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That’s a Wrap: Highlights From Engage ‘24


 — April 25th, 2024

That’s a Wrap: Highlights From Engage ‘24

Thousands of business leaders, Internal Communication professionals, and HR executives from every continent converged yesterday at Engage '24 for a compelling day of business insights and expertise at Poppulo’s annual conference.

Eight sessions explored the most important issues facing organizations today—employee wellbeing, AI, bridging the gap with disconnected workers, the importance of authentic leadership and strategic communications, and more—with speakers from leading global brands, including IKEA, Pandora, Amadeus, Santander, and Northrop Grumman.

Missed Engage or Want to Re-Watch the Sessions? Watch On-Demand

After Poppulo’s CEO Ruth Fornell welcomed attendees to the virtual event, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science at Oxford University, kicked off the day with a session that should make business leaders and anybody working in HR and Internal Comms sit up and take notice.

He presented fascinating results of the world’s largest study into employee wellbeing and experience. And the results couldn’t have been clearer: investing in wellbeing isn’t something that’s intuitively good to do—it’s a must-do for companies because it has a fundamental impact on productivity, employee recruitment and retention, and financial performance.

According to Jan-Emmanuel, organizations are misplacing their focus on wellbeing. Companies believe and rank compensation as the main driver of employee wellbeing, closely followed by flexibility, appreciation, and purpose. However, the research shows that the main driver is actually belonging, followed by flexibility and inclusion.

“I couldn’t emphasize the importance of belonging more, especially as we move towards a hybrid world of work,” said Professor De Neve. One of the most effective interventions to drive belonging is improving worker voice, getting people’s voice more into decision making.

I feel very strongly that technology and communication platforms like Poppulo and others, enable us to do much better now in both informing people and putting their voices, in a dynamic sense, into the mix as well.

He singled out Unilever and its Chief Health and Wellbeing Officer, Diana Han, and HSBC and its Group Head of Wellbeing, Andrew Gibbons, as examples of companies and people who are taking employee wellbeing very seriously.

Getting Leadership Comms Right

Following that session, Daniela Rogosic, IKEA’s CEO Communications Leader and Felicity Barber of Thoughtful Communications had a terrific exploration of the importance of authentic leadership communications with Sharon McIntosh of And Then Communications.

These highly regarded comms experts, with vast experience in leadership communications, shared tips on how to make leadership comms more authentic, the challenges leaders face in communicating authentically, and how IC teams can help address these challenges to ensure messages resonate with their people.

Daniella noted that, “Leaders have, throughout history, really tried hard to be the ones that have all the answers. But I think that today we find ourselves in a new reality where there are challenges coming that we never could have expected. And that has also put leaders in a new position where they actually have to show both vulnerability and authenticity to be credible.”

Building on that, Felicity shared, “I really think it's our job to explain to leadership what tools are available to help them to communicate more effectively, you know, internally and with their teams. I think the other challenge that I see a lot is, bias, which is very understandable toward external comms. And, again, I think it's the job of leadership or executive communications or IC leaders to support CEOs saying even if there is something that you're saying externally, are you using your internal channels to explain it? Because your employees want to hear it directly from you. They don't want to read the press release.”

During the session, Sharon polled the attendees and found that 47% of the audience felt that their leadership comms came across as authentic most of the time.

The panelists also discussed how authenticity can sometimes be perceived differently across cultures and industries, and offered advice on how to navigate cultural nuances and industry-specific expectations to ensure leadership communication remains genuine and relatable.

Another topic they explored was the role of storytelling and narrative techniques in fostering authentic leadership communication, and how IC teams can collaborate with leaders to develop compelling narratives that resonate with employees and stakeholders alike. And when Sharon shared that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, the attendees and panelists alike were surprised, and eager to use that fact when advocating for the value of storytelling.

Managing Change

Next up was a topic that also attracted a lot of attention: Change Communications: Navigating the Demands of Constant Transformation. This is a subject that Helen Cunningham, Head of Global Change and Internal Communications at Amadeus, knows all about.

In conversation with another change expert, Joss Mathieson of Change Oasis, Helen highlighted some of the most critical issues to ensure change comms work and are effective in achieving company objectives.

High on the list is to be in the conversation early with the executive leadership, even if this sometimes means having to be asked to be involved. You’ve got to be in the conversation and get a good brief. Getting a proper brief is fundamentally important.

Also critical is—at the very start of the change planning process—to look at what the impact will be on various audiences and people impacted, and try to look at it from their point of view. Even positive change can trigger uncertainty for people, so it’s important to look at what’s planned from the audience's perspective.

Change in an organization is always the sum of individual changes. Trying to understand individuals, and how the change will impact them is absolutely key— Helen Cunningham, Head of Global Change and Internal Communications at Amadeus.

People will scan through the corporate reasons for the change initiative but human nature being what it is, it will always come back to “What is this going to mean for me?” So, it’s important for communicators to make it as easy as possible, as quickly as possible, to make it clear to people what the change will mean for them.

Process and systems changes are more straightforward from a communications perspective as there’s far less uncertainty. People know, for example, that this new system is going to be implemented on a certain date and there’s a detailed countdown plan to implementation.

Mergers and acquisitions can be one of the most delicate challenges for companies, from the perspective of employee uncertainty and morale, and this is where expert change management communication comes into its own. Here, Helen spoke with the voice of extensive experience, having been involved in several acquisitions in her career.

In M&As it’s very important to outline early, as much as possible, what’s going to change and what’s not going to change. This can be broken down into distinct phases; for example: X will or won’t change immediately, but Y might change in six months or a year’s time. It’s impossible to completely eradicate concern in these situations but it is possible to dial it down by being as transparent as possible.

Helen’s top takeaways to help improve change communications:

  • Get the brief, ask the questions, get clarity about what you want to achieve
  • Don’t be afraid to apply common sense, to ask questions that might seem obvious
  • Keep your focus on the people who are going to be affected

Advancing Your Career in IC

There was an abundance of valuable advice on how to progress your communications career in a fireside chat with Poppulo’s Senior Director of Communications, Andrew Hubbard, Nicole Bearne, founder of Comms Exchange, and former Head of Internal Comms for the Mercedes AMG-Petronas Formula One Team, and Paul Diggins, Head of Internal Communications at Santander.

Both Nicole and Paul gave great tips and advice on the skills and attitudes needed to climb the ladder in internal comms, including:

  • Have a growth mindset
  • It’s about continuous improvement
  • It’s about the incremental gains—how can I do things today 1% better than I did them yesterday?
  • Be a learner—want to learn everything about your organization
  • Don’t be afraid of failing, sticking your neck out, or making mistakes
  • Be resilient—resilience is a core skill of any good communicator
Curiosity is a really key skill to have for a comms person because you are constantly listening to your audience. You’re constantly trying to understand what it is they feel or think.—Nicole Bearne.

And this astute observation of the role of internal communicators from Paul Diggins:

It’s our job to help the leaders of the business or the employees of the business talk to each other. It’s not us doing the talking—we should be invisible.

Referring to her own lack of confidence during her career and what she’s done to overcome it, Nicole said she always looked at what skills she might be lacking for a particular role, and then filled that gap by learning what she needed to learn for when that opportunity might present itself: “As my former boss Ross Brawn use to say, 'Luck is preparation waiting for an opportunity.’”

Women tend not to have as much self-belief as their male colleagues, so it’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and it’s important for women who’ve climbed the ladder to mentor other younger female colleagues—Nicole Bearne.

The Value of Being Strategic Communicator

The compelling case for strategic communications, and specifically how to do it, struck a chord with many attendees. 

Poppulo’s Product Marketing Director, Heather Bicknell, explored this important topic with Pia Stoklund, VP of Global Employee Communications & Engagement at Pandora, the world’s largest jewelry retailer, and Sharn Kleiss, Employee Experience & Insights Strategic Partner at Gallagher.

They discussed the benefits of being a strategic communicator, what it means for internal communicators, and the key skills that set strategic communicators apart.

From Pia’s perspective, strategic internal communications is about being able to see business opportunities and challenges and convert them into meaningful communications—thereby initiating meaningful interactions with different sets of stakeholders.

When we talk about strategic communication, it’s to really be able to show the value that we are bringing. Being able to measure the impact of our efforts, both outputs and outcomes, and use that leverage to get a seat at the table and bring in that employee perspective—Pia Stocklund.

Both Pia and Sharn were in strong agreement that to have the ear of leadership, and therefore influence, you have to be strategic, and you cannot really be strategic if you don’t understand the wider business, where its markets are, what are its challenges and opportunities—and be able to tie communication activities back to that.

Both also agreed on the need for communicators to put greater focus on outcomes over outputs, to prove that essential value to senior leaders.

Colleagues outside of the communications department don’t look for comms solutions. They look for business results—Pia Stocklund.

Being able to show the connection between communications and achieving business objectives obviously requires measurement and analytics, and Sharn pointed out Gallagher's research showed that communicators in strategic roles used measurement to prove business value, more than communicators in advisory and supporting roles.

The research also showed that strategic communicators are more influential in their organizations.

A Deep Dive on AI

Mark Dollins, President of North Star Communications Consulting led a fascinating session on the power of AI for IC teams. During the session, he gave attendees a first look at his second annual benchmark study on AI and employee communications.

He showed how rapidly things are changing from a technology perspective, as well as how perceptions are shifting within the IC community. The session provided a comprehensive overview of how artificial intelligence is reshaping modern workplaces and the imperative for communication professionals to stay ahead of the curve.

 Mark also shared why AI—and the continued adoption of it—will be rooted in change management, stressing the need for IC to embrace change management training.

We're viewing change management as a requirement to support whatever it is that we're doing with AI. Because 73% of us said we believe that AI is going to require significant change management. And there's a similar statistic that came in, for viewing change management as a new competency that we need to acquire. 

He further shared that the combination of generative AI and change management communications presents employee communication professionals with two unprecedented opportunities. One is to drive new levels of measurable business performance, and the second is to elevate their influence, and that of the function, to unparalleled levels of strategic importance.

His session also shed light on how AI can and should be used for strategic purposes—not just content creation. From saving time by streamlining the analytics of existing data through leveraging AI for predictive analytics, Mark’s session proved to be a gold mine of insights into how to think about the value AI for Internal Comms.


Reaching the Disconnected Workforce

Tackling one of the most complex challenges for communicators, Daniel Brown, Editor of Digital Signage Today, along with Marissa Landon, Communications Specialist at Wayne-Sanderson Farms, and Oscar Castillo, Factory Modernization & Digital Transformation Project Manager at Northrop Grumman, shared valuable insights into overcoming the challenge of effectively reaching the disconnected workforce. 

This panel discussion revolved around the complexities of organizational and operational communications for a primarily deskless workforce. While Marissa and Oscar aren’t in the same industry, they both share a similar challenge—one facing many companies in many other industries.

Both of their organizations have a large deskless workforce. But those employees need as much, if not more, information and comms than traditionally wired, or desk-based employees. The speakers emphasized the critical importance of reaching every employee in a meaningful way, and how digital signage plays a crucial role in that effort.

The two companies approach the challenge in different ways though. While Marissa’s screens are primarily located in breakrooms, the digital signage network Oscar implemented spanned the factory floor as well as common areas like breakrooms and hallways. Yet, both mentioned the value of employee feedback in delivering better, more effective comms.

Talking through the evolution of digital signage at Northrop Grumman, Oscar stated: “In the beginning, it was a whole new communication vehicle. So, none of us knew how to navigate it. We did our best to create things that we thought would be useful, but then we had to really open up our ears and listen to feedback from the floor."

"And then we started to get not only tweaks and suggestions as to how to tweak what we built, but even more important, we got new ideas for dashboards or even static graphics that would support the needs of our floor workers. And that's where we think the real riches were,” he said.

Marissa shared that, after a recent merger, she also solicited feedback to see what employees wanted. She said, “We recently went through a merger, so we did a digital signage survey to both companies because one company was centralized and one company was not centralized with their digital signage, as in one company was on the platform and one wasn't. We're taking those results and using them to better communicate with our employees moving forward.”

How to Make Your Return to Office Not Suck

This session with Hannah Ubl, founder of Good Company Consulting was set against the background of the continuing Return to Office debate—and explored ways for organizations to avoid the pitfalls and follow a path for a RTO plan that works for companies and employees alike.

Whether it’s mandatory or voluntary, any return to the office will fail if it sucks. If the in-person office experience isn’t what people need and expect, it’s a sure-fire recipe for low morale and poor employee engagement.

Hannah outlined three priorities for any Return to Work plan:

#1. Clarity

There has to be absolute clarity about why people are being asked to return to the office.

“If every single person cannot answer this question in your work environment, then there's going to be something about the process of returning to office that is not going to work well.”

The why needs to be crystal clear. It needs to have a lot of data to support it, and it needs to be clearly communicated to everyone about why returning to the office is happening. If you’re operating a hybrid work model, you have to be clear about why and what days you’re asking people to work in the office. All these steps are really important.

Next to clarity are guidelines. What are the rules around RTO? Where are they written down? Where can employees find them? How many different communication channels do you have and where can people easily access all that information? Again, if there’s not clarity around the rules, RTO is not going to work.

Plus, when the rules, or guidelines, are clear, who holds people accountable? How are we holding each other accountable to the rules and guidelines?

“Fishbowl surveyed about 8,000 people and they found that almost 50% of employees did not know or even understand if RTO guidelines existed within their own organization.”

Hanna cited USC Information Science Institute as a shining example of clarity and guidelines in relation to their hybrid and remote policy.

# 2. Flexibility

The second priority to make sure your RTO doesn’t suck is flexibility.

“This is truly what everybody wants. When we ask people what’s important to them in a general way at work, they’ll say flexibility....across the board, and across generations."

For a majority of Gen Z, flexibility is the number one employee benefit they’re looking for.

# 3. Intention

This goes back to the "why" are you returning to the office. We’re seeing different tactics about getting people back to the office but Hanah cited Gartner’s Kimberly Schell’s recommendation that “we don’t want people to feel we’re pushing people back to the office, we want them to feel we’re pulling them back.”

So, there’s all these kinds of incentives and reasons to come back into the office, but to do that you have to be intentional. You’ve got to be very intentional about what the in-office experience looks like so that people will enjoy it and want to be there.

One of the most important aspects of coming back to the office is relationships. It’s about getting together for team meetings, for lunches or walking meetings—but this has to be looked at before the RTO in a very intentional way, and built around how people will also get their work done.

Final Thoughts:

Effective communication is the spark that drives businesses forward. And we’re happy to share that Engage 24’ was the spark for more effective comms for countless attendees.

The research, insights, tips, and perspectives shared during Engage ‘24 reinforce the value of bringing together IC experts from across the globe—creating a space to share knowledge and best practices.

During the event, hundreds of attendees asked to speak with a Poppulo representative to learn more about how the Poppulo Harmony platform can help deliver more effective comms. If, after reading this, or watching any of the on-demand sessions, you’d like to reach out to us to learn more, contact us—we're here to help!

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