it’s unethical because it’s simply not transparent. We’ve all seen heated discussions over the importance of vloggers disclosing whether they are being paid or otherwise rewarded for reviewing and endorsing products. Asking individuals to use their own, personal accounts in the way requested here – again, assuming that it was the club issuing the now-legendary instruction - is similar in my view. Perhaps it’s not just employees who need guidance on how to use social media appropriately, but their employers too?

All in all, an unfortunate mess. But as Mr. Anichebe might (not) say, let’s move on and “go again”! 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

What is your ideal day?

A few years ago, when I was weighing up the next step in my career, I was asked a question that really helped me clarify things. I thought I would share it in case it also helps you.

I was canvassing a range of contacts, clients and former colleagues about what my next move should be. One of them asked me this: “What is your ideal working day?”. 

The question was simple, yet deceptively powerful. It encouraged me to strip away all the different factors and considerations that might otherwise have clouded my thinking. It made me focus on exactly what it is that inspires, excites and motivates me every day and enables me to do my best for the people I work with and for.

It helped me crystallise what I wanted to be doing on the road ahead and led me to set up the communication consultancy I have been running ever since. Without considering that question, and working out how I could bring my ideal day to life, I might not have done things the way I have, or maybe enjoyed it as much as I have.

Everyone’s ‘ideal working day’ is different, and the answer will change over time. I had different views 20 years ago, when I first entered this industry. My aims and priorities will no doubt evolve further in the years ahead. But asking myself the same question every now and then will help me assess this and make sure I’m still doing what I truly want to.

If you’re in a similar position now, or considering your future career path, I’d encourage you to consider that same question. It might give you the clarity or focus you need.

I found my ideal day. I hope you find yours. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Employee surveys: what time works for you?

A recent webinar held by HR consultancy Aon Hewitt, indicated only 11% of companies they surveyed undertook an engagement survey more frequently than once a year. Indeed, for 34% of organisations, the frequency was 18 months and beyond.

I don’t think anyone would argue with the principle of asking your people what they think and feel. And it’s never been easier (or cheaper), but what does that say about frequency? Does it automatically follow that the ability to measure quarterly, monthly or in real-time is a good thing?

There are some great employee research platforms out there - TINYpulse, Hive and Culture Amp to name but three – but in the rush to embrace these new tools don’t lose sight of some of the long-standing issues that continue to impact the success (or otherwise) of the engagement survey. As one participant in the Aon Hewitt webinar stated: “It’s never been easier to do bad research.”

1.       Survey fatigue – it can impact on response rates and more widely, when linked to ‘capacity to act’ (see below), to a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’. Sure, if the survey mechanism can be assimilated into the day-to-day, operational workings of the company then perceptions and expectations of the process will be somewhat different, but many organisations continue to cite survey fatigue as a real issue.
2.       Capacity to act – many companies continue to struggle with taking action as a result of surveys. Whether that’s substantive change or simply not drawing an explicit link between “you said, we did”, any increase in research frequency must make absolutely clear what will happen as a result. Expectation management becomes key.
3.       Cultural relevance – the way the organisation operates and behaves may have a significant influence on the acceptance of a ‘research’ (or maybe that should be ‘listening’) culture. An entrepreneurial, consumer-facing start-up will have a completely different approach (and employee profile) to a large-scale, multi-site manufacturing company and this will influence likely frequency. Likewise, the extent to which customer ratings and feedback are part of the overall company proposition.

Now, more than ever, we have a plethora of data, tools and channels in our employee engagement armoury. In the coming years, we’ll have even more. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Use the new tools wisely and play to their strengths, but ensure the long standing issues outlined above are tackled head-on. If that means you’re surveying every month or so, great, but every year still works for you, don’t rush to change. 


Friday, 30 September 2016

Stories with substance

There remains so much discussion of company narratives in the communications world, the whole issue is becoming a story in its own right.

The story arc began with discovery of a pressing need: the cry for a new way of crystallising an organisation’s purpose, vision and differentiating factors. It (still) continues through a journey of seminars, white papers, sample structures and sage advice. It might end with storytelling as a blizzard that blows itself out as another new need is picked out.

There is truth in the identification of a need, of course, but perhaps less in its sudden “discovery”. Organisations have been telling stories about themselves for years and probably didn’t need a new wave of discussions and recommendations to point out the way. But even those latest discussions and the advice that emerges from them expend too much energy on the articulation of a story, and not enough on its use.

A story should be a practical tool. It should cover all the ground that those involved will point you towards, and it must deliver on the core principles of ‘concise and compelling’. But, if you’ll forgive me, the story does not end there. The articulation has to be applied, clearly and consistently: internally and externally, across channels and tools, in different disciplines. It has to form the foundation for all communications so that repetition becomes reinforcement. So that it starts to shape how the organisation is known. Understood. Responded to.

This is hardly new, either but is frequently forgotten. There’s no point pouring all your time and resources into a perfectly-cast narrative with no link to how it will be applied. Or monitored and updated. Because the organisation is always evolving, the story has to keep pace. Else what the organisation says and what it does can quickly become fractured.  

A company’s story can serve it well. But only if it is designed and developed with action in mind. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A manager’s magic dust

If you’ve ever been in any doubt as to the importance of a manager’s words and motivation, take a look at the England football team’s performance on Monday night.

In the first half, I’d say performance was good but not spectacular. In the second, the team fell apart. What happened in between? A team talk from the manager and his coaches. What should have been a chance to regroup, ensure clarity over roles and build confidence for the second half seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. Team members looked unsure, made individual errors and began to lose collective composure. The result…well, you’ll have seen it (watching through your fingers, if you’re anything like me).

The events just show how pivotal a manager can be to performance. Giving team members clear objectives. Helping them understand what is expected of them in their roles. Building their self-belief and inspiring increasing collaboration. Helping individuals gel to become more than the sum of their parts: in other words, an effective team.  

And yet we still fail to prepare managers for this aspect of their roles. We continue to promote people on technical merit rather than their ability to inspire, challenge and support team members. We don’t put enough focus on training, guidance or support (in whatever form this takes) and we seem to hope managers pick it up as they go along. Individuals, teams and organisations suffer as a result.

I’ve never seen any team shrink in quite the same way as we witnessed on Monday night, but I’ve seen many smaller-scale meltdowns triggered by ill-equipped managers, who have simply not been prepared for possibly the most important aspect of their role. I fervently hope we can address this issue within our organisations and industries in the months ahead. If we don’t, we’ll keep undermining our own performance and the prospects for achieving our goals.  

Monday, 4 January 2016

A fresh perspective for 2016

The end of the year often brings relief and reflection in equal measure. We look back at what’s gone well and vow to change what hasn’t. But when we’re back at our desks in the New Year, this commitment often wanes and we slip back into the way we’ve always done things (with predictable results).

In the world more widely, surveys often proclaim employee engagement to be a priority for leaders in the following year. But time passes, and little changes. And the same surveys will be saying the same thing the next time round.

But what if, this year, we really do keep our resolutions? What if we have a fresh look at employee engagement and change what we do, if only in small ways, to help us succeed?

With this in mind, we offer some thoughts on how to make more of engagement in 2016.

1. Be smart about goals
Obvious, but often overlooked. We’ve all got to understand where our organisations are heading (whether we’re in them or consulting for them) so we can define how better engagement can help. We’ve got to be ever more informed to help us interpret opportunities and deliver the value that our organisations want and deserve from us.

2. Understand interaction
Please let’s stop talking about audiences. The ‘fourth wall’ in organisations has well and truly crumbled: we’re all swimming in a sea of interaction with each other and the outside world. Let’s explore and understand what this really means and take action to nurture the type of culture that makes best use of a world in which we’re all connected, all of the time.

3. Be an activist
Let’s make this the year in which we become real activists within our organisations. People who question, challenge and critique the world around us, acting as advocates for employees and the litmus test for our leaders. Let’s be more proactive, and frankly more of a nuisance, than we’ve ever been before. If we do it well, we’ll add increasing value to those we work with and build our own credibility as a result.

4. Make more of managers
We all know that managers are the missing link in employee engagement: we can have the most inspirational leaders but their efforts will fall flat if managers lack the spirit and skills to spark and sustain engagement with their teams. We know this is a major issue, but we’ve still not managed to crack it. So let’s put in the effort required to resolve it and increase both competence and confidence among managers.

5. Let’s be creative
Creativity isn’t all about campaigns (although we’d all love to see more exciting activity, rather than the same old ‘stuff’). There are many different ways of being creative in the aim of achieving engagement, from the way we plan programmes to the tactics we use. It’s about a mindset, rather than money or team size. Let’s challenge ourselves to think differently in 2016.

6. Prioritise the personal
We all know the personal touch goes a long way. Where possible, face-to-face communication remains the most valued and credible way of striking and sustaining engagement. But when it’s not possible to do this physically, there are many different ways of doing so virtually. They’re increasingly easy and cheap, but sometimes neglected. There’s really no reason for ignoring them, not matter how big and complex an organisation is, so we hope they are harnessed more and more in 2016.

7. Don’t be dazzled by technology
Embrace new technology but use it wisely. In the rush to embrace what’s possible, what’s really relevant sometimes gets missed. Any technology, however clever it is, only helps if it fulfils a defined role. Too many times, we see technology retro-fitted to support a strategy, rather than being seen as the right solution for an identified need. Start with the need, not the kit, and go from there.

8. Evaluate every day
Finally, the thorny topic of evaluation. Only we think it’s more straightforward than others make it seem. Our industry still sees measurement as an end-point exercise, rather than a day-today process. We think assessing progress little-by-little, rather than focusing all effort on an annual evaluation jamboree, provides more insight on what’s happening and more chance to address issues. As the reliance on set-piece surveys ebbs away make this the year when measurement becomes part of ‘business as usual’.

In the end
That’s it. They are simple steps to help bring a fresh perspective – and maybe new vigour – to employee engagement in the year ahead. It’s not an exhaustive list, we know that: we could probably all keep adding to it until this time next year. But we hope it’s some food for thought, and maybe a prompt, as you seek to spark and sustain effective engagement in 2016. Good luck!

If you could do with a fresh pair of eyes on employee engagement, if only for a chat over coffee, then do get in touch. We’re specialists, we have extensive experience, and we can help.