Lessons from the Field:

Employee engagement in times of change

For many years I have led brand transformation efforts – for companies ranging from Fortune 100 corporations to smaller non-profits. Often with large teams, across global markets, but never from an ivory tower. I’ve always stayed close to the work, close to the process and close to the target. 

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Employee Engagement in a Coronavirus Crisis

Covid-19 challenged leaders everywhere to adapt to abrupt and radical change.  While technology made many things possible – “zoom” became a new kind of verb – the management challenge of keeping employees engaged became a prevalent theme.

In the past, and armed with tons of data, I’ve tried many times to convert ambivalent executives into employee engagement “believers.” I’ve never succeeded. Instead I’ve found that some leaders just intuitively believe in its ROI, while others don’t. How do believers become convinced?

It may take a crisis. Or a virus. Indeed, a North American CEO told me recently that he had conducted a video call with his team and their engagement level was alarmingly low. “Catatonic” is the word he used. For him, employee engagement is more challenging and more important now than ever. I think many of these lessons of engagement apply.

1. Task your ambassadors.
They can exponentially speed adoption and give you a valuable feedback loop.

You can produce large-scale forums – physical or virtual – to promote the advantages of something new. Your goal may be to transform through a new vision and values, the new meaning of your brand, or new protocols in the face of change.

Invariably a percentage of people will be inspired, and they will approach you saying, “This is exactly what we need. I totally buy in. What can I do to help?”

Are you ready with the answer? Failing to task your self-appointed change agents with productive ways to meet your goals misses a huge opportunity. For Zurich Financial we were prepared to conduct mini-training sessions using volunteer team leaders. We were ready and it paid off.

Did you consider ambassador contribution to creating your transformed brand?  Here, brand is more than a logo or a name. It is the purpose, positioning and detailed brand experience that drives differentiation.  For Springhill by Marriott we produced forums for more than 100 ambassadors to contribute to the brand. In-market results proved out that investment.

2. Employees are customers too.
If they buy your message, they can bring it to life.        

We all know a lot about how to create persuasive communications for consumers. One critical strategy is frequency of communication – this is especially relevant for remote workers. Devote adequate time to planning internal communications and apply techniques designed for consumer marketing to employees.

For SaraLee, we created attitudinally defined employee segments to focus messaging strategies. For PetSmart Charities, we involved leadership in ideation activities to define their future vision.

3. Pass the culture test.
Know your internal culture and how to consistently express it. 

I’ve heard that when you ask top talent why they chose the company they work for, their #2 reason (after compensation) is internal culture. That means alignment with their own value system.

When we helped Citi infuse brand values into its top talent recruitment effort, we learned that the culture question came up all the time. There was not a standard answer. We quickly did a global survey to define the differentiated Citi culture, put memorable language around it, and made that a key pillar in recruitment training.

4. Focus on the fence-sitters.
They will make or break any change effort. 

Faced with significant change that may affect their lives, some people will embrace it and others will not.  One rule of thumb:  20% embrace, 30% resist, and 50% are fence-sitters – waiting to learn more about benefits to themselves.

Be prepared to identify those who embrace change and to give them something constructive to do – and do this as efficiently as possible.  Identify the resisters also and allow them to tread water or eventually exit.  You probably won’t change their minds. Be aware of when they become counterproductive to your future vision and act if necessary.

Invest in the fence-sitters. They can be persuaded if you try to understand them and speak to their personal goals.  When it anticipated dramatic organizational changes due to a merger and upcoming IPO, our client Life Technologies looked at its sales organization this way and achieved a breakthrough result. It

5. Build in a way for employees to contribute.
When people see themselves in your messaging, they’re more likely to believe it.

Internal communications about change should look and feel more grassroots than external campaigns. Solicit input from employees and make sure they can see representations of themselves and their ideas in your communications. This goes to authenticity and pride.

For Hilton, a B2B ad that featured a housekeeping Team Member inspired our global “Be the Reason” internal campaign, which reminded team members to take the extra step toward delighting the guest.  For Life Technologies (now Thermo Fisher), we learned their scientists were inspired by the beauty of molecular photography (the now-infamous coronavirus molecule gives you the idea). So, we featured this kind of photography on their new business cards. And, their self-reported stories about in-market successes became 60-inch posters in common spaces.

6. Use your inside (brand) voice.
You can build credibility and trust through an authentic tone of voice.

Think about how the tonality of your internal communications can capture your personality as an organization. This helps it ring true to people and models the kind of behavior you want to see in your employees.

T-Mobile’s challenger-brand stance already played a huge role in the tonality of advertising messaging and product naming. We applied the same to internal communications and the activities in brand training workshops with hundreds of employees.

7. Celebrate the “art of brand.”
Immerse employees in a Brand Gallery to give them a more memorable experience.

One holding company executive witnessed the Brand Gallery we unveiled in Pfaffikon CH for Zurich Financial and referred to it as the “art of brand.” In fact, presenting the new brand in a gallery format does more than elevate it.  It allows employees to experience it and to take pride in being a part of it.

Eventually, we converted the Zurich Brand Gallery to a traveling show, complete with recorded audio tour in multiple languages, which was seen by thousands of Zurich employees. Today, it is a permanent installation at the Zurich Development Centre.  We have used the gallery format many times since. 

8. Rules rule.
Don’t resist implementing a codified process that can unify ideas and actions. 

Sometimes leaders avoid making rules and enforcing them, in deference to “collaborating” their way to new working processes. But this is not always the best policy.

Team members do not always want to waste time experimenting with processes, if someone else already knows a better way. They want to learn best practices to improve their performance and credentials. They want their projects to have the highest likelihood of success. They may want to work from a playbook that is shared by others to make collaboration faster, and better.

For Verizon, we codified the rules for early-stage new product concepting so it could be trained into groups of hundreds of employees. It clarified the rules that would drive success, leaving plenty of elbow room for creativity. For Amgen, we created tools that established the rules around design thinking and how to apply these to packaging design for new products.

9. Define brand integration ROI.
Presenting your brand integration effort as an investment, rather than a cost, can keep it alive. 

Take the time to create business metrics around the results you want to achieve. These might include financial metrics like reduced costs for sales and recruiting, performance metrics like productivity and longevity, and attitudinal metrics like job satisfaction and alignment with the corporate vision. Then, communicate these metrics and how your organization is achieving them.

We did this for Zurich Financial and implemented an e-learning program that within eight weeks after launch was completed by 30,000+ employees – more than half of their employee population worldwide.

10. Take the show on the road.
Make sure employees at remote locations don’t feel left out.

More employees than ever work out of remote offices or home offices.  They often feel left out of what is happening “at the center.” (Believe me, they have their own phrase for it.) Delight them by taking the time to include them in.

Someday we will feel more at liberty to capture the excitement of personal appearances and live events.  For Sprint, we helped them celebrate an upcoming merger with Nextel by creating Digitopia, an interactive innovation fair that featured emerging Sprint and Nextel innovation prowess, included edutainment, (and was largely funded by Sprint partners).  Then the show was loaded into a truck and re-staged at 11 different offices around the US.

Footnote for agencies: Let your clients take the bow.
Messaging about change must come from company leadership, not their agency.

It is critically important for agencies to enforce this, even when their clients are uncomfortable with it. They may say they are not totally conversant with the content and that they want the agency to step up and present it. That means there is a problem with the content. Write scripts in the client’s voice, rehearse them, do whatever it takes to get your client on the stage so they can take the bow.

One of my first significant internal conferences was for CIBA (now Novartis), with 300+ attendees. We received one exit comment that said, “a little too much of the agency for me.”  Thirty-plus years ago.  I never forgot that, and I never let it happen again.