“If brands champion their people as their most valuable asset, why do they invest so little in understanding them?”

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Gemma McGrattan of Synergy Creative

Gemma McGrattan of brand engagement agency Synergy Creative explains to The Drum Network why it’s time for large employers to treat employee comms with the same level of care and attention spent on marketing to customers…

Synergy refers to itself as a ‘brand engagement agency’ – what does that mean exactly?

We celebrated Synergy’s 10th anniversary last year, but we found our niche as an agency relatively early on. After a couple of years, we started focusing our expertise and our offering around internal communications and employee engagement. We began working on a lot of employee comms projects: rewards and recognition schemes , induction programmes, that sort of thing, usually based around HR-related comms. Over the years, that has developed into a real specialism for Synergy.

Our clients for this sort of service are typically organisations with 5000+ staff, operating a distributed network of outlets, such as Labrokes, Argos, ODEON Cinemas Group across Europe and various utlility companies, which tend to have lots of small teams and individuals working out in the field for the majority of the time.

What problems are large employers typically trying to address when they engage Synergy?

For that scale of organisation, it can become difficult to keep a large, fragmented, remote workforce fully engaged and up-to-date with the latest information from the company. We specialise in supporting those comms needs, supporting employees on their journey ‘from hire to retire’!

Ultimately, it’s about valuing your employees, encouraging them, motivating them, inspiring them. From a hard-nosed business point of view, there’s clear evidence that employee engagement can have a positive effective on productivity and profitability - Dale Carnegie research found companies with engaged employees outperform those without by 202%. In 2017, more and more organisations are beginning to regard employee engagement as an ongoing strategic initiative, rather than a short-term tactical project.

How has the market changed in the time that Synergy has been focused on internal comms?

These days, it’s common to see job titles such as ‘Head of Internal Communications, ‘Engagement Manager’ or ‘Employer Brand Manager’. In the majority of instances, those jobs didn’t exist a few years ago. That’s significant as it indicates that employee engagement is being taken very seriously at board level now, which is a big change.

Also, various technology platforms have emerged, such as Yammer, Slack and Facebook Workplace, that make it easier than ever before to create an employee network without having to build your own secure platform from scratch. Big brands are now happy to make use of these secure third party platforms in a way they would have been unsure about a few years ago.

The biggest change is the increased recognition that the brand has value, not only to customers, but also to employees. Employers should treat employees as well as they would customers by giving them the opportunity to be listened to, collaborate and shape things within the business. We’re all more sophisticated now. Today, we expect a heightened level of interaction with a brand as consumers, so why wouldn’t we want that sort of two-way dialogue as employees? All the big brands are talking about ‘employee advocacy’, recognising the importance for would-be candidates to hear perspectives from existing employees via their own social networks. The idea here is that a peer recommendation is more powerful than messaging coming directly from the brand.

Who is doing this well at the moment?

A lot of this depends on the brand itself and how brave and forward thinking it is.

Odeon Cinemas Group in Europe has thrown itself whole-heartedly into improving guest experience and employee experience. As a result, they’ve grown hugely in the last two years and had a very successful sale to an American company. That’s a strong case study of the links between employee engagement and hard commercial success.

Virgin Rail has also been very innovative in this area. They recently moved their employee comms to Yammer and are beginning to analyse employee demographics in the same way as customer demographics to inform and shape employee needs.

There are good examples across the board, but the key is that you need to be brave enough to truly embrace it and facilitate the dialogue rather than every item of employee comms having to go through a 50-step approval process, which isn’t going to work.

What tips can you offer large organisations currently reviewing their employee engagement strategy?

Firstly, really understand your people. We think nothing of investing huge sums investigating our customers’ preferences but invest practically nothing in understanding our employees as a collection of internal audiences. You need evidence to get under the skin of that and treat your employer brand with the same kind of care as your consumer-facing brand.

Secondly, whenever you launch an initiative that requires the commitment of your employees to successfully deliver it, you have to be crystal clear about why the initiative is happening in the first place. Make the link meaningful to your people and help them to understand what the business stands for and where you are heading as a business. When employees fundamentally ‘get it’, they are on board all the way.

Thirdly, involve your people, don’t try to simply ‘run’ it. Become a facilitator and curator of the internal conversation rather than a leader or controller of it. It takes time for people to become comfortable on the chosen platform, but the more a workforce knows about each other, with plenty of opportunity to contribute, get involved and make a real difference, the better the chance of a high-performance culture.

And finally, continually reinforce your commitment to the value of internal comms and the employer brand. It can’t be a one hit wonder. The real effort, and success, is in maintaining the momentum.

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