Overcoming HR’s Engagement Barrier: A Simple Formula for Effective Internal Communication

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Every day in HR departments, failures of communication and engagement stymie our best efforts to be the conscience of the organization. The benefits, programs, and support we strive to offer fall on deaf ears or never reach their intended audiences. We can capture this dilemma with a formula from the Six Sigma world:

Quality x Acceptance = Effectiveness (Q x A = E)

“Quality” refers to the product, process, or program in question. “Acceptance” captures what you do to communicate the program, raise awareness, and manage change such that people want what you offer. A high-quality, well-accepted program is going to be effective, but a program lacking in quality, acceptance, or both will struggle.

A synonym for “effectiveness” in the HR world is “employee engagement,” which refers to employees’ willingness to listen and take action accordingly. The action could be to change their approach to a project, develop a new skill set, sign up for open enrollment, or do anything else that stems from gaining awareness.

In HR, we take pride in offering great benefits and programs, but we often struggle to communicate their value in a way that earns acceptance from employees. There are many potential reasons for that. Some internal communicators write dense, confusing emails that no one reads. Many send the same HR emails to everyone in the organization without regard to location, role, age, or tenure. Recipients don’t relate to the information and start to tune out HR communications. How can we get a better outcome?

Winning at Q x A = E

I can’t know precisely what challenges your HR team faces. That said, I can offer some principles that may help you gain acceptance, which is usually the weak point in Q x A = E.

1. Think in Campaigns and Journeys

If you tell 1,000 employees it’s time for performance reviews, they’re going to be indifferent at best and fearful at worst. A journey of communications must explain what a performance review really is, why it matters, how it’s used, what’s being evaluated, and so on. That requires HR people to question the digital-era gospel that “content is king.”

Acceptance can’t necessarily be earned with one email or one video. If a new HR program is the “Q” in Q x A = E, then communication is the “A.” And if content is king, it’s missing a queen, which is the campaign-style, long-term delivery of emails, social posts, portals, and other experiences that cause people to listen and act. It’s also the multiplication of content into different messages for different personas to help people find relevance in communications.

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2. Kill PowerPoint

Carefully manicured PowerPoint presentations have long contained the wealth of benefits and HR programs employees are supposed to engage in. They don’t work. Neither do handouts and booklets.

It’s hard to imagine anything worse at gaining acceptance than 80 slides (or pages) of jargon and stock photography that could be condensed to a single page of bullets. No employee’s curiosity or self-interest is strong enough to suffer through the slides.

Point being, no more PowerPoint. Switch to bite-sized content delivered in videos, interactive portals, mobile apps, and other places where millennials and iGen workers will pay attention. It’s not a coincidence that YouTube advertisements are 15 seconds long and tweets are capped at 280 characters.

3. Have a Strategy

Whatever merits a campaign — whether it’s open enrollment, a new performance management program, or a change initiative like integrating new employees from an acquisition — you can model the strategy similarly:

  1. Define your communication goals. What’s the intended outcome and how do you measure it? For example, can you track what percentage of employees obtained insurance during open enrollment and compare the rate to previous years?
  2. Identify and segment the audience. Based on geographical location, age, gender, and roles, who needs what information? The more the campaign is personalized to the recipients, the more likely they are to listen.
  3. Create the campaign content. What web experiences, videos, infographics, blog posts, etc., do your audiences and campaign strategy demand?
  4. Define the delivery-channel strategy. Where are employees likely to notice and engage with campaign content? Do they have access to desktop computers, or mobile devices only? In which channels can you measure open, read, and click-through rates?
  5. Measure results, analyze, and iterate. Based on the goals and corresponding metrics you defined, examine how you performed. Which channels and content worked best? What would you repeat or change? By tracking the same data over time, you can analyze your progress against a baseline.
  6. Remember the big picture. Ultimately, benefits and programs are meant to increase employee satisfaction and retention. Gauge the impact of your campaigns by conducting satisfaction surveys before and after, being sure to ask questions about your new offerings. In addition, examine how retention changes after introducing these programs. Can you show that investments in rewards programs translate into increased retention (and therefore big savings)?

Q x A = E is a formula that HR can always come back to. It’s a reminder that our best intentions are known only to us, unless we choose to communicate them with clarity, purpose, and authenticity.

It’s hard to imagine that HR communications can become something employees are eager to receive, but there’s no penalty for striving toward that possibility.

Colleen Blake is SVP of People at GuideSpark.

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