What becoming an ‘undercover employee’ taught one leader about consistent comms

There is no such thing as overcommunicating.

What being an undercover employee teaches you about internal comms

Nora Burns, founder and chief curiosity officer at The Leadership Experts, knows the life of the worker.  She compiled hundreds of interviews, amassing a large body of research to articulate what it’s like being  “just an” employee working on the front line — that person who thinks of themselves as a marginal part of the workplace.

Burns became an undercover employee, interviewing and joining the workforce of three large companies. While on the job, she experienced the communications and treatment that customer-facing employees receive daily.

She explains that the frontline often has the most vital information and is generally ignored. “I think all too often we ignore incredible brilliance that exists throughout our organization because somebody doesn’t have a title or a fancy suit,” Burns says.

People want to work on their own time and their own terms as more workers are driving for Uber, walking dogs, and delivering groceries.

Burns says that this trend is akin to people saying, “I’m refusing to work for your corporate entity because you’re not recognizing me for my humanness.” She adds that people who say ‘kids today don’t want to work’ are misunderstanding the root cause of the disconnect.

“We would not have people coming to your house dropping off groceries and food if they weren’t willing to work.” Burns says. “They’re  hustling, they’re willing to do the hustle, but not for somebody who treats them poorly.”

What about the work-from-home culture?

Workplaces have always operated with people in different buildings,  and being at home versus being on a corporate campus  is just working in another building.  This means that organizations must continue to have “together” time on the clock — be it meet-ups for drinks, talent shows, or leisure activities.

“We have to purposefully bring employees together,” she said.

Communicators should remember that the employee experience is the consumer experience. The distance from the front-line employee to the customer is short, a path that the internal communications team should walk to learn the integrity of the company culture.

“If I look at a store’s Yelp score and I look at the Yelp comments that customers have left,” there is a direct relationship between those comments and the comments that employees are making in the break room to one another about the leadership,” says Burns. Because employees tell the story, management must listen to and communicate with the workforce.

“My opinions are not being honored — and you’re not talking to me —so I can’t be that important,” she says from the perspective of the undercover employee. “It rolls down to the frontline contact with the consumer.”

Internal comms should be involved in hiring, onboarding, and “loud working”

While the term “quiet quitting” is preeminent,  “loud working” is equally deadly. This is the person who emails at odd hours and never turns it off.  Burns believes this to be a  warning sign.

“I think there is a huge opportunity for the people who are skilled writers to partner with the leadership team — to partner with the HR team — to partner with the operations team to ensure consistent communication and application,” says Burns. “In a remote environment, this is needed more than ever. Consistent communication is needed because people don’t have  casual conversations.”

She adds that we often forget to tell new hires what the rules are, another area where communicators can help. “I’m going to take it back to the very start of a new hire’s job and make sure that from the very beginning we are giving them very clear expectations on how we communicate and where they can get the information,” she says.

Consistent communication and multiple methodologies matter — there is no such thing as communicating too much. Employee-to-employer relationships require cultivation and investment with the internal comms team managing the words, movements, and actions that deem success or failure.

Jennifer Mooney is an award-winning communications expert. Her senior management tenure includes the former Time Warner, ad agency communications teams, and consulting with diverse clients. She holds an undergraduate degree in Journalism (Albion College)  and an MA in Industrial-Organizational Psychology (Union Institute). She is the co-author of Hope Interrupted; America Lost and Found in Letters—a book and podcast. (Orange Frazer Press- 2021)www.hopeinterrupted.com


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