Two dynamics are pressuring executives and communicators alike who wish to engage with their workforces.
Companies are growing ever more global, and employee engagement has become essential for most organizations.
“Leaders can’t be walking the floors or their halls anymore,” says Michael Holste, product marketing manager for Microsoft’s Yammer. “Corporations are large. The employees speak numerous languages. They live in different time zones. They live in different parts of the world.”
The good news is that technology can help connect communicators, employees and leaders, he adds. In fact, tech has become a cornerstone of today’s communications.
Social enterprise and social engagement tools such as Yammer—a part of the Office 365 suite—enable communicators, leaders and everyday employees to reach across distances and time differences to share knowledge.
Here are ways to use technology to bolster engagement within the ranks:
1. Offer employees a feedback channel.
Create a culture where it’s OK to criticize the organization or say, “We’re making a mistake, or we don’t agree with this social or this political issue,” Holste says.
Microsoft even has a group known as Curmudgeonville, where curmudgeons can grumble. Such forums can surface ideas—or make you aware of discontent before it goes public.
If an issue arises or leaks to the public and it becomes a media firestorm, “you’re going to look like you are super out of touch, and you’re going to look like you are unwilling to address difficult issues” if you can’t respond to employees, Holste says.
2. Glean ideas to drive change.
Employees are the experts in what they do every day. Management might have a different view about what someone’s job is or how it should be or what makes money, but you won’t know whether there’s a better way if you don’t ask.
“A lot of our products at Microsoft have come out of almost hackathon style threads where people are ideating in real time where we’re capturing knowledge and harnessing knowledge,” Holste says. “We often say, ‘If only your company knew what all your employees actually know.’”
3. Go beyond platitudes of gratitude.
“If you continue to just harp on a message about how much you value your employees, or about how brilliant they are, or about the great work they do, but you don’t actually recognize or reward that, it’s going to lose its meaning very, very fast,” Holste says.
Expressions of gratitude can become mere platitudes unless you “close the loop,” he says. When you act on an employee’s good idea or follow through on matters raised on your channels, showcase that.
Highlight good work and @-mention those responsible so everyone is aware of your employees’ successes. Showcase the growth stats. Talk about that cool customer case or innovation that came from the factory floor, Holste says.
“Bottle that up, package that up, be your own marketing team a little bit, and make it real for the rest of your company,” he adds.
4. Improve live events.
Many organizations are too big and dispersed for top leaders simply to rely on raised hands at a town hall. At Microsoft, employees can pose questions on Yammer in advance, and the CEO’s team chooses the most relevant for him to address, Holste says.
Your network can help you crowdsource topics before events. It also is useful as a back channel to communicate during events—as when something goes wrong technically and need help.
Yammer supports everything from highly produced events to quick webinars from one’s laptop. There is auto-transcription of events, can translate it into 65 different languages. This helps non-native speakers of English digest the information. They can also offer feedback after the event’s over, as can those who simply don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a public forum.
5. Preserve institutional knowledge.
It’s a problem in many organizations: How do you maintain institutional knowledge, Holste asks, when employees move on?
This could be something as simple as accessing old customer experiences. Holste says Microsoft has often used Yammer to search through old customer engagements and see what happened years ago and how to reengage now.
“Even if none of the people are there anymore, how do we digitize this information and then actually put it to use?” he says.
6. Train your dragons—and your leaders—to engage.
Sometimes leaders worry about wide-open discussions, Holste says. What if employees say the wrong thing? What if they ask tough questions the executives don’t want to answer publicly?
First, encourage leaders to build trust over time by following the “one-two-three rule.” Post once, reply to at least two posts, and “like” three posts. Do that regularly, whether it’s weekly or monthly, and you start to earn your co-workers’ trust.
In time, when big issues arise, you will have shown yourself willing to respond. You’ll have built the trust to say on occasion: “Hey, we’ve got to think about this. … We will get back to you on it. We just need some time to formulate how … the executive team is thinking about it.”
This article is written in partnership with Microsoft.