Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Out of sight, out of mind: Helping remote employees connect with colleagues

It’s easy to forget about all those people out there in home offices. For those whose major interaction with colleagues in the corporate office is email and the occasional conference call, engagement may not be as high we’d like. By not being physically present, they miss out on a lot of relationship building that happens as a matter of course when people show up in the same place every day for work.

Here are three tips for helping this employee populations build their visibility:

  1. Put a face to a name: In the absence of in-person interaction, mere visibility can help. Just being able to visualize a face makes people feel more connected and familiar. Encourage profile pictures on the intranet, try an occasional video call, or even use FaceTime. (Millennial employees might be more comfortable with FT than those of us in their Boomer years.)
  2. Picture their environment: To help connect team members in a department that includes remote employees, or to introduce a new work-at-home employee, have people share a photo of their office or desk. Include everyone on the team, not just the remote folks. It’s always nice to be able to picture where someone is while you’re on the phone or emailing.
  3. Look for opportunities to meet face-to-face: In Tribe research with employees nationwide on cultivating collaboration, respondents told us that even meeting someone in person one time can help them feel more comfortable sharing ideas and working together. There may not be budget to have remote employees travel to corporate on a regular basis, but try to find a reason for them to do so once in awhile, and make sure they meet everyone they can on those visits.

Interested in engaging your remote employees? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

There are two-steps to two-way communications

The first step is asking for employee input.  Whether it’s a formal engagement survey, a questions-and-comments feature on the intranet or employee focus groups on particular issues, people like being asked for their opinion.

But you can’t forget the second step: responding to that input. Once employees have offered their thoughts and opinions, they tend to expect something to happen as a result. They need a response from management, if not in terms of actions taken, then at the very least an acknowledgement that the input was received.

Employees realize the company can’t say yes to everything. Clearly, every employee preference can’t be accommodated nor can every employee suggestion be implemented. By making one choice, the company opts out of others.

Still, employees need to know that they’ve been heard. If your intranet accepts employee suggestions for ideas and innovations, make sure you’ve got a process in place for someone to read those suggestions and to thank the employee, whether or not that idea is one the company could adopt.

They also want to know the business reasons behind decisions. When employee input has been solicited for a key decision at the company, from healthcare benefits to flex workdays to the platform for a new intranet, some employees will be taken aback when their recommendation is not the one adopted.

Tell them why the decision that was made is the best one for the business. Show how that decision best supports the company vision. Share how employee input helped shape the decision, but wasn’t the only consideration.

It also helps to discuss those options discussed but discarded. For lack of a better example, let’s say management decided to make chocolate ice cream the official dessert in the company cafeteria. Those who suggested vanilla and strawberry and butter pecan might feel their opinions were ignored. Just by acknowledging some of the other possibilities considered, you’re letting employees know that their input didn’t drop into a black hole.

Finally, make clear the difference between a voice and a vote. By giving employees a voice in upcoming decisions, management is not handing over responsibility for decision making. At some point, leadership has to make the call and move on.

Is your company working to engage employees in discussions about upcoming decisions? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

To reach non-desk employees, walk through a day in their shoes

Do you think your frontline, manufacturing or retail employees don’t notice that you’re not talking to them? They do, according to Tribe’s research with non-desk employees of large companies nationwide.

Even worse, they interpret a lack of internal communications as a lack of respect. When non-desk workers don’t hear from their company leadership, they assume it’s because their day-to-day contributions to the company’s success are simply not valued at the top.

Of course, it’s not easy to reach all those employees who aren’t sitting in front of computers all day. But that’s not a great excuse not to try. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

At Tribe, we recommend looking for touch points that are unique to your employee population. It helps to go out to the plant or the store or the hotel. Walk in the employees’ shoes, go through the paces of their days. Where do they enter the building when they come to work? Where do they eat lunch? Where do they park? Are they driving a truck, operating machinery, loading boxes or standing on a retail floor? We look for touch points that might be less obvious than a poster in the break room.

Over the years, we’ve come up with some pretty weird touch points to reach non-desk employees. Can you pre-load the trucks the night before with a rearview mirror hangtag? Can you put signage inside the van they ride to work from the off-site parking lot? Can you use floor decals? Window clings on restroom mirrors? Fortune cookies?

You need to understand the physical environment to find those untapped touch points. The trick is to get out from behind your desk and go see what it’s like out there. If you’ve already done that and have come up with some really smart touch points, we’d love to hear about it.

Looking for new ways to reach your non-desk audience? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The Leadership Bubble: Are Your Top Execs Just Talking to Themselves?

Sometimes the top leadership of a company can be something of a closed system. The C-level and management a layer below tend to spend their days rubbing elbows with each other rather than employees in the rest of the company. Without a strong effort to create channels of communication between top management and rank-and-file employees, there’s sometimes very little information flowing between the two.

Leadership often thinks employees know things they don’t. Important things for engagement and alignment, like their vision for the company, their strategic plans for growth, the values they want the company to use in doing business.

Towards the end of the Recession, we did some research on this topic with a limited sample of four or five large companies. First we spoke with leadership about their plans for handling the economic downturn and coming out stronger on the other end of it.

Without a single exception, leadership from every company said they had a clear vision. When we asked if they believed the employees were aware of and understood this vision, they said, yes, absolutely, we talk about it all the time.

Then we asked the same two questions of employees at each of those companies.What we heard from most of them were comments like: “I don’t think they have any idea how to get us through this;” “There’s no plan, not that I know of;” and “I don’t thing there’s a vision and it scares me.”

Why would leadership think employees know these things when they clearly do not? It’s because they themselves hear about the vision every day. They’re all sitting in the same meetings, seeing the same Powerpoints and having the same discussions. They know the vision, and they know how their department or division of the company is expected to contribute to that vision.

 In short, they’re talking to themselves. What’s needed is a strategic approach to communicating top management’s strategic direction and vision to people at all levels of the company.

They’re also not hearing the views of employees outside the C-Suite. If there’s little to no communciation direct from leadership to employees, then there’s probably not an established two-way communciation channel either. So corporate management is missing out on all that employees could tell them — from suggestions and innovations to complaints and concerns. Both are useful for improving the company in a myriad of ways large and small.

Interested in establishing communication channels between your C-level and the rest of the company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Making Open Enrollment Less of a Drag: Four Communications Tips

Sure, employees often drag their feet on Open Enrollment, but who can blame them? Even though they realize their benefits decisions are important, nobody gets excited about that annual opportunity to wade through all that insurance language about out-of-network deductibles and qualifying events.

Our job as communicators is to make it easier for them. Yes, they need all the details included in the giant enrollment guide or on the website, but they could also use a little help at knowing what they need to pay attention to, what decisions they need to make, and what actions they need to take to be squared away until next year.

Employees are busy. Like the rest of us, their workdays are packed with, you know, work. Also like everybody else, they have many different demands on their time when they’re not at work.

What if you thought of the employees as CEOs? You wouldn’t hand your CEO a huge stack of benefits gobbledy gook without providing any sort of executive summary. You’d probably also outline the important decisions that need to be made and include a clear call to action.

  1. Try to summarize what they need to know with a headline and several bullets. If employees only had time to read one PowerPoint slide, what’s the most important stuff for them to know? Probably, that slide is about what’s different this year from last year.

2. Then give them a short list of the decisions in front of them. In the simplest, most human terms possible, outline the selections they’ll need to make. Do they need to decide between three possible healthcare plans and two possible dental plans? Is vision coverage optional? Instead of writing in HR-speak, say it the way you’d say it if you were emailing a friend.

3. Finally, what’s the Call to Action? Where do they go and what do they do to be able to check this whole Open Enrollment thing off their To Do list.

4. And then there’s the power of good design. Open Enrollment materials may be on the opposite end of the spectrum from pleasure reading, but that’s all the more reason to give them the benefit of good design. The enrollment guide and all the accompanying communications efforts  — whether that means emails, direct mail, digital signage or posters — can  be more effective with clean professional design that makes them easier to read and more engaging.

Benefits are part of taking care of employees, and Open Enrollment is how we present that smorgasbord of benefits to employees. Let’s make the communications around Open Enrollment a little more appetizing.

Interested in improving your Open Enrollment communications? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Can internal communications replace some of those dreaded conference calls?

Everybody loves to make fun of conference calls. A photo of conference call bingo has been floating around social media lately, and I particularly like the video pictured here of a real-life conference call with people sitting in a conference room together listening to hold music while other people walk in and announce “Beth (has joined the meeting.).” We hate conference calls but we can’t stop scheduling them.

And what are employees really doing during all those conference calls? According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, they’re doing other work, sending emails, online shopping, playing video games, exercising and taking other phone calls. Some report (and I apologize for putting this image in your mind) taking conference calls in the bathroom.

So if employees don’t like conference calls, and they’re not particularly engaged during them, should those of us in internal communications be offering an alternative? When work teams are located in different offices, or in other countries, an in-person meeting isn’t practical. But that hurdle of geography is indigenous to a global workplace, or even a national one.

At one point, it seemed that video conferencing would become the new conference call. Certainly being on camera would eliminate some of the temptation to be multi-tasking. And seeing the faces of other participants would shortcut some of those awkward start-stop interruptions and allow us to pick up on all those missed cues of body language. Although a number of Tribe’s clients have video conferencing capabilities, we don’t see it used very much. In fact, it seems to be avoided like the plague.

Theoretically, intranets could handle some of the informational exchange and collaborative work of conference calls. But in practice, they’re not replacing many of those calls clogging up employees’ calendars either.

So there’s always email. And an awful lot of business does get done through group emails. Yet employees consistently complain that they get too much email — which makes it an unlikely candidate for conference call replacement. 

What’s the answer? I don’t know. But if you do, I’d love to hear about it.

Want new ideas for internal communications other than a cure for the common conference call? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

What retail employees, airline attendants, hotel workers and other frontline people know that corporate doesn’t

Valuable customer insights go unrecognized in companies across almost every industry. Although large brands may expend considerable budgets on customer research and voice-of-customer initiatives, they may overlook the most direct source of knowledge regarding what customers want.

That source of knowledge is the frontline employee. The customer-facing employee can be a rich resource of ideas for small and large improvements.

In quick service restaurants, staff may notice a trend of customers mixing two packets of different sauces. That observation might lead to a product idea for a new sauce flavor. In the hospitality industry, hotel housekeepers might know that guests often remove a scratchy bedspread and toss it on the floor. That knowledge could influence the choice of fabrics in the next design prototype for room interiors.

The frontline employee also has firsthand knowledge of customer complaints. They see things corporate can’t, which not only stymies customer solutions but also frustrates these employees.

In Tribe’s research with non-desk employees, this frustration was a prevalent theme. They often see corporate as out of touch and ineffective at solving common issues. Respondents reported that corporate often doesn’t understand the realities of the business due to being so removed from customers.

In most companies, this valuable field intelligence is lost. Without a clear channel of communication between the front line and those back in the corporate office, none of this knowledge becomes actionable.

Establishing such a channel takes some doing. Communication to field employees generally flows in one direction only, cascading from managers to the front line. Although individual managers may be aware of these frontline insights, there are rarely established communications processes for sharing up the ladder.

An effective channel will be specific to the physical realities of those frontline employees. What works for hotel housekeepers may not work for garbage truck drivers. A solution appropriate for a high-end jewelry retailer may not suit furniture rental store employees.

Interested in collecting the field intelligence of your frontline? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

What we know about building employee trust in the CEO

One of the best ways a CEO can build employee trust is to first demonstrate that he or she trusts employees. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review addresses this dynamic from the perspective of managers, but the same principle applies at a higher level in the corporate hierarchy and to the organization overall.

How does company leadership show trust in employees?

  1. Share information. Not just good news, but the bad news as well. In fact, sharing bad news honestly can go a long way towards increasing employee trust. Of course there will always be business information that’s not appropriate to share, and it’s fine to say that. Employees can appreciate that distinction. But if you talk about transparency, make sure you follow up by truly keeping employees in the loop on news you can share.
  2. Avoid creating a risk-averse culture. This is a big ship to turn around, if your culture is already rife with policies and attitudes intended to put as many controls in place as possible. It’s popular now for companies to promote the idea of failing fast, but there’s sometimes a contradiction presented by punitive policies. Giving employees a little more autonomy and decision-making power demonstrates trust in their abilities and their judgment. That’s a first step in having them return the favor.
  3. Promote visibility for individuals responsible for innovation. Look for examples of leaders within the company who are spearheading new product developments or initiatives and celebrate them. Mention them in town halls, encourage your communications staff to feature them in the internal publications or on the intranet. Most success stories will include bumps and challenges along the way. Telling those stories reinforces the notion that the company leadership trusted those employees enough to let them hit a dead end or two before they got it right.

Interested in building trust in leadership at your company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

It will take more than a new CEO to change the culture at Uber

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

I didn’t find it particularly sexist when Uber board member David Bonderman commented that more women on the board would mean more talking. Before reading Susan Fowler’s blog about her time as an engineer at Uber, I assumed the culture there was  no worse than any company run by a bunch of smart-ass guys. Something along the lines of the ad agency world back in the day, like when my boss would flip through Playboy while I read my work aloud to him.

But Fowler’s account reflects a maddening experience in a culture of gender bias that’s deeply systemic. Ousting CEO Travis Kalanick is not going to instantly eradicate a pervasive attitude of permissiveness toward sexual harassment and discrimination. The board at Uber has a long uphill slog ahead if they’re hoping to change the culture in a meaningful way.

Having more women in top leadership positions would help, but high-level women have been leaving the company in droves. According to Fowler’s calculations, the Uber workforce was 25 percent female a year ago and now is at less than six percent. Whether women have left because of sexism or due to the chaotic state of the business, they’ve left a vacuum that may need to be filled by women coming from outside the company.

At Tribe, we often work with large companies interested in shifting their cultures. I’ve been thinking lately about what we would recommend Uber do now, and I have to tell you, just the thought of the work ahead of them makes me feel exhausted.  So much real change would have to happen, from new leadership all the way through operations, before the culture even begins to budge.

Communicating that cultural change will be easy enough — once the change is real. But slight improvements or superficial changes won’t move the needle. In this case, there will have to be a seismic sea change to change the reality of the culture at Uber.

It will be difficult, and it’s possible the board will decide such an uphill battle isn’t worth it. Maybe they’ll just let boys be boys and take the lumps.

The worst mistake they could make would be to claim the culture has shifted when it hasn’t. That would only backfire — and undermine whatever trust in leadership remains.

Have a cultural issue that’s not quite as bad as Uber’s? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Successful Change Management Starts with Respect for Employees

Having employees embrace or accept change depends a great deal on whether they feel they’re being treated with respect.Overcome Resistance to Change with Two Conversations,” a fantastic article in the Harvard Business Review by two thought leaders from the Kellogg School of Management, suggests that feeling a lack of respect is one of three reasons behind those who resist organizational change. (The other two they discuss are disagreement and feeling rushed.)

Can their excellent strategies for one-on-one conversations be applied to internal communications? Yes and no. They’re correct that email and webcasts can’t accomplish what a face-to-face dialogue can. But those engineering a major change in large companies with thousands or tens of thousands of employees obviously can’t sit down with every single person the change will impact.

Still, the change communications can start from a place of respect for employees. The inevitable email, town hall, intranet articles and/or webcasts can all frame the transition in ways that acknowledge the difficulties of the change and communicate honestly about the downsides  — as well as the ways the change will benefit the company and its employees in the long run.

In addition, Tribe would recommend three key elements to the change communications:

  1. Have the CEO announce the change: In Tribe’s national research with employees of large companies, respondents said they wanted to hear about a big change first from the top brass. They want their leadership to be straightforward about bad news and not sugarcoat it or spin it. And they want to know the business reasons behind the change.
  2. Prep managers to answer questions: Employees in our research said they would likely follow up with their direct managers to ask questions, so help your managers be prepared with talking points, FAQs and possibly communication training on this particular change. You want each manager to be sharing the same messaging as the CEO — and as the other managers out there, so employees aren’t hearing different versions of the story depending on who they talk to.
  3. Give employees a feedback loop: Two-way communication is particularly important in times of major change. Give employees a way to ask questions and share concerns, and be sure they get responses in a timely way.

Interesting in improving acceptance of a major change at your company? Tribe can help.