Excited to share the next edition of Intraskope’s Spotlight on Internal Communication Series with Swati Bhattacharya – Group, Brand and Communication Head of CK Birla Group. In a guest blog post, she shares her viewpoint on the evolving state of internal communications and the need for understanding employees’ needs, customization, strategic thinking, engaging leaders and customer experience.
Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of the organization Swati works for.
You can also read her interview right below the guest blog post!
|Missed the earlier editions? Look them up here – Shreya Krishnan (First Advantage), Swapna Bhandarkar (ICICI Securities), Abhnav Kanchan (SOBHA Ltd.,) and Shruthi Bopaiah (Infosys).|
With over 20 years of experience in corporate relations, branding, internal & external communications and market creation expertise in diverse fields such as engineering, technology, retail and auto sectors Swati has held senior leadership roles in companies such as General Motors and Ingersoll Rand. She is also the Honorary Regional Director at CASI (CSR & Sustainability Institute), a global certification body for CSR and sustainability.
As I look back on my first week at this new organization that I’ve joined, I realize that the most discussions I have had in the last 7 days with every single CXO I have met have included internal communications as one of the largest asks. I have spent nearly 23 years in this industry, and at every single organization that I’ve worked at, there always has been an overwhelming desire among CXOs to reach out to employees in a regular, consistent manner. In most cases that would mean an intranet that most employees never visit, a newsletter that goes straight into deleted items almost as soon as it lands in the inbox, and town hall meetings which many feel are a waste of their time because they never really address their real questions.
I think it’s high time that we communicators worried more about engagement rather than one-sided communications. We spend days working on an attractive design, pretty colors, columns on “Know Your Colleague”, pages on birthdays and anniversaries but at the end of it all, research shows that not even 10% of the employees have even opened your email.
Before you start
Employees are our customers in many ways. Once we begin thinking of them as one of our stakeholders rather than a group that needs talking down to, we are bound to get more attention. Usually, a group of HR and Communication employees will get together and decide on the means and content of all employee communication. They may get input from some of the leaders in the organization, but when it is rolled out, it is what we think the employee needs to hear. Instead of this top-down approach, I have found what works much better is to go out to the employees to ask them what they want to hear. Just like you would conduct market research with a marketing campaign, before spending any money on it. Because employees are a captive audience, and because internal communications is not as expensive as an advertising campaign, we tend to take it for granted. The best way to get an employee communications campaign going is to test it, to put yourself in everybody else’s shoes before we start to communicate.
Sometimes internal communications is a hygiene check. Are we communicating? Do we have an intranet? Do we have newsletters? Check, check and check. Thumbs up, we’re doing it.
We often ignore the question of – are we meeting our engagement goals? Your internal communications objective should align with the business objective. I’ve found that it isn’t always fun and games. Employees even at the lowest level want to understand and participate in achieving the business objectives. At one of my ex-companies, when the sales team could not meet their quota one-quarter, we reached out to employees to help sell the product in question. We gave them a special employee deal and asked them to offer it to their friends and family. And voila, from not meeting quota, that quarter went on to become one of the best the teams had seen from a sales perspective.
I think the trick is to make employees feel as if they are part of something bigger than themselves. Something that is easy for them to understand and participate in. The strategy should be for them to have a vision they believe in, understand and contribute to, that isn’t just a bunch of big words. It’s important that this strategy should be tweaked and updated as business needs and circumstances change. It should recognize your past, present and future missions, and be able to reflect these changes.
Different strokes for different folks
This is the challenging bit. Are your employees from different groups like research & design, manufacturing, sales etc? Then what may work for a research and development colleague may not for someone from the manufacturing plant. They may consume things differently. Also, this becomes key in today’s world where typically you may have more millennials among one group as compared to an older lot in the other. What is fun and interesting for the younger group, may be frivolous and sometimes may not even make sense to the other older group. But that’s the tightrope we have to walk. I think what I’ve seen work in some organizations with similar issues, is to create intervention on similar themes and tweak the execution to suit everybody’s needs. For example, at one of my earlier employers, we had started an activity called “Everyday Heroes”. This was an intervention to engage a large employee base so that they get to know each other better and to build pride among them. This was a contest where they could either nominate themselves or a colleague for doing something extraordinary in their lives outside the office. While the younger teams nominated each other for being in a band or being a theatre artist outside their day job, the older lot were more focused on socially responsible behavior. Their nominations were for people who volunteered at schools, or at animal shelters among others.
One of the most critical elements of internal communications is leadership engagement. It should be the leaders of an organization that owns employee communications and not the Communications team. It has to stem from leadership intent to genuinely engage, and not just a top-down sharing of information that the organization needs to rely on. An example that comes to my mind is our attempt to make the Chairman of an ex-employer accessible to all employees. This was in the midst of a large organization change, which also included changes to a few senior leadership roles. This has created an atmosphere of uncertainty among employees and was leading to rumor mongering. Though there were email communications and open houses, the belief was that though there were several questions, employees were uncomfortable asking them. We put a form on the intranet whereby employees could ask questions or send in comments anonymously. The site almost crashed with the number of employees logging in to communicate with the leader growing 10 times over the next day or so. What was amusing were the number of emails we received with complaints about the food at the cafeteria. We also received and responded to several employees who had serious concerns about the business and the future of the organization. At a crucial time for the business, I think this one exercise helped the company retain and reassure their best talent than any other confidence-building measure did. What mattered was the will of the leadership to do what it took. The other approach I have seen work very effectively is imbibing fun into the way leadership engages with employees. A little bit of fun and games, and the willingness of the leader to be frivolous even if it hurt his or her ego works magic while building an engaged and inspired workforce.
While communicators and HR teams try to engage their employees on the intranet, or on in-company platforms, I wholeheartedly support what many companies are doing to reach out to their employees by building their presence on social media. While it’s next to impossible to create a pull for a platform that you have built internally, it is as easy as pie to engage them on media that they are already active on. Many companies have started to invest in Facebook and LinkedIn pages for their employees, and it is so much more effective than trying to reach out through emailers and intranet posts. Nothing works more effectively than if you are able to catch them where they already are. It is also a great way to reach out to prospective employees and build a great employer brand for the organization. Like anyone may know, content is key in today’s digital world, but not always easy to create. The beauty of engaging with your employees on social media is that a lot of the content issue is addressed. Social media contests of “selfies in my favorite spot at office”, “selfies with my favorite co-worker”, short films on “why my employer is a dream employer” among others can keep you going for months. Reward and recognition also take on a different avatar on social media, because employees will want to share that moment of pride with their family and friends.
While all this is great, one should keep in mind the pitfalls of social media too. A negative post from an irate employee can go viral and take you down easily. While you can’t always control who posts what about you, or tags your page in a post, it is supremely important that your company has a well thought out social media policy. Though that isn’t always enough to control every single post or “poster” in this case, it still does build sort of a firewall. As and when there is a negative post, the best way forward is never to delete it, but make sure that you get an honest, transparent response out there. While social media can on occasion, be a double-edged sword, I support using it, as much as possible to communicate and engage with employees.
In closing, I will reiterate that employees are the most important stakeholders for any organization. They are your biggest brand custodians, and in large organizations, you actually have thousands of them that are available for you to educate and influence. Who in turn, will educate and influence thousands more. They will probably do a much better job than anyone else once armed with the right information and tools since they are personally engaged and have a stake in the game. Several studies have shown much more satisfied customers and much higher sales in companies that have strong employee communications when compared to organizations that don’t. Employee pride is often underestimated but is a very effective means of building a reputation. That is a large battle won!
- What does internal communication mean to you?
Internal communications is one of the most important aspects of communications, yet has still not got its well-deserved place in the Sun. It is not just about managing or distributing information. An effective internal communications program will drive an engaged, motivated, and committed workforce to help an organization meet its strategic goals.
- How is it practiced in your organization?
There are a couple of examples in my guest blog post. The most interesting one for me was the one where employees across the organization stepped up to help the sales team meet their quota in a particularly bad quarter, that ended up being one of the most successful quarters for the company that year.
- What is the biggest challenge you face while going about managing internal communication?
That it is considered to be an HR/Communications job, and not taken as seriously – sometimes. While a marketing or external communications campaign gets so much more attention, an internal communications campaign is usually given a lot less important, which is sad.
- What according to you is the biggest opportunity that internal communicators have?
- The opportunity to leverage digitize communications and the ability to reach the target audience where they are, rather than designing content and hoping that they will come to you
- The advancement of technology that can help create experiential communications instead of relying on traditional old methods which may not be as engaging.
- The advantage of partnering employees to make internal communications more effective. The opportunity to become curators of content created by employees and to make compelling stories that engage them better.
- How can internal communicators add more value to the business?
By understanding that they are not distributors of information, but are critical in creating high levels of employee engagement. Also by facilitating two-way communications, and making sure employees are heard. The Internal Communicator is the bridge between the employee at the lowest level and the CEO or his leadership team. It’s up to him or her to ensure that every single employee understands the strategic purpose of the organization and partners in achieving it.
- What is your advice for people who are keen to join internal communication and make a career? What skills must they have or develop?
They must be strategic in nature, yet have a creative mind. They must be great storytellers, and know how to make the mundane interesting. They have to have an instinct for people and also understand the vagaries of business. Must be able to learn new methods and technologies easily. Should be well organized, resourceful, and be able to plan around obstacles. Last, but not the least – they should be effective and efficient at marshaling multiple resources to get things done.
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