The New, COVID-Changed World of Employee Communications

One of the most urgent things employees need right now is information. What are my policies for work at home? What is our sick-leave policy? When do I have to come back to work and where? How am I going to get paid this year?

Among all the issues we face in the COVID Pandemic, communications is the most important of all. In our Big Reset Initiative, nearly every HR leader told us they’ve totally ramped up the volume, frequency, and transparency of their communications. CEOs are appearing on video every week; companies are creating open social networks to discuss work at home, family, and benefits issues; and as new playbooks come out, companies are pushing out more and more details on the workplace every day. (Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are now regular places to talk.)

Historically, employee communications was handled by an HR manager who sent out emails, put together a portal for open enrollment, and did interviews and videos of employees at various points in their career. Now the function has been upgraded: employee communications is a mission-critical, CEO-connected effort that has to reach everyone fast, effectively, and accurately.

Several months ago, before the Pandemic, I started a project to study this area. And we discovered some big issues.

First, there are very few “integrated communications” platforms for HR. Yes, every HRMS, learning platform, and collaboration system has lots of “mass communications” features. But when you want to personalize communications by role or geography, send detailed and overview information, and track who has read or understood the content, it’s kind of hard to do well. And remember, in the COVID world, communications must include talk about HR policies, facilities, safety, pay, and many other operational issues.

In many companies, the employee communications function has been merged with corporate communications, so there are branding and messaging issues as well (Southwest Airlines has done this). And when the issues are as urgent as COVID-19 response, they have to be validated and checked by Legal, reviewed by safety and operations committees, and possibly versioned like legal documents.

Second, employee communications is really an Employee Experience issue. I just had an interview with the head of case management and employee support for IT business services at Johnson & Johnson. They have a wide variety of communications tools and use Medallia’s case, knowledge, and experience platform to monitor employee issues, provide automated responses, and track trends in the types of questions people are asking. This form of “employee experience” instrumentation is also a critical part of this problem. They can literally identify a trending issue in the workforce within minutes, and then immediately see if a service center or actual service is not working well.

The new announcements by Workday (Workday People Experience), SAP SuccessFactors (Human Experience Management), ServiceNow (Case and Knowledge Management) are all movements in this direction. And of course companies use Microsoft Teams, Slack, Workplace by Facebook, and many other tools to “get the word out” when a new policy or program is launched. But how do you track who’s read the material, consumed it, and actually understands it? The answer is usually to develop an end-to-end corporate HR portal.

Sounds easy right? It’s not. One of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world has spent more than $100 million on their employee portal, and it’s amazingly complex. Consulting firms and design firms are often involved in these projects, and you have to think about chatbots, case management, and the myriad of employee needs in the process. It’s an “experience design issue.” 

Consider the way J&J handles all employee questions and inquiries. The service delivery teams use what they call a “service recovery” process to make sure every interaction is tracked, feedback is collected, and the process is continually improved. (This is what Medallia is known for.)

And we have a new dimension to add:  real-time video. I know you’re now using Zoom as a communication tool because many companies tell me the CEO is on Zoom calls once per week. One of the nation’s largest insurance companies told me their CEO now authors weekly video communications on the business, and his wife does the filming. Companies need real-time video integrated into this as well.

Third, companies need an integrated, end-to-end, communications platform. Guidespark, a company I’ve been talking with for several years, has built an entire business around employee communications systems (Guidespark Communicate Cloud), and companies like Schwab, St Joseph’s Health, and Ford us it for almost all major communications programs. Not only does it let you create journeys and segmented communications to different employee groups, it tracks open rates, lets you assess understanding, and includes tools to author and develop video communications as well. It’s like CRM for employee communications – and that’s the way to think about the topic. Medallia is another platform that manages this exceptionally well.

Finally, we have to remember that employee communications are not just focused on information: they are designed to support change. Rather than just “inform” people through email or online events, we want them to know there is a new policy, new organization change, or major new initiative that changes their life at work. So there are elements of marketing, communication, and learning all built into the process. When the company rolls out a new product or new service offering, we want every company to know what it is, understand how it works, and learn how it changes their role.

Remember that employee communications is a way to bring people together. Many of the most important communications systems now engage people in conversations, let people give feedback, and include voting (“thumbs up”) on various options to help employees feel involved. One of the best examples of this is Amdocs new community Virtually Together, designed to bring employees together to learn, discuss, and support each other during the Pandemic. This initiative, which has attracted more than 30,000 employees within and outside the company, shows you what an integrated communication experience can look like. And you can now do this with Guidespark or many of the other tools on the market.

I suggest you take a holistic look at employee communications right now, and investigate some of the new platforms in the market. For some very specific examples, please read the research report we just developed called The Urgent Need for Change Communications. It will make your job much easier in the long run.