Two employees in deep discussion

MNCs in China Must Prioritize Internal Communications

Building Relationships with Employees is a Key to Success

With a workforce that many estimate is contracting, China’s business culture is at an inflection moment. Experienced, high-skilled workers have more choices than ever, and younger workers look beyond the low-skill manufacturing jobs that similar cohorts may have taken a decade or 15 years ago.

China remains a key market for multinational corporations (MNCs), with many big names having established regional headquarters or shared service centers in the country in recent years. These include IKEA, Honeywell and GE, each of which has thousands of employees in the country who are mission-critical to their success in the region and around the world. For companies like these, increased competition is an even bigger problem, because rising nationalism means that many younger workers may prefer to work for Chinese champions rather than foreigners.

At the end of 2023, WE Red Bridge surveyed 300 B2B communications decision-makers around China to understand their priorities for the year ahead. Among our most significant findings is the importance that companies are now placing on employee-focused initiatives. Among all ESG-related topics, employee development was rated the second-most important area of focus for the year ahead, with 57% saying that these initiatives are high priority or essential to their company’s environmental, social and governance strategies for the year ahead, second only to green initiatives, such as low carbon and eco-development (66%).

China’s younger workers have different expectations for internal communications, too: 63% of Gen Z workers in China, a growing share of the workforce, say they expect company and senior executives to communicate “almost constantly” or “every 1-3 months,” higher than the global average of 53%, according to WE Brands in Motion research from 2021.

This broadly mirrors WE Communications’ findings at the global level, where our 2023 research covering more than 114,000 respondents in seven key markets around the world found that 92% of respondents believe that employer-employee relations are among the essential characteristics for a company to build and maintain a great reputation. The need for strong internal communications in China has never been stronger.

Yes, but how?

Getting internal communications right is now top of mind for MNCs facing reputational challenges from domestic players and a demanding set of potential employees. Yet thinking seriously about an internal communications strategy is new to many communications practitioners used to prioritizing consumers, regulators and other external audiences above their workforces, especially as the responsibility for internal communications historically has sat with HR rather than communications.

WE has many years of experience creating bespoke internal communications strategies for brands around the world. Here is what Chinese comms practitioners should keep in mind:

Consider how your employees view things. What values do they have? Where do these values overlap with your organization’s stated values systems? Create a strategy that focuses on these areas of shared value, recognizing that it’s possible that not ALL values will be shared.

Back in 2019, WE’s global Brands in Motion study revealed how employees in key overseas markets viewed their relationships with their employers through the lens of their own values, prioritizing companies whose purpose aligned with their values.

Of the respondents to that year’s survey who reported that their organizations are models for purpose leadership, 82% say that brands have a moral obligation to engage with societal issues “when it impacts their employees.” Although China data on this question is not yet available, it is clear that aligning on mission and vision is a powerful tool to differentiate yourself among current and potential employees.

Identify areas of competitive advantage and ensure these are clearly communicated. Many employees will be looking for the best possible deal they can get from an employer, so if your business offers great services, make sure they are understood, whether it’s good food in the canteen and lots of basketball courts or flexible working arrangements and generous leave policies.

Electronics manufacturer Foxconn, for instance, has had to prioritize its employer and internal communications in the face of stiff competition for a shrinking workforce. In the past five years, the company’s external communications strategy has emphasized improved conditions in worker dormitories, competitive pay packets and other services for employees. These perks set it in stark contrast to local tech companies that have taken reputational hits for their “996” (9 a.m.-9 p.m., six days per week) working culture in recent years.

Think of your employees as brand ambassadors. In an age of pervasive social media, employees are already representing their employers online and to their communities, so make sure they are clear about what the brand stands for. And remember that all internal communications will likely be shared beyond the company, so make sure the same standard of scrutiny is applied to internal and external communications materials .

Volvo has taken this guidance to heart. In 2023, 18 employees from four cities were chosen as “employee sustainability ambassadors,” creating sustainability-related content for external and internal use to show the impact of Volvo’s commitments in this area on its business and working culture. With vlogs, blog posts, articles and more, Volvo is pioneering a new way of empowering employees to play a positive role in shaping and implementing ESG initiatives.

As the relationship between China and the rest of the world evolves, creating strong, durable links with your employees is essential, but never easy, and there is no universally applicable solution. The first step is taking it seriously, and all future successes stem from a thoughtful approach built to meet your business’s individual needs.

March 25, 2024

Tony Zhang, WE Red Bridge

Tony Zhang

Head of Corporate Practice, WE Red Bridge