Effective employee communication: The benefits of best practices

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By Heidi tenBroek, Sharon Stocker | 17 April 2017

As competition for talent continues to heat up, employers are using creative means to attract (and retain) the best talent. Employees are looking beyond their salaries to see if the company culture and benefits make it a desirable place to work. But many employers who spend millions of dollars to offer a benefit or workplace style only spend a surprisingly small amount to ensure that employees understand and appreciate it. Communications—what you say, how you say it, when you say it, who you say it to—is vital to inform and influence how employees think about their benefits, workplace, and employer.

When effective employee communication matters

Communicating difficult or sensitive changes

Clients often seek out the experience and expertise of Milliman’s communication consulting team when they are making difficult decisions that result in a negative impact (for example, a benefits reduction) or that present additional challenges for employees (such as a new tool or system). We help employers explain why they are making changes—without obscuring the truth.

Sharing good news

Effective communication matters even when an employer is improving its benefits package. One client—without our help—introduced an improvement to their benefits plan. Years later, many employees still think negatively about the change because the communication wasn’t clear. Good communication is especially important when there’s a lack of trust. In such an environment, employees are more likely to create their own version of what happened.

Influencing behavior

Motivating employees to act (or not act) can be one of the most challenging tasks for an employer. For instance, how do you motivate someone to do something they already know they should do—like eat right and exercise? In focus groups conducted for one of our clients, we learned that the biggest motivating factor to get and stay healthy for this particular group was the desire to be around for their family and to see their grandkids grow up. This insight guided the team in positioning and communicating the employer’s wellness program. Once you understand what motivates employees, it’s easier to change their actions.

Announcing significant changes beyond benefits

Whenever an organization is undergoing change of any kind, the effectiveness of communication can greatly influence how the change is perceived by employees and how quickly they adapt to the new normal. Milliman's communication team also works outside of benefits by helping organizations develop an appropriate strategy and implement communication campaigns during a major change, such as mergers and acquisitions, or when trying to get key stakeholders to use a new system.

Listen to employees via employee research

Employee research can help inform business strategy, policies, practices, and operations. For example, we worked with a company that’s a supplier to the aerospace industry. This company had doubled its workforce in just a few years, creating a culture clash between older and newer employees. The company was seriously committed to hearing what employees had to say, so we designed an employee survey that was conducted onsite during working hours and resulted in an 88.5% response rate, far above what’s typical. The survey was conducted by us to maintain strict objectivity and confidentiality. The results showed leadership exactly what the core issues were. Armed with this knowledge, they were able to define a targeted action plan that addressed both the company’s and employees’ needs.

Measure success

Measurements are essential in our increasingly tech-based world. But goals and metrics should sync with the client’s business objectives. When we start a new project, we sit down with the employer to find out what they’re trying to achieve. For instance, they may want to ensure that 5% of employees enroll in a new high deductible plan or they may want to reduce call volume to the HR department. Once the objectives are clear, we assign specific, but meaningful measures to evaluate the success at the end of the campaign.

Different types of communication call for different success measures. For benefit changes, you should track participant calls to the call center. If people are confused, you’ll hear about it. With wellness programs, you’ll need to track benefit claims, absenteeism, and participation in wellness challenges. And questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, and face-to-face interviews all can be used to assess if and how well messages were received and understood.

Use consistent messages over multiple channels

There are now four different generations in the workforce, each with different communication preferences and comfort levels with technology. To reach these different groups, it is often necessary to include a variety of media, such as mail home flyers, email newsletters, infographics, videos, total reward statements, online tools, posters displayed in the workplace, and in-person meetings. The content and delivery channels used will depend on the stakeholders’ needs. How much do they know about what’s going on? Do they have influence over the target audience? What is their role and what are their responsibilities in the process? Are they supportive or resistant to what’s happening? We tease out these aspects by a discussion that helps drive the ultimate strategy. People absorb information differently and key messages are more effective when reiterated in multiple ways across a variety of media.

Reduce information overload

Employees are overwhelmed by information, inside the workplace and out. Overly peppering them with reminder communications will make them numb to your messages. In fact, this overload often makes employees look for curated information–one source in which someone else organizes and filters down to only credible, reliable information. If you don’t have one source that you can “pull” employees into (such as an effective web portal), organizing your “push” communication is another option. Sending out fewer, more direct communications on a regular schedule is more effective than a barrage of constant reminders. One client used to send out emails multiple times a week in an effort to improve understanding, build awareness, and occasionally take action. This clearly wasn’t working, so we created an email communication plan that consisted of one weekly email, branded with a clever name, containing short, timely key messages. Employees know to look to that one email for important benefits information, and expect it weekly. The client saw an increase in comprehension, appreciation and, where applicable, direct action. Even more of an indicator of success, departments wanting to get the word out to employees started requesting that their messages be included in the weekly email. Sometimes, less is more.

Five best practices

1. Plan before you launch. Before you get started, define objectives, identify key stakeholders, and create a strategy and plan of action.

2. Don’t sugarcoat bad news. Employees see through and resent attempts at hiding benefit changes that can be perceived negatively.

3. Stick to your message. Determine key messages at the beginning and communicate them consistently.

4. Make sure the managers and supervisors are on board. This is an underestimated group—they have influence over employees and can be advocates or barriers depending on how you treat them.

5. Rinse and repeat. Reinforce key messages multiple times and across a variety of media in a coordinated way to avoid overwhelming the intended audience. People are affected differently by different formats and messages need time to sink in.