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How to communicate to improve employee engagement

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication

One way to look at workplace success is to consider it in terms of employee engagement, which is the extent to which workers identify with, are motivated by and are willing to make an extra effort for their employer. This is even more important in stressful times such as during the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain future it has created for most people. This article outlines how you can communicate to improve employee engagement within your organization.

The Gallup Organization, famous for its Gallup Polls, bases much of its work on employee engagement – which the firm defines as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

Gallup consultants conducted a major meta-analysis of employee engagement in 2020, which used the results of research among 1.7 million employees in 112,000 business and work units in 54 industries in 96 countries as a reference. Huge! They came to the view that when organizations satisfy certain basic human needs in the workplace, they increase their organizational performance – improved productivity and profitability. In most situations, the needs of the employees and the organization can be met simultaneously. The research also found that employee engagement is a leading indicator of intention to stay in the job.

Positive emotions are facilitated by actions within organizations that support clear outcome expectancies, give basic material support, and encourage individual contribution and fulfillment, a sense of belonging and a chance to progress and learn continuously. All of these elements together can be called employee engagement.

These elements are measured by the simple, but fundamental, 12 statements listed below, which comprise the Gallup Workplace Audit. Each statement taps into one of the elements:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor or someone at work seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission/purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. In the past year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Employees are asked about the extent to which they agree with each of the statements on a 5-point scale, with an optional ‘don’t know/not applicable response to each one. Most of the statements are about issues that are influenced by a supervisor or manager, but as other people may also be relevant, there is only one direct reference to a supervisor or manager in the 12 statements.

Although employee wellbeing is mainly an HR responsibility, the 12 elements are significant to PR practitioners because good communication and effective workplace relationships are inherent in all the elements.

Even if you work in an organization that hasn’t subscribed to the Gallup system, you can use each of the statements as an unwritten guide for discussion with managers and supervisors (including your own boss) and possible follow-up action in association with HR staff. You can set in motion an initiative to improve the interpersonal communication of managers and supervisors because good communication is essential to a successful workplace.

Internal communication a key influence on employee engagement

In addition to the research conducted by Gallup, other researchers have found that internal communication is a significant influence on employee engagement. “Internal communication strategies, when effectively applied, help organizations to create and sustain high levels of employee engagement, which leads to higher levels of performance,” according to a study by PR researchers in 2016.

10 essential strategies for communicating to improve employee engagement

US communication consultant Alison Davis writes about how to communicate to improve employee engagement in your organization:

  1. Make sure leaders and managers understand their critical communication roles. Senior leaders need to articulate where the organization is heading, clarify priorities and share progress and accomplishments. Key leaders must reinforce big-picture messages and provide specific objectives for their groups or functions. Managers need to define what their employees need to do to help the organization succeed, and answer questions and address concerns.
  2. Keep working to help senior leaders be visible. Do leaders at your organization spend more time communicating with external stakeholders than with employees? Do employees report that they seldom see senior leaders? If so, your leaders need to improve their visibility. High-visibility leaders reach employees by holding face-to-face meetings, being interviewed in intranet articles, leading webcasts or web meetings, engaging in online conversations such as live chats or jams, and participating in social media.
  3. Provide managers with the information they need to understand key topics—and answer employees’ questions. One valuable approach: create a communication toolkit, a package of information that provides essential information and inspires busy managers to take action. Key elements often include a brief message from your CEO or other senior leader to reinforce the importance of the topic, expectations about how and when managers will communicate, a key message document that clearly outlines what’s happening, and FAQs (and answers) that help managers respond to team members’ questions.
  4. Develop a system for internal communication channels. Communication channels are just like tools in a carpenter’s workbench. Every tool—from the simplest to the most sophisticated—serves a purpose. A skilled carpenter knows there are two keys to using tools effectively. The first is to choose the right tool for the job. For instance, email won’t meet every communication need. The second is knowing how to use each tool. For example, a short video can illustrate and inspire. But if you try to pack too much information into the video, it won’t hold employees’ attention. Whichever tool you choose, make sure you define clear objectives for what you expect that channel will achieve: Are you trying to increase awareness about certain topics? Provide inspiration? Encourage action? Once you know your desired outcomes, you can build a channel that will get the job done. In these ways, you are abler to communicate to improve employee engagement.
  5. Create content that’s really compelling. As channels become less differentiated (Who even knows the name of your intranet or news vehicle?) and devices become interchangeable, the only thing that matters is content: fresh, unique, useful, personal, compelling content. That means your success will depend on your ability to create, curate or facilitate (by managing social media) content that employees are attracted to. And the best way to do that is to provide how-to information that will help employees solve a problem, learn what to do in certain situations and make their lives easier. Basically you’re providing tips or instructions. As information architect Richard Saul Wurman famously said, “Half of all our communication is the giving and receiving of instructions.”
  6. Move the needle on meetings. Meetings are an essential communication form in organizations—whether face-to-face in a conference room or virtual via web, video or teleconference session. Yet meetings are universally reviled: For example, nearly 45% of leaders and managers believe that meetings accomplish nothing. So make meetings more compelling and meaningful, at least for the big-impact sessions (town halls, leadership forums, internal conferences). Two ways: change the chairs (to bring people closer together, but not in the days of coronavirus!) and reboot timing (to create more opportunities for interactivity).
  7. Make a start with mobile. You need a mobile  strategy. There are certainly obstacles (including technology and budget), but mobile is a reality. And employees will increasingly expect you to provide information ‘to go.’ So even if you can’t develop an app, you can start with a simple step, like making sure your emails are accessible and readable on mobile devices.
  8. Move from describing (words) to showing (visual). It’s time to face the fact that images and visuals dominate external communication: 95% of marketers believe visual content is critical. On Facebook, for example, posts including photos generate 100% more engagement than the average post. Visuals—photos, video, infographics, etc. – are the communication method that will pack the big punch.
  9. Embrace segmentation. Most employee communication follows the broadcasting model: send the same content to everyone. But too much of what’s shared is irrelevant to recipients, so they simply ignore it. What’s on the horizon? Narrowcasting, defined as tailoring communication to smaller, more selective audiences (even individuals). Seek opportunities to segment messages, even to significant groups (all managers, people in a certain location or those who do a certain type of job).
  10. Reduce friction. In communication, friction occurs when an audience member is intrigued by a topic, but then encounters resistance on his/her quest to engage with content. Whatever the source, friction always leads to the same result: When communication requires too much of a commitment, audience members abandon ship. So look at ways your communication is causing friction and plan fixes. Maybe email doesn’t open on mobile devices. Or content is impossible to find on your intranet. Or employees are frustrated by the search function. You can’t solve everything, but you can address low-hanging friction.

You can read more about the importance of communication to successful employee engagement in this article.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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