Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Eliminating Ineffective Channels: Send Out Less Stuff, and Employees May Pay More Attention

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop doing something. As you add more and more channels to your internal communications program, whether that’s updating the intranet to a more social platform or developing communications toolkits for managers to cascade messaging, you can reach a tipping point where too much is, well, just too much.

Stop and make an assessment of what’s working and what’s not. Are there six different newsletters from various division and regions? Maybe you could retire a few, or at least use a more targeted list of who gets what. Do employees have several different sites serving various functions of an intranet? Maybe you could shut one of those down, or migrate the content that’s actually being used to another internal site that gets more traffic.

Also consider the Use By date on communications meant for a specific time window. If you ship posters to all locations and ask them to put them up in the break room, do you also let them know when it’s time to take those posters down? When open enrollment is over, when the United Way campaign is complete, removing those posters leaves visual (and mental) space for other messages.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If a channel doesn’t seem to be working very well, consider updating what flows through that channel. That digital newsletter that nobody reads might be a winner with an updated design and improved content.

How do you know what’s working and what’s not? The best way is to do a communications audit, using any metrics you have plus an additional employee survey and possibly even some employee focus groups. When Tribe conducts such an audit, the resulting recommendations usually include some combination of 1) channels to keep because they’re working great as is; 2) channels to tweak because they need more strategic thought and/or more engaging content; and 3) channels that have served their time and are ready to retire.

The conundrum is this: there’s always the risk that you’re communicating too much. Just as there’s always the possibility that you’re not communicating enough. If this stuff was easy, it wouldn’t be so hard.

Interested in giving your portfolio of communication channels the once over? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Balancing Collaboration and Efficiency

A premium is placed on collaboration in many, if not most, large companies. As knowledge and expertise become increasingly specialized, collaboration across functional areas becomes even more critical for successful business results.

At the same time, efficiency is also a priority. Companies feel the pressure of delivering improved speed to market, quick response to changing business factors and the ever-increasing demand to be faster than before.

The challenge is that collaboration and efficiency work against each other. To collaborate requires rounding up people in diverse roles across the company, and usually across geography. Coordinating the schedules of everyone in the group for an in-person meeting or conference call is no easy feat. It’s not always going to happen this week, or even this month.

It’s much faster for one functional unit to make decisions and move on. In Tribe’s national study on collaboration, many respondents cited this time drag as a reason why they often skip the step of getting input from other areas in the company.

But are the right decisions being made? There are no doubt insights the sales team can share about what customers are really looking for; that the programmers can clarify in regards to what the software can really do; or that one division of the company can offer regarding a key customer they share with another division.

This tension between collaboration and speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It forces people to set priorities, to weigh the need for one over the other. In most corporate cultures, the pendulum will swing towards one over the other.

One principle for maintaining a balance between the two is to separate the two functions of collaborating and making decisions. When people come together to collaborate, it should be for the purpose of providing their unique expertise, input and feedback. The collaborative meeting is not the place to make decisions. Trying to reach consensus on a decision is not only difficult, it’s unlikely to result in the best decision.

Give everybody a voice, but not a vote. The happy medium – or the Middle Way, as the Buddhists would say – is to invite many different perspectives but not give away the power to make the final determination. The responsibility for decision-making should remain with those who own the project or initiative under discussion.

Interested in balancing collaboration and speed in your company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Writing for internal comms: Three ways to look like an amateur

This is how my great aunt would do internal communications
This is how my great aunt would do internal communications

The field of internal communications has come a long way. As more companies have recognized the business advantages of communicating with employees, investment in internal online, digital and print communications has increased along with the technology that enables their delivery.

Still, a whiff of the amateurish persists in some of the writing. We have to recognize that employees are accustomed to consuming mainstream media. Our internal communications don’t exist in a vacuum. They compete for attention with all the websites, apps and magazines that employees encounter in their day-to-day lives.

Readers make snap decisions about the trustworthiness of sources based on the professionalism of the writing. If you’re reading a website filled with grammatical and punctuation errors, you’re more likely to think it’s the rantings of a crackpot than solid medical advice from the Mayo Clinic.

It’s hard enough to create trust in company leadership and in the veracity of internal communications. Readers notice small cues, consciously or unconsciously, that indicate the professionalism of the writing. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with these three tragically common mistakes:

  1. Incorrect use of ellipses: The dreaded dot dot dot is frequently misused by people who should know better. If you’ve deleted part of a quote, an ellipsis is warranted. It’s how you indicate to the reader that you’ve omitted something that was previously in that sentence. It’s not for creating a sense of drama. If you want to do that, maybe a long dash is what you’re after. If you’re using it to create a pause in the reader’s mind, keep in mind that it indicates confused or faltering thought. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, says “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” Generally, that’s not the affect you’re after in internal communications. If you’re doing it just because you think it looks nice, you might want to rethink that.
  2. Incorrect use of quotation marks. Whenever I see this, it reminds me of letters from my great aunt. Quotation marks, besides indicating actual spoken words, can be used to indicate an unusual word or term, something the reader may not have encountered before. Aunt Etta used them liberally, as in hoping I have been “hitting the books” at college or that I would postpone marriage until I found “the right one.”  She would also draw little ballpoint hearts and sunshines in her notes. And sometimes include a twenty dollar bill. She was awesome. In internal communications, quotation marks are often used  in the same way, around words and terms that anyone not living under a rock would easily understand. You don’t see them doing that in the Harvard Business Review.
  3. Overuse of exclamation marks: We once had a client who demanded at least two exclamation marks in everything we wrote for her. It kind of made sense for her, at least in her blog, because that’s the way she talked. But in most professional communications, there just aren’t a ton of occasions that warrant an exclamation mark. There’s no reason to put one (or three) after a sentence, unless the building is on fire.

Interested in improving the professionalism of your internal communications writing? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The Origin of Brainstorming: Or Why It’s Not Something to Squeeze into that Meeting Agenda

osborn_foundationBrainstorming happens to be one of my least favorite words. In the corporate world, the term usually means a bunch of people in a conference room shouting out things that someone else scribbles on a whiteboard or flip chart. In my experience, it’s not the best way to generate truly creative ideas. It’s too loud, for one thing, to hear that quiet voice of inspiration. That voice is more apt to raise its hand when just a couple of people are kicking around ideas, or later when one of those people is in the shower, or driving a car, or cooking dinner. But there’s something else that bothers me about this brainstorming thing.

At least I now know who to blame for coining this word. It was Alex Osborn, one of the founding partners of BDO, later to become the advertising giant BBDO. (Oldies quiz for those who’ve been in Atlanta for decades: Remember the ad shop known as BDA/BBDO? When the receptionist answered the phone, it sounded like someone falling down a flight of stairs.) Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming were later expanded upon by academic Sidney Parnes, with whom he partnered to develop what they called the Creative Problem Solving Process, or CPS.

I have a vague memory of my father explaining the phases of CPS to me as a child, saying that it mirrored the general process of the way his firm practiced architecture. The rules Osborn came up with for brainstorming were rules I remember my father using with young architects, particularly the first of those rules. They’re also second nature for most art director-copywriter teams in ad agencies, at least those in which I’ve been involved.

  1. No criticism of ideas
  2. Go for large quantities of ideas
  3. Build on each others ideas
  4. Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

There’s a tradition in ad agencies that says creative ideas come out of the creative department only. Any account executive who didn’t know better than to pipe up with a headline was quickly schooled by his elders. The way we work now is far too fluid for rigid boundaries of responsibility, and I think most of us in the business of selling creative ideas will take a good one where we find it.

What’s useful about that ad agency tradition, to my mind, is a respect for the hard work of generating ideas. Before the brilliant idea that comes in a flash, there are generally many, many bad ideas. Before any of those bad ideas, comes a period of immersion in the subject matter. Even before those particular bad ideas, there are often years and years of experience trying to think up ideas for a living. There’s a certain way of thinking, of using the brain, that can be honed over a career in a creative business.

Which leads us back to the original meaning of the word brainstorming. According to CPS, it’s a process of 1. fact finding, 2. problem finding, 3. Idea finding, 4. solution finding and 5. acceptance finding. So maybe I’m fine with the word brainstorming. I’m just not a fan of thinking that the entire process is easy.

Want a more creative approach to your internal communications? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Including everyone: Scale employee events for smaller offices and remote employees

Employee events are a fantastic way to build engagement. At Tribe, we often recommend events at the launch of a new enterprise strategy, leadership vision or rebranding. They provide an experience for employees that is unlike anything we can do through print or digital or even video channels.

But it’s tempting to focus the event just on those working 9-5 at the corporate headquarters. Those in other geographic locations, or in call centers, or working night shifts are often deemed just to difficult to include for a wide range of reasons. Home-based employees are usually excluded as well. After all, how can you create an event for one person?

At Tribe, we’ve found ways to include all those employee populations in events in meaningful ways. Here are three tips to expanding your reach when planning an employee event:

  1. Scale the event materials by office: Although it may not be practical to stage an event of the same magnitude in every global outpost, you can scale back the materials and activities to suit. We recently worked with a client on a rebranding event. The corporate headquarters was the epicenter of the happenings, but we threw similar events simultaneously in another US office and in a few smaller European offices. Working with a representative from each location, we determined the appropriate number of elements and the right agenda for each.
  2. Find ways to accommodate employees who can’t attend when everybody else does: When we worked on a vision event with a large healthcare system on the west coast, we had to consider that all the doctors and nurses couldn’t come strolling over to the event at the same time. Likewise, those working the graveyard shifts would miss the whole thing. So instead of what otherwise have been a two-hour window for the event, we stretched the time period so that people could come whenever they had a break in the action. This approach is also helpful with call centers or other locations where somebody’s got to be manning the fort at all times. For the night shifts, we held a separate event and instead of serving lunch, we served midnight hotdogs and barbecue. You wouldn’t believe how much it meant to those people that we staged an event in the middle of the night, just to make sure they weren’t left out.
  3. Send remote employees a mini-event: Often we’ll ship individual events-in-a-box to home-based employees. It might include a letter from the CEO on the cultural or business milestone the event is meant to mark, the same branded swag available at the event — from t-shirts to travel coffee mugs — and even refreshments, such as a branded cookie or box of mints. Recently, we included a confetti cannon to add a festive note to the at-home celebrations. We’ve also included online scavenger hunts when launching a new intranet and themed photo contests. Home-based employees can participate in those activities the same way those in the corporate office do.

Interested in learning how to engage more people in your employee events? Tribe can  help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Are you sharing your company’s story?

Every company has a story. If the narrative is not being shared, you’re missing a chance to engage employees in being part of both the company’s legacy and its future.

The company story can be an invitation for employees and prospects to join the experience. Make the story relevant for corporate employees but also those in the manufacturing facilities, distribution centers and other production jobs. People on the factory floor should know that they’re creating a product that provides people with something that makes their lives better in some way.

Look for the golden thread of purpose that has always run throughout the company’s history. Although business strategies and even the organization of the business may have changed dramatically since the beginning, there’s likely a perennial purpose that’s been there year after year. For instance, an IT company may be using entirely different technology and providing new sorts of services than it was even a few years ago. But look for the reason why the company exists, the need it fills for its clients. In that example, maybe the company purpose is and was to help clients’ technology work flawlessly so they can focus on their own business instead.

UPS, to use an actual company as an example, has been in business for the past century. Although today they not only deliver packages but also handle supply chain, logistics,  and run retail stores, they’re still focused on the same thing: helping their customers move things reliably from one place to another.

What channels would you use to tell the company story? Tribe often creates what we call vision books for clients, in which we help the company articulate the vision and values of the company. This is an ideal tool for telling the company story, for a variety of reasons.

The company narrative can also be told in almost any other channel. Tell it in the employee magazine, on the intranet, as part of a company anniversary event. We’ve even incorporated colorful gems of company history in digital signage.

The importance of the story is that it connects employees to something bigger than themselves. And it helps them see how their individual roles contribute to the overall success and ongoing legacy of the company.

Interested in telling your company’s story? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Who wants what: Life stages and the EVP

The employee value proposition helps employees see beyond compensation and benefits to the larger picture. Although there are other elements of the EVP that attract top talent and keep your best employees in place, it’s safe to say all employees care about their pay and insurance.

Beyond that, many elements of the EVP will be different for each individual. Some people are looking for a company where they can enjoy a better work-life balance.  Other employees might secretly enjoy racking up air miles and staying in hotels all over the world. Some folks want to be able to wear T-shirts and flip flops to the office. Hourly workers in positions that don’t promise much career advancement might appreciate tuition assistance to get that college degree.

Although we can’t assume that diverse personalities will want the same things, people in certain life stages often want similar perks. New parents might particularly value the options of flex time or working from home. Those in the early stages of their careers will likely be looking for a company with a great deal of opportunity for growth. Although Gen Y employees often rank meaningful work high on their lists, that factor can also be a big deal to many Boomers.

The EVP provides answers to the employee’s question, “What’s in it for me?” It’s wise to remember, however, that the right answers will be different according to what any individual employee values most in life.

Ready to explore your employee value proposition? Tribe can help.

Stephen Burns

Internal communications and change management

Internal communications are an integral part to any successful company. Truly communicating with employees is the key to creating a productive, creative and open office environment. Simply put, engaged employees are happy employees.

Perhaps the most important role they play is guiding employees through big company changes. When leadership is shifting, if the vision or the direction of your business is changing or even if the future of the company is becoming uncertain, communicating with employees can help reduce or alleviate your employees’ stress and reassure them that you’re looking out for their best interests. Here are six things you can do to help employees through company change.

1) Have respect for the employee. The most effective change communications are built on a foundation of respect for the individual. That means treating employees like the intelligent adults they are, as well as putting ourselves in their shoes. We often talk about the Golden Rule of Change: If you were an employee impacted by this change, how would you want to be treated?

2) Be aware that knowledge is power. And it also makes people more comfortable. We recommend beginning communications to foreshadow the change as early as possible. Some companies feel they should wait until they know all the details of how things will shake out, but in our experience employees prefer to know earlier, even if there are gaps in the information you can share.

3) Know that it’s ok not to have all the answers. Employees can accept the fact that you can’t tell them everything right now. What causes them much more stress is the sneaking suspicion that something’s afoot and management isn’t telling them about it. We advise clients that it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll tell you when I do,” or even “We can’t share that information, but I can tell you such and such.”

4) Acknowledge the two big fears. Why are people so afraid of change? In the workplace, it usually comes down to two major questions: Will this make my job more difficult? And will I lose my job? We encourage clients to talk about both. You can bet their employees are.

5) Recognize individual differences. Since they happen to be actual human beings, each employee is unique. They won’t have the same psychological or emotional reactions to change. They will also have their own individual preferences when it comes to how they like to receive information. To support a change, it’s helpful to offer communications in a wide range of channels. From a section on the intranet that’s frequently updated to printed materials to face-to-face interaction. You also may want some train-the-trainer tools to help people managers know how to communicate the change to their teams.

6) Remember: trust trumps all. Your most valuable asset in any change is the trust your employees already have in the company’s management. Without it, any change will throw people into a higher level of stress. If your company is fortunate enough to have built a strong equity of trust in its leadership, your job as a change manager becomes much easier.

Stephen Burns

What makes a company’s communications authentic?

This week, I heard an interesting discussion concerning authenticity in social media. Mark Schaefer, in his podcast “Marketplace Companion“, took a look at how companies carry themselves on social media, what appeals to viewers and customers as far as a company’s “character,” and if it was even possible to be “strategically authentic.”

This authenticity is key to connecting with customers, Schaefer asserts, and creating a celebrated brand. They described social media as a company’s public resumé, something that will stay visible as public record, track your behavior and exist as something you’ll always be measured against. With your brand in the public eye, everything you say, every conversation you have reflects on you. And, as Schaefer says, “You’re never off.”

It’s one thing to create a more personified company brand to consumers, it’s another entirely to create one that is internally-facing.  You can create a social media brand for your company, but consumers only see that side of things and it’s easier to control. Employees, on the other hand, see all sides of the company and understand all the dimensions of the business. Transparency is key, and inauthenticity is easier to spot.

What is the difference between transparency and authenticity? Schaefer describes transparency as your “words and actions being congruent with how things actually are.” That’s not entirely dissimilar from authenticity. The distinguishing factor, though is being intellectually honest versus simply disclosing everything.

How do you create an authentic company “persona”? Think about the public resumé precedent Schaefer sets. Having a smaller audience within a company, this record is going to be even longer, so consistency is key. To create a trusted internal brand, you have to pick a voice and a cadence and stick with it. That means maintaining thorough communications throughout company changes, but it also means keeping up with correspondence during down times.

It’s important to consider the source. In order to be authentic, your company communications need to come straight from the horse’s mouth. If your HR team is handling all internal communications, at times it will seem inauthentic. Let HR communicate HR issues, let the finance team relay financial news, encourage marketing to speak about their latest initiatives, and perhaps most importantly, let the executive team speak about company news and issues. If you have an executive blog, don’t allow someone who has never even met the CEO create his voice. Employees pick up on this kind of stuff fast, and once you lose their trust, it’s incredibly hard to re-gain.

Stephen Burns

Aligning your company’s internal communications with your business goals

Odds are, your company started out with a mission in mind. This is the reason you set out. It defines what makes you unique, what separates you from the competition and it gives you a purpose for your work. Your business as a whole needs an end goal in order to be successful. It’s crucial for you and your employees to be on the same path with their eyes on the same prize. Internal communications is what helps this initiative come together.

Your mission is your destination, but it’s also your foundation. A business goal is not something that one day you’ll achieve and your quest will be over. A business goal is the way that you’ve chosen to define your journey. It’s also the basis on which you should communicate with your team. How and when you reach out to your team should reflect the goals you’re trying to achieve.

Here are three benefits to starting with the end in mind:

1) You need a road map to know where you’re going. The strategic communications plan helps to keep everyone moving in the same direction. It’s what provides the structure on which you can build employee engagement in reaching those business objectives. As an example, let’s say one of your company’s business objectives is to increase innovation through collaboration. When you know that’s a focus, you can choose channels that support that goal, like an idea-vetting site or collaborative features on your intranet. Even before you start developing your messaging, you’ve begun to pave the way for changing employee behavior.

2) It allows you to be more proactive. There will always be late breaking news or changes that require turning on a dime, but with a plan in place, you’ll minimize your need to be reactive or tactical. A clear plan provides you with the luxury of being proactive. For instance, perhaps somewhere in the company’s future, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll be bought by another company. Well before you reach that juncture, you can lay the groundwork for smoother change by building employee trust in management. You might decide to add a weekly CEO blog to your mix, to provide two-way communication channels or even to find opportunities for leadership to share some bad news as well as the good, to assure employees that management communicates honestly and transparently.

3) It helps you create synergy. A well-developed plan helps your communications become larger than the sum of their parts. You can use some channels to build traffic to other channels, or look for places you can weave in underlying messages. Perhaps you’ll realize your recognition communications are a good place to include messaging on the company vision and values. There are any number of ways your communications can support or build on each other.