GUEST COLUMN: Employee Engagement In Tough Times: Is Communicating More With Employees The Solution?

Sheila Blackwell

By Sheila Blackwell, Strategic Communications & Marketing Consultant

In today’s challenging market environment, many companies are singularly focused on winning new business in order to accelerate growth and in turn create greater career opportunities for employees.  Makes sense at face value, but wins are getting fewer and farther between and employees are restless.  Further, companies, rightly so, are in a constant state of optimizing efficiencies and sometimes those efficiencies lessen the quality and quantity of people programs.  Oftentimes, companies turn to over communicating with employees as a means to keep them engaged in an attempt to make them part of the bigger picture.  Broad communications across the organization is important but it’s not the cure-all.  What’s missing is the personal attention employees’ need to stay engaged.  One size message does not fit all needs.

In a recent gathering of Washington, DC-based Communications & Marketing executives, attendees discussed how their companies are enhancing employee engagement in the current market. Not surprisingly, increasing all-employee messages was not at the top of the list of recommendations. Among the most prevalent ideas shared was a focus on the relationship between employee and their frontline manager. It was at the forefront of many initiatives.  In fact, it underscored the age-old axiom, “people join companies and leave managers.”   Ideas included:

  • Concentrate efforts on frontline managers. Companies can send their top dozen senior executives to training and leadership courses but it’s the frontline manager that truly manages the bulk of the people.  Holding monthly seminars – via WebEx – offering new skills targeted to better equip people managers may prove invaluable to organizations looking to optimize employee commitment.

The fact is many companies are stepping up and committing to the long term with their employee base. Companies like Serco, Inc. hold monthly training of all types and topics for their entire management team.  According to Serco Vice President of Communications & Government Affairs Alan Hill, “Our program manager opt-in virtual video conferences average a participation rate of 65 percent.  It’s about equipping our frontline with the tools, tips and conversations necessary to not just talk about programs but fully develop employees for careers.”

  • Play favorites. All employee emails from leadership are a great catch-all.  They provide every employee with the latest corporate information at the same time, no playing favorites.  But in the case of frontline managers, they need to play favorites with their organization.  They need to give them the ‘customized’ information they need to accomplish their specific day-to-day role and long-term career development plan, which is not a message on long range corporate planning needs.

Leadership author and executive coach Alan Berson, President of Pulse Point, LLC, says that every manager should be asking themselves five important questions in order to maximize their ability to succeed in their job.  They are:

1) How am I showing up in a leadership conversation; what mix of management and leadership mindsets do I focus on?

2) What conversation(s) am I having? Building relationships? Developing others? Taking action?

3) What perspectives do I cover in a conversation?

4) What do my conversations say about me?

5) What type of relationships am I trying to build – ones to manage or lead my organization?

  • Pulse checks go a long way. All employee surveys enable companies to go from anecdotal needs to actual ones.  They go deeper and wider in the organization.  Engagement surveys can provide the targeted data needed to indicate what to enhance or what to create that reinforces a company’s commitment to the employee.  Sometimes it may even indicate a company should eliminate certain programs that yield little mindshare.
  • Get social. Why not check in with an employee via a text message?  Or even go old school and call them on the phone. Check in throughout the month beyond the typical email note, even just to say hello without a special agenda.  Employees want to know that they have an engaged manager.

Yes, it’s true that without business, companies won’t need employees, but the reverse is also true.  Without employees, companies can’t win business.

Sheila Blackwell is a Strategic Communications & Marketing Consultant. Most recently she was the Vice President of Communications & Marcom for SRA International.  To reach her, please email:

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