The Past, Present and Future of Employee Engagement
Part 1 of a Q&A with Annabel Kerr, director, UK, and Melissa Proctor, account director
We all know that the pandemic has changed work life. All of a sudden, we live where we work. We see our coworkers’ spouses and children and pets in the background. The barrier between personal life and professional life, which was already growing thin, suddenly seems to not exist at all. It’s changing the way we think about the role of work in our lives, too — employees want their companies to reflect their personal values and take their perspectives seriously. We call it the shift from “my paycheck” to “my purpose.”
We sat down with Melissa Proctor, account director in the U.S., and Annabel Kerr, director in the UK, both of whom drive internal communication programs for global brands, for a discussion about how their clients are engaging employees now, how the discipline has changed since the start of the pandemic, and what’s next. This is part one of a two-part series on our discussion.
Why employee engagement, why now
COVID is forcing brands to make a lot of really hard decisions. In a year when companies are just trying to keep their heads above water, why has employee engagement become so important?
Annabel: Before COVID, a lot of employee engagement happened organically. It’s easy to feel connected to your company when you’re in the office, saying hi to senior leadership at the coffee station and connecting with people and sharing information naturally. Now that organic engagement is gone, it’s left behind a massive void.
Melissa: Yeah, now that organic conversations aren’t happening as much as they used to, we have to be very deliberate and strategic about making spaces where they can.
What’s scary is that while we’re less connected during the pandemic, efficiency is actually up. That presents a new challenge: how can you keep employees from burning out? Empathetic, engaged leaders need to make sure that their employees are taking care of themselves, and employee engagement helps solve for that.
Annabel: There’s also the obvious: all of a sudden, organizations have a lot more to communicate about how the business is handling things. For a lot of my clients, early in the pandemic, the situation was changing on a day-to-day basis. So I think that’s a significant element, too.
What did employee engagement look like even a year or two ago? How does that differ from today?
Annabel: It depends on the organization. For some of the brands we’re working with, a year ago, employee engagement strategy was very broadcast-based. It wasn’t necessarily about starting two-way dialogue. Today, we’re encouraging clients to think more strategically — are you trying to get employees to understand something, to feel something, or to do something?
We’re also working with clients to be more mindful about delivery method. Does this make sense as an email? A video? A podcast? Most internal communications teams are still building the analytical muscle for why you’d choose one type of content over another.
Melissa: Today, leaders have to be much more strategic with what they’re talking about and when. One thing we’ve been screaming from the mountaintops to everyone: Be empathetic with your employees! People are so overloaded. They’re dealing with so many emotions, and we’re actually counseling leaders to pull back on certain communications. If it’s not urgent and it doesn’t have a direct impact on your employees, think hard before sharing it. Make sure you’re telling them how this will make their work life better and give them a reason to engage with it, otherwise you might as well just be throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Annabel: Yes, good employee communications is not telling everyone everything on every single channel.
Employees pushing for purpose
Our quantitative research found that 77% of leaders agree brands have a moral obligation to engage on a societal issue when it's impacting their business. How are your clients engaging on issues in society as opposed to issues within the company?
Melissa: Today, employees are really pushing — people want to work for companies that have strong values, and that act on those values — and so now brand leaders must engage. A strong DEI program, for example, is — I don’t want to call it table stakes, that’s not the right word — but it is expected.
And employees will pick holes if they see their company doing something wrong. They are much more attuned to corporate behavior than they used to be. They acknowledge good work and they’ll push their employers to do more of it. It’s a really fascinating kind of shift we’re seeing.
Annabel: Until recently, purpose was seen as something externally facing. Companies didn’t necessarily realize the benefits of bringing employees along on that journey. Many look at internal communications with an operational mindset — some people have clients who are just now thinking about doing a newsletter for the first time! So we’re playing catch-up a little bit when it comes to purpose and sustainability and engaging employees in that way. But it’s not something you can just turn on straight away.
Melissa: And we wouldn’t want them to, because it would be so inauthentic, right? We really have to take clients on that journey in a way that makes sense for their company and their culture. It’s organic — it can’t be forced, or that becomes another thing employees can poke holes in.
Annabel: One thing that’s particularly challenging is translating a global perspective into an authentic local approach. Global companies are huge and complicated. What does your one master purpose narrative look like in the U.K. vs. the U.S. vs. Singapore? Are you going to get yourself in trouble if you start pushing something that feels really inauthentic to local-level employees?
How are you and your clients thinking about working with employee activists? Do they help a brand's ability to tell its purpose story? Do they hurt it?
Melissa: We think of them more as employee advocates than activists. Working with them needs to be done very strategically because having those voices in your company can be so, so valuable. They help hold bad ideas in check, and they can also help enrich the employee experience.
We get a lot of folks asking, “How do we get our employees to be advocates for the company?” But the best advocates are authentic and they want to shout it from the rooftops how great the company they work for is. So if you haven’t done the hard work to focus on providing a great employee experience, it’s putting the cart before the horse. You have to create a good employee experience and engage employees for them to want to advocate for the company like that. You can’t force them to do it. That can only backfire. It has to start very organically.
For more of our conversation with Melissa and Annabel, read part two, “Employee Engagement: Tools, Strategies, and Predictions,” coming soon.