Monday, 21 October 2019

Outing the issue of out-of-hours emails

The BBC has reported on an interesting academic study suggesting that efforts to ban employees from accessing work email out of hours – in an effort to curb burnout – could actually increase anxiety for some.

Who would have thought it: one size does not fit all.

This study does speak to me on a personal level, because I am undoubtedly one of those for whom a blanket ban would cause issues. I also think it’s impractical. In a global economy, many of us need to liaise with people in different time zones, all the time. It’s just not possible, or desirable, to work within some allocated hours for such projects. Squeezing the work required into mandated hours would, as the study suggests, inevitably cause more stress.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the spirit of the idea. I can absolutely see the risks of an ‘always on’ environment and can understand why there is a search for potential solutions. But, for me, the answer lies not in mandates from outside an organisation, but in enlightened management within it.

If you work in an organisation – or for a manager – that recognizes the demands of your role, and the peaks and troughs of workload, then you may be able to flex your working pattern accordingly.  To take account of the fact you may be working with colleagues on the other side of the world late at night. To get more of a break from “traditional” working hours elsewhere as a result. That understanding, and that flexibility, helps release the pressure that build up (as long as you deliver!).

The horror stories you hear of people feeling like they always have to be online – on top of their ‘normal’ working hours – emerge from a culture in which expectations are both unhealthy and unrealistic. In such situations, there is no way of releasing the pressure: perhaps a manager insists on you always being ‘present’ and/or imposes rigid working patterns that take no account of the fact you’re essentially working round the clock when others have disconnected. No blanket ban is going to circumvent those cultural issues: the unrealistic expectations will remain, and employees will be expected to keep up through other means. The self-destructive culture will remain in place.

The way to address this issue is, surely, to build rapid and wider understanding about the damage that unrealistic expectations, and rigid working patterns, do to many organisations and the people who work for them. And to showcase alternative ways of working that help keep everyone happy. We have to help organisations, and managers, to have the ‘light bulb moment’ for themselves.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The draining effect of ‘empty engagement'

We all know authenticity matters. To us as individuals, to our teams, to our organisations. So why do some organisations persist in tinkering with efforts to engage employees rather than really committing to it?  

Study after study highlights the importance of doing what we say we will. Of demonstrating integrity in our work and behaviour. This rather basic concept was last expressed in an ornate way by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which sign-posted the importance of authenticity in a society wracked by ‘fake news’.

But it is hardly rocket science, is it? The thought that we might actually connect with and have greater confidence in someone who is genuine, has nothing to hide and makes real attempts to connect and communicate with us as individuals. I hardly think we need a multi-page research report to articulate this human truth.

Yet I still hear stories of organisations who approach engagement as a concept they feel they should act upon, without understanding the culture required to sustain it. This means any attempts are undermined from the start and can only be cosmetic: ‘empty engagement’ (let’s call it that), rather than a way of working that benefits everyone.

I once sat on a panel discussing what makes an engaging workplace. One of my colleagues cut through all the noise on the topic with this simple statement:

“If you’re going to change, you’ve got mean it”.

That, I think, is the fundamental point. 

Monday, 5 August 2019

Changing times should mean a changing role

There continues to be plenty of discussion around the changing role of the internal communicator. A particular seam of debate is the impact of rising peer-to-peer collaboration, enabled by tools such as those found in Office365.

The debate centres on whether the rise of such tools, and the resultant increase in peer-to-peer communication, make internal communication - in its ‘traditional’ form - redundant. The implication being that, if employees can speak directly to each other, why would they need communication from the company?

Sweeping past the simplifications (and generalisations) involved in this line of argument, I’d take issue with anyone who feels that a company no longer needs to share information or build dialogue with its employees.  To align discussions with business goals, peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration needs context. Any company should be providing that context through proactive and regular engagement with employees around purpose, vision, strategy and values. it should also be sharing and inspiring discussion around points of progress, ideas, and things that have gone well – or not so well – to help its global team pursue shared goals.

As a grandee of the field once said to me, informed discussion is likely to provide far more beneficial: for both employer and employees.

That said, our role as internal communicators does need to change if we are to help our organisations harness the opportunities that more peer-to-peer communication can offer. As professionals, all of us have embraced roles with many elements for many years. We have to be adept at flitting between those different facets, from strategic advice to event organisation, writing to content curation.

We now need to add another element: sparking and sustaining interaction.

We can help our organisations understand how to nurture a culture of greater connectivity and collaboration, using relevant tools and platforms, within the context of company goals. We can place and prize peer-to-peer interaction at the heart of a broader strategy to embed ‘common purpose’.

In essence, rather than being replaced by this type of peer-to-per interaction, internal communication could have a chance to add even greater value.

This is a tremendous opportunity, if not an imperative, for every internal communicator. Our role has always evolved. This is the latest development. 

Friday, 12 July 2019

Commoditizing employee engagement

There was a time when putting “employee engagement” into your browser brought forth pages of information relating to employee surveys.

“Looking to increase engagement? You must have a survey”, t’internet suggested.

No doubt all those survey providers were investing in SEO to bring their particular platform or product to the fore.

Nowadays, we’re seeing more and more links to technology.

“Looking to increase engagement? You need our product or tool”, those clever SEO types are now suggesting.

Have we really reached that level? When the field of employee engagement, with its broad spectrum of factors and component elements, is being commoditized in this way? So that SEO leads the uninitiated to equate engagement with the latest online tool or platform?

Of course, enlightened organisations committed to engagement as a method of business improvement – what David MacLeod used to call “transformational engagement” – ignore all this and get on with what they know matters. But I do worry that those new to the field: it can be amorphous, given its broad expanse, and I would hate to think that anyone does see new technology as a shortcut to success and then become disillusioned when it inevitably fails to meet expectations.

We’ve probably all seen people dazzled by the latest technology – what I’ve previously described as “shiny new toy syndrome” – rather than analysing what they’re trying to achieve and why, before identifying the best method(s). There is a danger of that becoming more prevalent: a risk that the proliferation of new platforms somehow becomes the story of engagement, rather than a tool that aids success.

I urge anyone exploring employee engagement for the first time to be aware of – and guard against – that risk!

Monday, 10 June 2019

Tick, tock, tick, tock

If I see one more treatise on the importance of - or tips for - engaging millennials, I may well scream. Not just because of the sweeping generalisation it implies, but because this rush to embrace more youthful segments of our workforce seems to ignore the fact we have an ageing one.

This brings to mind a Unum infographic from several years ago, which collated statistics on this issue in the UK. I remember the key ones: by 2020, employees aged over 50 will make up 1/3 of the working population and at least 20% of employees are now not planning to retire until 70+.  

So why is there currently so much emphasis on millennials and scant discussion of strategies for engaging older workers?

The cynic in me suggests that much of the commentary generated around millennials centres on new tools or platforms for which the generalisation provides a convenient sales hook (I know, shame on me). And I do think we’re risking missing out.

We need to take a broader approach – and that doesn’t mean inventing a new label, whatever the equivalent of ‘silver surfer’ might be in a company context. It means building more in-depth understanding of what our employees need. Some of our older workers will shame the most whizzy of technical wizz kidz with their knowledge of tools and platforms, others will be the other end of the spectrum. Funnily enough, the same will apply to millennials. So let’s look deeper than those labels at the needs and issues for the employee groups in our particular audiences. Some sophisticated planning and discussion around how organisations can continue to engage all segments of the workforce.

But at least recognising that we have an issue at one end of the age range, equivalent to (and maybe even greater than) those at the other end of the spectrum, would be a good starting point. 

Monday, 29 April 2019

Time to re-energize your employer brand?

Too often, the focus is ‘employer brand as recruitment tool’ but it’s just as important when it comes to retention.

Put brand, people, advocacy and experience together and you have a powerful argument for devoting significant HR and communication resource to the employer brand and the associated employer value proposition (EVP).

The merits of building (and delivering) a compelling EVP are well documented:
·       Seamless alignment between what the brand promises (for customers, clients and employees) and what it delivers in practice
·       Greater quantity and improved quality of potential recruits
·       Higher levels of engagement
·       Reduced cost to hire
·       Greater retention/reduced attrition

And yet, despite all the evidence, companies often fail to recognise the importance of an EVP, implement it in an inconsistent way or focus on the ‘recruitment proposition’ to the detriment of other crucial component parts.

In particular, organisations frequently fail to answer an important question: why stay?

Employer branding is not just about recruiting new people to join, it is also about encouraging existing employees to stay. The importance of articulating ‘why stay’ is borne out by research from the Corporate Leadership Council (now part of Gartner) which shows that a well constructed and executed EVP will increase the likelihood of employees acting as advocates from an average of 24% to 47%.

So what practical action can be taken to build a successful EVP for your existing workforce?
Here’s my top five:

1.     Recognise the importance of your employer brand. It’s more important than ever. By all means use the ‘why join’ element of an EVP to kick-start greater attention and effort in this area, but don’t let it stop there;
2.     Be inclusive and collaborative. Ask your people to play a part in developing the employer brand and identifying the steps that will make it an operational reality – this should include emotional attributes that may impact on style and tone of internal communication or more functional issues such as managing performance;
3.     Use the employer brand to truly differentiate. Many EVP exercises fail simply because they include a series of fine words that no one is going to disagree with and which simply mirror what every other company is saying – ‘excellence’, ‘integrity’, innovation’ etc etc. Give your people the opportunity to be your harshest critic;
4.     Invest in research to monitor any mismatch between the promise and reality and ensure existing employees are well-represented in this work;

Accept that the brand may have negative connotations with customers and clients – so acknowledge and address as you communicate internally, while at the same time accentuating its positive attributes

Nick Wright 

Monday, 22 April 2019

People are people

I suspect few would have synth-pop legends Depeche Mode down as pioneers of employee engagement. But the more complex that participants in this field try to make it, the more their simple refrain ‘People are people’ appeals.

The articulation and application of labels to groups in the workforce has almost become an industry in its own right. To be fair, it’s not just this profession: many protagonists have helped to light the fire, but we avidly fan the flames. And I’m not sure it’s doing us or our organisations many favours.

Supporters argue that such segmentation helps us make sense of changing workforce needs. Detractors say that it introduces massive generalisations that don’t help anyone.

Cynics might argue that developing new labels provides an opportunity to sell something different.

There’s probably some truth in each case. But I feel that developing labels has become a distraction from our core challenge of understanding and responding to the needs of our particular organisations and their people.   

Let’s get back to some basics and the principles that those boys from Basildon espoused more than 30 years ago. Let’s understand our people as they are. Not through the lens of a label that is foisted upon them.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Sweet Comms and Genus: finalists in major awards

We are delighted that Genus and Sweet Comms have been shortlisted for two major UK awards, in recognition of the work done on internal communication:
  • We are finalists in Communicate magazine’s Internal Communications and Engagement Awards, for 'Best Ongoing Commitment to Internal Communications'. #ICEAwards
  • We are also finalists in the UK Employee Experience Awards for 'Internal Communication Strategy' #UKEXAwards
This news is tremendous recognition of our client's continuing commitment to effective internal communication. We are privileged to have played our part in working with them over the last five years.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

What's new about trust?

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer provides the usual mix of insights and commentary on public trust. The headline to me was that the relationship people have with their employer is now the one they value most. In the words of Richard Edelman in Davos, “the employer is the most trusted institution in the world.”

This is interesting. At this point in history, we feel our employers are the institutions closest to us. We place our trust in them and expect them to honour that trust, now more than ever. As Richard Edelman expounds, we believe we can influence our employer (he cites the Google walk-out in November last year as an example), we want our employer to play an active role in the local community and we expect our CEO to be a shining light, taking action on social issues without waiting for government.

The crystallisation of the CEO’s role as an ‘activist’, for want of a better term, is an interesting insight that I’m sure will command more exploration and analysis. However, I was disappointed in some of the other conclusions drawn from the research. In particular, the four-part model developed to sum up steps to success: “the new employer-employee contract”, as Edelman have termed it.

The first part talks about the importance of purpose, “a big idea” as Richard Edelman termed it at Davos. In other words, employees believe an organisation should do more than seek profit. That’s hardly news, is it?

Similarly, the second element of the model focuses on ‘Empowering Employees’: this has been central to the concept of employee engagement, and at the heart of high-engagement cultures, for many years. Surely the idea that employees need to be informed and should be your “first order of business” is simply common sense.

The third element suggests employers must ‘Start locally’ by contributing the communities in which they are based. The words may be different, the concept is not new.

Finally, the model’s requirement for ‘CEO Leadership’ breaks little new ground, emphasising as it does that CEOs must be exemplars of an organisation’s values and engage directly with people, on a personal level, both within and beyond the organisation. There is some new context associated with this, given the point around activism and social focus outlined above, but the basic guidance is not a revelation.  

Overall, then, I couldn’t help feeling a tad underwhelmed, as I often am with new models. On this occasion, too, I am reminded of previous (and rather ephemeral) attempts to establish an intangible ‘contract’ between employers and their people.

The research crystallises the context in which organisations are now operating and reinforces the responsibility that employers have. However, many of the solutions proposed, in my view, re-tread familiar ground. Much of the advice already exists in different forms and enlightened employers are already working with it.

I don’t think we need another re-framing of good practice: we need to get on and deliver it. 

Monday, 21 January 2019

What is your ideal day?

Given that a new year often prompts people to think about a new role or next steps, I thought I would dust off this post from a couple of years ago. Hope it is of help to someone. 

A few years ago, when I was weighing up the next step in my career, I was asked a question that really helped me crystallise 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.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

A 'detox' plan for internal communication

It must be January: lots of people I know have suddenly discovered a deep-rooted desire to cleanse  themselves and their lifestyles from every perceived impurity. They’re marching under the banner of ‘wellbeing’ towards the promised land of energy, vitality and self-contentment.

Despite this slight, and rather hypocritical, cynicism - I’ve often considered something similar, but never quite closed the ‘intention-action’ gap - there is a laudable aim here. The idea that we should take a step back and examine how we can look after ourselves a bit better. Shouldn’t we be doing the same as organisations?

We’re all so busy, all the time, that it’s difficult to pause and take a fresh look at how we might improve the effectiveness (and/or efficiency) of internal communication practices. Yet checking the alignment of plans, narrative/messaging, and tools/channel sets with business needs can pay great dividends for the rest of the year. So before 2019 really takes off – and in the manner of all good detox programmes - here is my six-step plan for success:

  • Explore the environment – you’ll probably have plenty of sources of information on strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that you haven’t had the chance to review and interpret. Now is the time to collate such data and derive insights that will help you enhance effectiveness during the year (as well as identifying any gaps in knowledge that you need to fill)
  • Involve stakeholders – you’ll know whose input you require (some will be leaders, others won’t). Approach and gain their views on current effectiveness and future goals for internal communication. If you’ve got time and scope, seek to involve employees more widely (although sometimes maligned, focus groups can be highly productive if you can gain the cross-section of people you need)
  • Articulate objectives – being clear on what you want to achieve, and with whom, is not as easy as it sounds. But drawing on the research and analysis above, it’s a valuable exercise to articulate your overall aims and ‘desired response’ from different employee segments. A simple summary can become a practical reference tool during the year to ensure the messages, activities and tools you employ always align with what you want to achieve
  • Remain focused – it’s easy to be attracted by what’s possible, but is it desirable given your objectives? I’m sure we’ve all seen people fall victim to ‘shiny new toy syndrome’, in which they appear dazzled by the potential of new technology, but introducing such tools isn’t always the answer. Reviewing and refreshing current channels could be a more effective and efficient way of achieving your goals
  • Prioritise activities – don’t try to boil the ocean. As the old adage goes, it’s better to do a few things well rather than spread yourself too thinly. Concentrate on the core programme of activities required to achieve your objectives and augment these when feasible, given budgets and resources
  • Change where needed – last but not least, if you’re picking up signals that things need to change, respond to them. If you set the ball rolling on any exercise like this, you need to heed the findings, or the opportunity for improvement will just wither on the vine.
I’m sure there are many other steps and opportunities, but these are six simple steps that could help you ‘detox’ internal communication and aid alignment with business needs for the year. Even small changes could have a significant impact…