The pandemic didn’t just disrupt supply chains, staffing models and safety standards. It disrupted internal communications channels, too. Some of those disruptions may lead to permanent change – and new opportunities for companies to engage with their people.
Manufacturers didn’t have the luxury of working from home during the pandemic. Employees continued to come to work, but their isolation increased. The plant manager’s quarterly town meetings were canceled. Executives stopped doing walk-throughs that helped them stay in touch with the factory floor. Many factory workers couldn’t even sit down to chat with coworkers in the break room because of COVID protocols.
As employee engagement understandably declined, there was a spike in demand for information: What are you doing to keep me safe? Is our business going to survive? Will we need to cut jobs? Can our vendors still support us?
Companies with a solid communications strategy already in place ramped up their use of digital tools. Others scrambled to introduce new channels and adjust behaviors. Everyone learned some lessons about improving the employee experience that apply after the pandemic – or during the next crisis. Here are three key takeaways:
Consider the needs of each audience segment
The pandemic exposed the dangers of “one size fits all” communication. Messages to those employees with the flexibility to work from home were different in tone and content from those who needed to be onsite to do their jobs. It’s important to understand what information each group – whether in the office, the field, or the plant floor – wants to consume, and in what way.
If you don’t already have a good idea, it’s time to ask. Conduct surveys or take the time to extract analytics from your intranet and other communication channels. Then demonstrate how you are responding to what your people are telling you.
Communication content can generally be divided into three buckets:
- What matters to everyone (US) such as overall company performance.
- What matters to some (WE) such as new customer relationship software used only by the sales force
- What matters to the individual (ME)
Smart companies offer a mobile app or other technology solution that allows employees to opt into the content they want, combined with messages deemed necessary for all.
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Extend the employee experience
Business conditions sometimes require that even the most engaged employees need to be temporarily furloughed. In today’s job market, there’s a risk that those employees won’t wait for a recall but will quickly find a job in another industry.
What if you could stay closely connected to employees who have been laid off? It may seem idealistic, and you should consult an attorney regarding the unemployment laws in your state, but there is value in maintaining a sense of belonging and camaraderie.
This is another advantage of the “hub-and-spoke” intranet model. The hub is your main source of employee information and connection. Laid-off employees can be assigned to a spoke so that they still feel connected while accessing information that’s directly applicable to them – such as the impact of the furlough on benefits and the tentative plans for a recall. This same hub-and-spoke model can be used to engage with employees in different divisions or locations.
Create a single source of truth
As governments reacted to spikes in COVID cases with new restrictions, companies that normally planned their major touchpoints well in advance found themselves calling Zoom meetings on short notice. That might be OK for the at-home worker, but they’re often wasn’t time to adjust manufacturing schedules and allow greater participation from the factory.
In reality, it’s always been true that try as we might in communications, people engage with content on their schedule, not the companies. Creating your intranet or mobile platform as a single source of truth ensures that everyone has access to new information at the same time, but also allows employees to engage with that information when they are ready to do so.
The manufacturing industry has faced unique internal communication challenges, even before COVID. However, the pandemic shed new light on the importance of curating an employee experience and building positive engagement that can be banked for future crises. Investing in the best tools for your employees can be a competitive advantage at any time, and even more so when normal activities are disrupted.