What Say Ye, Nostradamus, on the Future of Employee Communication?
— September 7th, 2022
A look at future trends, skills, and strategies we need—covered in a compelling new book.
Nostradamus likely had little interest in modern-day employee communications and engagement, but there are some of us who think a soothsayer on critical future trends for employee communicators could be pretty darned helpful, right?
If you’re with me so far, you’ll understand that this need, in part, inspired the book I wrote with Missouri J-School’s Jon Stemmle on Engaging Employees Through Strategic Communication. It features one chapter—arguably my favorite—chocked full of future trends we all should be thinking about.
The Great Employee Disconnect—And Why Enterprise Communications Are Failing
We believe three of the biggest forces that will demand time, energy, focus, and strategic assessment for employee communicators include technology, the rising voice of the employee, and the influence of distance (with more remote workers).
Much has already been researched and written on the remote employee, and we have that covered in the book, but the other two—technology and the voice of the employee activist—are equal game changers.
But I’m not a techie, you say? Sorry, it’s no longer an option to stand on the sidelines. Time to embrace the Cloud, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Blockchain.
It’s no secret that technology is the ultimate modern-day disrupter in about any industry, but for employee communicators, the implications of new technologies—both communication-focused and not—arguably are even more significant.
Cloud computing has been the single biggest enabler for organizations to adopt new communication technologies. With on-demand availability of computer system resources, especially data storage and computing power, and no direct active management required by the user, the Cloud is a catalyst for opening the floodgates of change.
These technologies have direct implications for not only how employee communicators will reach their stakeholders, but how they will reshape the organizations themselves.
Those that, for example, result in fewer total employees, more employees working more remotely, or lead to more contract—or “gig”—employees, will have profound implications on everything from the channels we choose to the content we select and the emphasis we place on issues like culture and values.
New communication technologies that focus on content distribution versus more traditional content creation on the part of employee communicators will drive new definitions for our roles.
With the growing and continued evolution of employee-generated content, communicators’ roles inside organizations may well become closer to orchestrators rather than crafters of content.
From self-made training videos to employee-generated documents on best practices, smartphones have equipped employees with new tools that place unprecedented power to communicate in their hands.
Running parallel to digital transformation efforts across enterprises, the common denominator is that data is increasingly being put in the hands of all employees simultaneously; and it’s being done in ways that are easier and more intuitive for them to use.
While this represents a big culture change for many organizations as they empower employees to make better decisions based on good data, it also demands increasing trust on the part of the enterprise, and deeper analytical skills on the part of employees.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is about technology learning as it operates, getting smarter along the way, and solving problems or needs in the process.
Imagine feeding financial results from a quarterly earnings spreadsheet into an AI-enabled tool, and having it write its own CEO letter to employees or create its own new infographic.
It’s already being used in HR to review resumes, evaluate video interviews, and even score potential inside candidates for a promotion—assessing who is most likely to succeed in a new position.
For the employee communications professional, the opportunities to make better decisions with AI are seemingly limitless. From which headline on an intranet story is more likely to attract readership to which photo is more likely to be liked or shared, AI will have a profound influence on content that includes where to use it, and when to publish it for optimal engagement.
Pulling data from intranet sites, click-throughs on email newsletters, and other technologies, it will inform communicators through predictive analytics.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are rapidly emerging forces in AI. While early applications of this technology have been synonymous with gaming, the technology also lends itself to business environments, enabling collaboration and ideation.
Spatial, for example, lets colleagues create virtual work rooms with 3-D images of themselves to share digital assets from the internet, their PCs, and smart phones, among other sources.
Blockchain is the other significant technology that will continue to influence employee communications. Essentially it’s an open, shared ledger that’s used to record transactions and track assets in a business network.
Assets can be tangible (property like facilities or cars) or intangible (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, and branding). Using blockchain technology, virtually anything can be tracked and traded on a network, reducing risks and cutting costs.
For the employee communicator, blockchain is another disruptor. As more blockchain technologies are deployed, more work will be outsourced, and transaction-based processes will become far more automated. As they do, the number of employees is expected to decrease.
With all this expected change, the definition of what or who an “employee” is will most assuredly change. The implications of having fewer traditionally labeled employees, more gig and contract workers, and more smart contracts, mean everything from values to culture to ethics and compliance will need renewed focus, and more strategic communications solutions for workers of all identities.
Equally important, the implementation of any new technology should come with a thorough change management plan—a critical new competency that employee communicators will either acquire, or be left behind.
Leaders increasingly look to internal communicators to own this discipline, and have the skills to do so.
The employee activist is no small player. Better get listening.
Strategic employee communicators have learned to listen to the voices of employees for decades. But there is a new force coming from employees that goes far beyond continuous feedback loops: employee activism.
A relatively newer phenomenon in the last few years, employee activism is reflected in actions taken by workers to speak out for, or against, their employers on controversial issues that impact society.
Employee activists focus on campaigning to change company policies, with a focus on social activism—actions performed intentionally to generate social change.
Global consultancy Gartner predicted this year that a third of crisis communication budgets would be allocated to address the growing needs of organizations working with employee activists. It also noted that executives cited employee activism among their top 15 concerns in 2020. That really hasn’t changed since then.
For example, Emily Cunningham, a former Amazon employee, asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to come on stage at the company’s annual shareholders meeting.
She and several of her colleagues stood and delivered their concerns about how Amazon was addressing global climate change, and additional concerns about working conditions in the company’s warehouses facilities during the global pandemic.
As employee activism continues to grow, challenges to existing social media policies may be fair game for revision by management and protest by employees.
What’s an employee communicator to do? Glad you asked.
For technology, the answer is homework. Lean into new technologies, engage with IT teams, research what’s in development, where it’s working, and where it’s not. The more we know about new technologies, the more we can influence how they’re assessed, selected, and deployed.
We also need to become change management gurus. Really. Research certification options like Prosci (I was certified a few years ago), and learn the discipline around how to communicate digital transformation, new operating models, culture change, and everything in between.
To address employee activists waiting to take action, we first need to carefully examine the stated values of our employers, and examine how our companies’ policies reflect those values.
When decisions—particularly tough ones—are aligned with stated corporate values, the clarity of what an organization stands for is reinforced. While employees still may not like the decision, their bigger question then becomes whether they support the values the organization upholds.
Just as Communications functions have invested dollars and time in robust external social media monitoring, the onus on employee communications to have similar capabilities on internal social platforms—to listen—will be increasingly critical.
It’s also about engaging those employees quickly and meaningfully. They want to be acknowledged and heard, and they want their concerns addressed with action. When they’re ignored, the issue moves quickly to both larger internal importance and greater awareness with external stakeholders.
Employee communicators also can help their organizations develop skills to have difficult conversations between management and employees. Through training, and through content selection for internal communication channels, communicators can help managers and the broader employee population develop the skills, evolve the cultural mindset, and further develop internal channels that reinforce desired behaviors.
The future is filled with risk and new challenges for employee communicators, but with it comes the opportunity to influence and lead in ways we’ve never been able to before. It’s time to lean into that future.