Human Resources
Thought Leadership

Communicate Now: Five Tips to Help Keep Employees Engaged

No News Isn't Good News

In the midst of layoffs, pay freezes, benefit cuts, and 401(k) match suspensions, it may be tempting to institute radio silence when it comes to employee communication. After all, if there's no good news to talk about, why talk about anything? Stop, and think again. During times of uncertainty, silence can harm your employee engagement, making it more difficult to keep the top talent you'll need to climb out of the downturn. A study cited last year in Harvard Business Review said that even a small layoff shocks and demoralizes survivors so much that many walk out the door at the first opportunity, raising voluntary quit rates an average 31 percent above previous levels. Continuing to communicate will help keep employees engaged in their work so they stick with you for the long term.

In tough times, people need reassurance, information, and context. If you don't give your employees accurate and honest information, you can be guaranteed rumors (with varying degrees of truth) will spread. With that in mind, here are five tips that will help you manage your message.

1. Reinforce the Rewards of Working for Your Organization
There are a number of ways you can reinforce the value of your company's total benefits package. (And we're not talking about adding new benefits!) Here are two suggestions:

Make benefits more accessible. In focus groups and surveys conducted by Hewitt with employees around the country, employees' most common complaint is that they don't know where to find information about how to best use their benefits. Sometimes, they don't even know they have certain benefits, like flexible spending accounts or a pension plan!

It's hard to appreciate a benefit if you don't know it exists or can't find information about it. Good news: There's a quick fix for that — one-stop, online benefits shopping. Creating a benefits "hub" Web site where employees can log in and access information, tools, checklists, and transactions for all of their benefits all in one place is a great way to give people the information they need to value what they have.

Show them the money. Employees say that personalized communication is more valuable to them than anything else — and that they especially appreciate statements (in print and online) that quantify the big picture of their pay and benefits. Some companies are cutting back on personalized statements for a variety of reasons — lack of budget, worry about the perception of spending too much on communication, etc. Our advice: DON'T DO IT! In a time when you probably won't add benefits, reminding employees about what they have can be a valuable retention and engagement tool. There are ways to save money while still delivering a tremendously valuable piece of communication.

2. Listen to Employees
Listening helps you respond to the most important employee concerns and provides insight on how people are feeling. It can also save you money by showing you which plans and programs employees don't value or appreciate — so you can eliminate them without damaging engagement.

There are many ways to listen to employees, including town hall meetings, spot polls on your intranet, and online focus groups. In fact, many company leaders have instituted blogs. A blog is a great way for employees to feel connected to company executives and allows the executives to communicate with and learn from employees.

Feedback channels can give you valuable insight into what employees are thinking and help you fine-tune your communication in ways that will provide more value to employees.

3. Keep the Business — and Your Leaders — Front and Center
When leadership is visible, employees feel more connected with the company (in good times and bad). They're more likely to feel valued and willing to go the extra mile. In times of layoffs, benefit cutbacks, and changing strategies, leaders can get shy about communicating. While it's okay not to overcommunicate, it is critical that leaders be front and center when it comes to describing the company's long-term strategy for success. Experience shows that it's best to share the broad context as soon as you know it. The details can come later-giving you another opportunity to communicate and reinforce the strategy.

4. Treat Employees Like Customers
Each of your employees is a customer when it comes to your benefits. They make decisions about what they buy, how valuable their benefits are, and which "products" best suit their needs. So, apply the following marketing principles to your employee communications:

Focus on the specific behavior you're looking to change. What do you want employees to stop doing, start doing, or do differently? Are you looking to increase active benefits enrollment? Drive employees to consider a new medical plan? Improve wellness? The answers to these questions should drive your communication strategy.

Segment your audience and aim for your target market. Think about messages, visuals, and delivery techniques that will get your point across to the people who matter most. For example, messages about prostate cancer screenings or mammograms have the most relevance to those they directly impact (not necessarily all your employees).

Keep it simple. Annual enrollment isn't the time to tell employees about the 100 other things you wish they would remember about their benefits during the year. Your annual enrollment communication should be focused on achieving a clear outcome: What specific (no more than three) things do you want employees to do during annual enrollment? Focus on those. Then use the rest of the year to drive home other messages, like wellness. Designing benefits enrollment decisions in the context of what other employees are doing will help employees quickly get to the information they want and answer their #1 question: "What should I do?"

5. Make the Most of Social Media
Facebook. LinkedIn. Twitter. Even if you're not, your employees are all over social media, communicating and networking with the people who matter to them. Employers are now exploring how to incorporate social media into benefits and compensation communication. Do employees want to hear about their pay increase in a "tweet" from their boss? Of course not. But, would new hires value a Facebook page that gives them a place to meet other new recruits to your company? Probably so. Or would employees in a layoff situation value some instruction on how to use LinkedIn to network for a new job? You bet.

Organizations that have already jumped in to the social media arena are seeing amazing and tangible business results. A large retail organization launched an online community that lets employees share knowledge, best practices, frustrations, aspirations, and jokes. Companywide, turnover runs around 60 percent. Turnover among this online community? Only 8.5 percent!

Bottom line, there's never a good time to stop communicating with your employees. And there are some quick and easy ways to keep the lines of communication open — even in a tough economy.

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