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Listen, Learn, Act & Repeat: Purposeful Employee Engagement

7/23/2020
— Noah Keteyian, SVP of Corporate Reputation & Brand Reputation 

For both employees and employers, the world has changed radically in just a few months. And it continues to change so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Covid has created myriad new challenges, and the movement to address systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd have amplified how much we desperately crave connection, consensus and change.

Many brand leaders feel overwhelmed managing multiple urgent unfolding crises. How do they drive positive change in a world that’s suddenly very different, and how do they engage and support their employees who are struggling? These two questions might have one solution — after all, in true purpose-driven companies, employees and brand leaders are working together toward a single outcome. Employee engagement fuels brand purpose, and a brand that acts with purpose is more likely to productively engage its employees.

Building on last year’s research with Quartz Insights, “Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It,” we surveyed hundreds of business leaders on the challenges and opportunities of engaging employees in a time of significant change. The power of purpose has shifted. Employees’ ability to thrive can make or break a company’s recovery. In these turbulent times, leading and communicating with purpose is more important than ever, and more central to a brand’s resiliency.

 

How can companies engage employees and drive purpose during turbulent times?

There’s never been a more critical time to weave purpose into employee engagement, but the challenge is real in times where so many of us are just trying to get by. Communications leaders are shifting  resources and investment to employee engagement and internal communications, but there’s a lot to learn.

In our recent panel with PRWeek, “Inside Voices: Purpose-Driven Employee Engagement as a Catalyst for Change” communications leaders from Microsoft, Novartis and more detailed the challenges they’re facing and the strategies they’re using to overcome them. Letty Cherry, head of global employee, executive, and culture communications at Microsoft, talked about Microsoft’s response to support employees during the pandemic. Microsoft was fortunate to already have the technology in place to enable employees to work remotely with minimal disruption. “We are hugely fortunate that our technology and collaboration capabilities enabled us to rapidly accelerate the deployment of tools and support systems our employees needed to maintain productivity during this unprecedented period of interruption,” said Cherry. ‘Microsoft’s senior leaders held daily working sessions to find solutions to new challenges including, “How do employees set up their new workspace? What about caregiver leave? With schools closed, what about flexible days and hours so employees can juggle all their commitments?” Grounded by its culture, Microsoft’s leaders approached every one of these questions or challenges with the empathy they had for one another and their colleagues around the world.”  

Tina Tuttle, head of executive and enterprise communications at Novartis, noted that her company wove purpose and employee engagement together since the very beginning of the crisis by focusing on two things: the health and care of their employees and their families, and their role as a healthcare company addressing the crisis. “It was important for us to communicate that our medicines would continue uninterrupted, and that we were participating philanthropically and through innovation — we threw our drug discovery muscle into the fight.” At the same time, they listened to employee needs around remote work, time off and childcare.

There’s a hunger for strong employee engagement in uncertain times, but that doesn’t mean companies have all the answers yet. Of the business leaders we surveyed in the last few weeks, only 50% said employee engagement programs were meeting employees’ needs.

 

How can companies take action on employee feedback?

Weathering economic and social challenges will require a clear focus on core values, but it also requires meaningful and well-targeted investment. While 87% of those surveyed believe they’ll successfully adapt their approach to employee engagement as a result of recent events, only 20% are prioritizing investments to address factors like emotional health, equity & inclusion and culture.

These are complicated problems to solve and you likely won’t and don’t have all the answers. The main requirement is a willingness to listen and act, and to respond to what is most pressing today, understanding that ‘business as usual’ is not going to cut it. Not only does it mean overhauling vision and strategy to address employee feedback, it means building the infrastructure to get that feedback in the first place. Sourcing opinions from an employee base that’s all of a sudden working from home, dealing with childcare and other pandemic surprises, and often working on flex schedules is no easy task, but it has to be done.

Novartis’s Tina Tuttle discussed the challenges of not only sourcing feedback from employees all over the country, but customizing responses for employees dealing with very different facets of the same problem. “We have a dispersed workforce all over the U.S.,” She said. Whether they were talking about Covid-19 or Black Lives Matter, “an employee in Montana isn’t going to be experiencing the same thing as an employee in New York. We need to listen to all these employee perspectives—it’s how we’ll win as a business.”

 

How can brands help all voices to be heard?

One thing many companies have seen a lot more of during Covid is employees raising their voices to be heard — whether it’s about work-life balance, equity for BIPOC professionals, or their employers’ political donations or strategic partnerships.

These are complex conversations, but viewed through the lens of your organization’s purpose, these can become new ways forward to build stronger bonds and better business. Justina Chen of Chen & Cragen pointed out, “We can turn this reckoning into a reset. The most important work for communications people right now is articulating our purpose and finding those unexpected heroes who are exemplars of our purpose, elevating them and giving them a platform.”

But making sense of those needs can be challenging, particularly for global companies. Because of country-to-country differences in testing and diagnostics, the Covid conversation is completely different across all markets. An important public policy your employees are advocating for in one country may be illegal in another.

One solution: Remembering your audience. “In our case, with over 150,000 employees around the world, any communication needed to factor in the global impact and response of COVID-19 while making some key decisions at a local level,” said Cherry. That way Microsoft could work with local health authorities and governments to make decisions that made sense per country and local leadership could listen to employee feedback as the plans adapted. 

 

Purposeful employee engagement is a two-way street. It’s not just CEOs writing company-wide emails, it’s listening to employees — from junior staff to middle managers to contractors. Listening requires new infrastructures (tools and technology) and new habits (team processes and cultural shifts). Tina Tuttle may have summed it up best: “Listen, learn, act and repeat.”