How to reach the hard to reach through hybrid work

The new office inequity exposes a big challenge for employee comms pros.

Hybrid work poses new challenges for communicators

In a recent communications assessment we conducted for a local government entity, the gap between how employees viewed internal communications was as wide as we’ve ever seen it in more than two decades of audience measurement.

The disparity wasn’t between leaders and rank-and-file employees, though we see that a lot. This was something new: Hybrid and remote employees rated internal comms much higher than those working on site – by an almost 2 to 1 margin.

As we like to say in professional circles: That ain’t good.

There is a new inequity in the workplace. Call it the stay-at-homes vs. the come-to-works. And what’s emerging is the notion that people who work from home somehow have it easier and are getting a better deal than those who have to show up every day. Some organizations are considering additional benefits for those who have to be on site, such as an expanded PTO or even a pay differential.

Is everyone just happier working from home? It’s a lot more complicated than that, though a recent study of knowledge workers found that people with greater autonomy to choose where they work are generally happier and more productive. But it’s not just working at home; it’s having a choice. That same study also found that 57 percent of those people prefer hybrid work, compared to 28 percent who choose to work remotely all the time and 15 percent who want to be in the office.

When it comes to communication, remote and hybrid workers aren’t the problem. We have become so proficient at delivering digital communications ― intranets and emails and newsletters and online videos ― that anyone with a laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection can work anywhere – and stay connected.

Yet there are some jobs where being on site literally is the job. You can’t nurse patients, work on an assembly line or climb a utility pole from your dining room table. In an increasingly hybrid work world, we are leaving behind a significant group of employees who are working right next to us, or nearby. (Unless you’re working from home!)

As our recent assessment showed, many of these folks aren’t very happy with their communication. Here’s what you can do about it:

1. Start with finding a better way to listen. How “deskless” workers rate the intranet and the digital newsletter in your survey won’t tell you much, because they don’t use it or rarely see it. We’ve got to get closer to them. In the last couple of years, we’ve added “personas” to our communications assessments. Here’s how they work:

  • We start by identifying two or three people with a common work experience, such as nurses or production workers, who aren’t sitting in front of computers or have limited access to them. There may be three or four of these groups in you organization.
  • Next, we shadow them on the job, virtually or in person, and learn about their typical workday. When is the best time to communicate with them? What topics interest them most? What devices do they use and prefer?
  • Then, we use these common characteristics and behaviors to create personas, a representation of the typical employee that represent each group.
  • Finally, we take what we learn and incorporate that into the overall communications strategy. Do we need a different way to communicate with the hard-to-reach with new tools, different content or both?

2. Embrace the power of the smartphone. This is the one digital tool that almost every employee has, and they’re looking at it all the time. Sending communication through employees’ own phones has met with significant resistance in the workplace, from employers, who worry about workers wasting time; from IT managers, who worry about security; and sometimes from employees themselves, who worry about their phone bills.

These are real issues, and organizations will resolve them, just as they did for email in the early ‘90s and for social media today. Then, it’s up to communicators to deliver what hard-to-reach employees need, when they need it and in a format designed for mobile.

3. Turn managers into great communicators. Most employees will tell you they rely on their managers to get news and information about the organization. For on-site employees, that may actually involve face-to-face communication, also known as talking. What a concept!

But here’s the catch: Managers are already overburdened. They meet with their employees to talk about operational issues, and there’s little time left over for broader communication. They’re now dealing with remote and on-site workers at the same time. Communicators can help people managers with training, coaching and content.

4. Bring back print. I’m a bit of a broken record on this, but print still has a place in employee communications. It’s not the primary news vehicle, it’s not timely and it costs money. But a print publication, combined with a smart phone strategy and improved manager communications, will help to fill in the gaps.

Many organizations still use print to stay in touch with their retirees, so why not use it for employees who miss much of your digital output? Mail it to their homes, so their spouses can read it, too. If the content is good and relevant, they’ll feel more engaged and connected.

Jim Ylisela is co-founder and senior partner of Ragan Consulting Group. And yes, he still loves print. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your communications effort with training, consulting and strategic counsel. Follow RCG on LinkedIn and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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