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Podcast: The digital Employee Experience

Podcast: The digital Employee Experience

Jonathan Davies


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18 mins read

Thu, Mar 18, '21  

Last year all the buzz was about ‘moving to digital’, as employees around the world switched to remote working. But now that companies have adopted ‘the new normal’, what’s the next hot topic?

Join Simon Field to find out. Unless you’ve read the title, in which case you might already have a clue as to what this year’s focus is for Internal Comms. You can listen or watch the podcast, or scroll downwards to read the transcript – whatever makes you happy :)

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Jonathan Davies: Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another episode of the Internal Communications podcast. Today I met a new friend and my new friend is Simon. Him and I got to talking about a concept that really has been interesting to me over the past six months and something that I think we'll be hearing about more and more throughout this year. This is the concept of a digitized employee experience. 

Now, Simon, before we start rambling on and immediately dive deep  into the subject, please take this moment to introduce yourself to our audience. 

Simon Field: Hi Jonathan. Thanks for having me today on the IC podcast. My name is Simon Field and I work as an Internal Communications manager. I've been working in Internal Communications for over 10 years now in a variety of experiences and positions such as telecommunications manager, business partner, working at various Internal Communications channels that we have inside big companies.

In that time I've worked for several big brands with an employee base ranging from 10,000 up to over a 100,000. At this stage I've had quite a wide experience working in different types of organizations. I bring that background with me to the Internal Communications podcast today. Happy to have been invited. 

Jonathan Davies: Fantastic. We're really lucky to have you. I remember when we first started speaking to each other, the first thing that stood out to me is the fact that you actually had a job title that said Internal Communications business partner, which is something that we've been advocating on here – that the field of Internal Comms needs to evolve towards becoming more of an actual business partner instead of the reactive send-out messages when your stakeholders ask you to.

Now, that's a really interesting subject to approach, but the first thing that we really hit the mark on is the idea that the employee experience is becoming increasingly digital, in part due to this small thing called a pandemic that has been raging on for about a year now.

So pick your topic and let's go. 

The crisp, clear employee experience

Simon Field: You're absolutely right. I think this phrase, ‘employee experience’, has been gaining currency in the last couple of years and it had probably pre-COVID pandemic already gained ground as a key selling point in the employer experience, that fixation and dedication to the employee experience is something that marked out the really good companies.

But I think with the advent of COVID-19 and the experience that we've been through as individuals in companies in 2020, 2021, I think about that phrase and everything that it encompasses has taken on a new urgency. I think it's revealed various things to us as individuals and as companies.

I think the fact that we're here talking about it today is sort of a Testament to that. The obvious point to make right at the top of this conversation is that we've all been working remotely much more than we have previously in our professional lives. If we're desk workers, we've been sitting in our second bedrooms, in our offices, on our dining room tables, doing our work, sending our emails, preparing our reports at a distance and having our meetings at a distance, as we are now.

I think if you look at the exponential speed of development in products, like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other video conferencing tools, that's a very solid indication of the fact that we've advanced and we are advancing enormously in some areas of how we work remotely, how we work in our digital spaces. And then you look at Testament of what a hot topic this is now is you look at companies like Microsoft, for example, who were getting heavily invested into this space. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had the announcement of Microsoft Beaver with the expanded potential of a suite of tools that help teams to come together, communicate with each other, share knowledge with each other, share learning opportunities with each other that are relevant to those employees. But also significantly help managers obtain insights to how that team is working, how long it's working, how much individuals are spending at their workstations. This idea of the digital workplace and digital work experience, the remote working experiences become super, super hot.

I think in this year there are going to be lots of companies and lots of service providers and vendor companies who are going to be taking a long, hard look at employee experience. As we go forward now into the next stages of getting back into our organizations, re-boarding employees into their organizations, after the purely remote experiences have come to a close, companies will negotiate how flexible they're going to be in the future.

I think this period in history has probably finally drawn a line under something that we've known about, but just lived with for a long time.

And that I think is the need to tidy up the employee user experience. If you think about the UX that customers have had for 15, 20 years now – companies, brands have been very aware that if they don’t give their customers that clean, crisp well signposted user experience with clear calls to action, they're going to lose sales.

It doesn't seem like a huge mental journey to think that if employees are not being given that crisp, clear digital workplace user experience, the company is going to lose productivity, because employees are going to spend half their day trying to find their way around, trying to find that document, trying to find that person, trying to take that action in doing the work that they do.

I strongly predict that in the next few years, we're going to see a continuing advancement and speeding up of the user experience inside the company, the digital workplace. We're going to see that tech stack, which we know is so complicated inside the average large matrix organization, slowly, slowly, slowly, become less visible to the employee and the user experience becoming crisper, cleaner and more manageable for people that are working flexibly, working remotely and generally managing their own work a lot more. 

Jonathan Davies: I think you've touched on a couple of really interesting points. First off, one of the things that IT has been saying for more than a decade now is that IT should be the thing that just works. 

We've spoken with a client of ours and he says it should be like corporate magic. It just needs to be there. People don't need to feel it, it shouldn't be a barrier. For a very long time, for example internets or social internets have been a core part of that digital workplace thing, but the industry average adoption rates sit around 31%, which is incredibly low when it comes to the time that people spend to search for information that they need to do their job. McKinsey research says the average employee spends about 7.6 hours per work week to find information that they need to do their job through those systems.

When you think about it, that's really ridiculous. I've been seeing the same thing, that impression of not just using user experience design in the form of making a more clickable, easy to use product, but also a product that actually is intuitive to the life of an employee, something that  isn't alien, it's not adding things that are fluffy. It's adding things that have meaning. Am I right in saying that that's also what you're alluding to, Simon? 

Simon Field: I think so. I think probably what we're seeing is an evolution in the way that we look at employee experience. To your point earlier, the work of Internal Communications professionals or business partners, we're probably looking at a continuing evolution in the work that we do.

A few decades back, the nice and professional Internal Communications was probably based around journalism. You were looking at craft experts, writers, content, producers with a firm emphasis on top-down broadcast communication. Move on a couple of decades and you start to see this strategic partnership role appearing inside a large matrix of organizations, which is not just about broadcast communications, but about managing cascade communications at different levels in the organization.

Still with an emphasis on leadership communications, still with an emphasis on content creation, but with an increasing emphasis on engagement and two-way communication between individual employees, the organization and the leadership. I think we're going to start to see the next potential increase in a new role for Internal Communications professionals as organizational connectors. 

Still a strategic business partnership occupation, but very much now about helping to curate the employee experience, provide a self-service digital workplace and enable knowledge workers to manage their own networks, manage collaboration within their teams, access the information and the people that they need to access within the organization.

In a way, we all know that video conferencing wasn't a new thing, but we've seen it develop exponentially in the last year to 18 months. I think in a way probably what we might see now is the fulfillment of that promise of the buzzword ‘knowledge management’, which dates back to the 1990s in the initial recognition that information management to computing didn't hold all the answers.

Although we recognize that as a concern and we through learning opportunities and we through communities of practice at it, in that first decade, we didn't really have all the answers to how we could enable knowledge sharing the task is information in people's minds, the work that the people do on a daily basis and need to do fluidly.

We didn't have all of the answers to that at the time that we recognized the problem. I think now there's going to be a fresh look at how we marshal documents, how we marshal tacit knowledge of people's minds, how people find each other and draw together in teams to come together quickly and work on projects.

It will be interesting to see how that comes together and whether this trend will enable an increase in productivity and an empowerment of those knowledge workers. The other thing that you know is underlying this whole conversation is the issue of attention. Giving employees back their attention, helping to reduce the noise in the organization.

Probably, the communications department as it's going and the communications professionals, as they have gone through this evolution in their role, have continued to engage in behaviors, which are well-known to them and that they are accustomed to this content creation task and that with the increasing number of channels available inside of the organization. The noise that can be created both by communications teams and employees who are now empowered with social channels within the organization. The noise that is created there can be a real cacophony. That can be very distracting from the work that we employ people to do.

Ultimately, when somebody joins an organization they're given a list of tasks to do. And to a certain extent, we have to clear the way for them to get on and perform those tasks. There will still be a role for Internal Communications to manage campaigns that help to promote strategy, that help to give visibility to leaders, that help to promote brand. Under this banner headline of employee experience now as Internal Communicators we need to do a lot more in the way of curation, organizational connection and focus on the daily digital work employee experience of the employees that are working for the company. 

Jonathan Davies: But that's one of the things, isn't it? Because organizations have been becoming increasingly complex with new disciplines and new structures. It's not just the standards: you've got your CEO, you've got the director, you've got a manager and you've got the employee. 

Everything's all over the place. We're seeing structures that have no management, like Holacracies, we're seeing structures that have flat management. Theoretically there's a manager, but this person acts more like a coach. All those things are healthy evolutions, but adding to that complexity now comes this big breadth of digital channels that we absolutely need to own.

I think what I'm gathering from what you're saying, and certainly how passionately you're speaking of the employee experience, I think the first thing that we need to start with, if we want to get grips of this, is empathy. Because if we understand our people and we understand the journey that they go through, we'll automatically hopefully send less noisy messages and we'll use the channels that they actually care about and all those things. 

I'm very curious to hear your thoughts on this. To me, that would also mean that ownership of those digital channels really needs to no longer lie with IT, for example, but it should belong much more to Internal Communications or HR, or HR Communications, or whatever the structure of the company is to the listener in that scenario right now.

How do you feel about that? 

Simon Field: I think there's two points there. I think you're absolutely right. I think it's interesting to observe the shift in priorities. In Internal Communications employee engagement at the moment, I recently looked at a professional study conducted by a local agency who were speaking to communications and HR professionals on what they saw as their priorities and engagement in 2021 vs. 2020, and whereas in 2020 with our annual study, the results had been fairly normal.

Providing employees with a greater understanding of strategy, upskilling leader communications are perennial issues for Internal Communications managers and embedding a corporate purpose in the culture are the top three engagement priorities. In that same constituency, just one year later, after the COVID 2020 pandemic experience, mental health, wellbeing values and remote and flexible working were in this order. The inherent understanding there, in the fact that we need to be sensitive to how employees are working, where they're working and be empathetic to that experience was contained in those results. That is very interesting. I think you're right when it comes to the organizational structure and how we manage ourselves in order to be sensitive to that employee experience, to provide that crisp and clean digital workplace. There does need to be a merging of the hard tech and the soft skills.

There does need to be greater cooperation between the IT part of the organization and the Communications part of the organization, because these things are not separate anymore. They are by no means separate. As you say, a vast number of channels exist and most of those channels have some communications element to them or knowledge sharing element to them.

I don't think we can make technology decisions in isolation from communications needs, and we can't make communications decisions in isolation from technology that's available to us anymore. I don't know how quickly this might happen, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if now that employee experience is a hot topic.

Now that there are so many companies invested in it and many are waking up to the importance of it. I wouldn't be at all surprised as time goes by and we see that exponential development continues that there is a coming together of ICT departments and communications professionals to provide that balance of technology stack and communications curation, so that we can more easily help that crisp, clear employee experience come through and sympathetically provide that weight into the digital working world for our company and employees. 

Digital Employee Experience – where IT meets IC

Jonathan Davies: I've been noticing over the past two years that the IT departments that I've been speaking before, the heads of those departments have increasingly been impressing me with the idea of ‘Yes, but what does it mean to our employees?’ That there really has been a shift in thinking on their side. Now, in terms of the cooperation between IT and Internal Comms, I know that it's probably not as black and white as that to everybody that's listening right now, but let's say it's just the merger of IT and comms, when it comes to providing that digitized employee experience, how do you see them cooperating together? Because the systems that Internal Communications would communicate across these days have not just become more user-friendly but also more admin-friendly. There's less emphasis needed on ‘Hey IT guys, can you please code to this page for me?’ That's becoming a thing of the past in general. Where are the points that they really need to get together, sit down and say, ‘Okay, if we're going to make this work for our people remotely, here's where we start.’ 

Simon Field: Yep. Well, it's a very good question. I would say, if we're talking about employee experience, the only place to start is with employees. We have to have a very clear idea of what the priorities, as far as our employee base are concerned, are in relation to how they get their work done. We talk in Internal Communications a lot about, no field do.

In an ascending order of difficulty, if you want to try to influence those areas within the organization, certainly if you want people to do a particular thing, you have to make it easy for them to do it, and you have to give them the space and time to do it. Probably channel surveys and employee surveys are going to be becoming something that is increasingly prevalent. If we can't point to evidence that this is what our employees need from us in order to get their work done, then we're probably not doing the best job as a technology team or our communications team.

I think that is probably going to require a greater degree of personalization in the digital workplace as well. Up until recent times, intranets were static repositories for information, weren't they? Then we went into the social internet era where that engagement was possible within what was essentially still an information channel. Working into the new era of employee experience and the digital workplace that goes with that, I think that platform is going to have to be more manipulable, more personalizable by the employee, so there's a choice of information, a choice of display, a choice of apps which help individual employees place the emphasis on what they need to know and what they need to do in their own personalized employee or user experience. Inside companies, the general trend has always been to follow what's going on outside in our personal lives and the rest of the world.

I see no reason why that won't continue to be the case. Enterprise social media followed the rise of Facebook and Twitter in the exterior world, and I think personalization app-led, action-led internet experience has developed outside the organization, but is probably going to come into the organization in a much larger way so we can be empowered to edit our UX to define our employee experience and to get the things done that are in our job specification more easily rather than wading through a lot of things that people think we need and are pushed towards us in the future, coming our way.

How much can you personalize digital Employee Experience?

Jonathan Davies: But I think therein lies a very big challenge because Internal Communications will need to figure out likely together with IT, how we can make the case for personalization to begin with. Because, the first question that a lot of people will think is where do we draw the line? How much can we really personalize?

The second, it's quite difficult for larger organizations to actually cater towards those needs from a security perspective, from a procurement perspective, from a global vs. local approach perspective. How do you think Internal Communications can help the organization see the importance of personalization, but also not make it unrealistic in the sense that you, Simon, are going to have a completely different digital experience from me, Jonathan?

Simon Field: Well, we are employees in companies that have a specific purpose, a specific mission. We have a specific suite of products that we need to produce. Our mission will always unite us and it will provide us with the responsibility and the rights to broadcast to the organization and focus the organization in the trajectory that we want to go in. The strategic map is never going to disappear, but coming out of an area in which we've failed to remove the extraneous noise from the system, because we've just been overloading a variety of internal channels. In the future, we need to be able to create a distinction and a demarcation between the amount of time and attention space that we demand from employees to get that job of direction and journey and strategic focus done, whilst leaving a large amount of attention and mind space available for them to manage how they mark out their own day, their own meetings, their own digital workplace, their teams, and perform the task that they've been recruited to perform. That rebalancing act has to take place.

When it comes to managing your own work, your own day, your own week, that's the area where I think personalization can have an important part to play in that 60, 70, 80% of your screen.

Jonathan Davies: I think that's really interesting because if you really are a purpose-led organization or an organization that really lives its mission and vision, and embodies that. Then it makes sense that that would be to rally and call for personalization, because if it fits with the purpose or the mission of the company, then by default, it should fit within the requirements of employees, right. 

Simon Field: Exactly. I think in this day and age, you can't prescribe certainly complex knowledge work. You can't prescribe how things are going to be done. You have to give people a destination point and certain tools and ask them to get there. And to a certain extent, if we can provide that employee experience, if we can provide that digital workplace and provide that direction, then the work of Internal Communications and IT, in addition to curating that space, is going to be about promoting the right kind of behaviors and soft skills, and leadership skills within that environment, in order to take full advantage of the greater freedom that that experience suggests and promises. 

Jonathan Davies: You know what? I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on this because when you first approached the subject of knowledge management, and when we started to explore this, we were talking about how that's actually becoming a thing right now.

It's not just a buzzword anymore. I think if we are able to take this approach to digitize employee experience, as you've been outlining it, what that will enable us to do is use. I say use, but I mean empower our ambassadors within companies to actually do more of the communications for us instead of us just doing it.

That goes hand-in-hand with the idea of curating content. That goes hand-in-hand with the increased emphasis on self-management. Let the people have the word. It's not you telling them what to do or what to send. It also goes hand-in-hand with the idea that people now own Internal Communications, not the Internal Communications department.

Is that the direction that we're all moving in? 

Simon Field: I think so. We just said a moment ago that the internal often follows external and so trends and developments in technology, and the ability to communicate that happens in the external world will find their way inside the company.

That's going to continue to happen. The challenge and the imperative for Internal Communicators as curators is going to be to embrace that trend to understand that the onus is on individual employees and team leaders to manage themselves, manage their communications in the way that they would externally, but to do it in such a way that it's not distracting. There is a strategic imperative in all of this. We need to provide a clean, crisp digital workplace in which for this to take place, we need to be discerning in our choice of channels and limit the total number of channels that we have.

We need to be very clear in our signposting of where there are opportunities to engage others, collaborate, learn and find out what else is going on inside the organization. It is going to be increasing the responsibility for employees to do their own communicating, but we have a responsibility to help them to do it and to reduce the overall noise inside the organization so that they can be heard.

What about communication channels?

Jonathan Davies: We're approaching the end of this podcast, but I want one more recommendation from you because you're completely on the money, as I would say, in terms of also how I see this. This is a really interesting conversation to have. You're saying we essentially need to help people take ownership of the communications of the channels, in essence, own their own employee experience.

What's the first thing that we do to do that? Because for example, one of the things that I was hammering out up until recently was saying, ‘Create a communications policy that helps people streamline the messages that they're sending across all of the channels that they have’, not to say, ‘You can't do this there’ or anything along those lines, but more of, if you want to contact somebody quickly because you have a quick question, use your instant messaging program. If you want to send a piece of communications to your entire departments, use channel X. Is that the type of thing that we should do going forward? Or do you have a different recommendation as to how we can practically empower our employees to really own those channels that have become increasingly complex themselves?

Simon Field: I'm not a technologist, so I can't give you any specific examples of how this can be achieved, but I can give you a metaphor. In digital and print media we understand that the white space is as important as text. When you place a white space around a sentence, a piece of communication, it helps you to focus on the thing that the author is trying to help you to focus on. 

Up until recently, we haven't been providing that white space to employees inside companies. We've just been layering text over text, over text, over text, over text, whether it's by a reduction in the total number of channels, signposting the channels that we think as a company are the best for us, enabling people to curate their own digital workplace, so they can move into those apps, which are going to be particularly useful for them, encouraging teams to pull in particular areas and describe and encourage ways of working as teams that we think will be productive.

By doing those kinds of things and with the support of the various IT platforms, apps and products, I think we can make judicial decisions, which will introduce that white space back into the organization, so that people can get their attention back, do what we want them to do, do what we recruited them to do, while still retaining the engagement that we want them with our strategy and with other employees within the company. 

Jonathan Davies: Simon, I think you've just coined the term ‘white space communications’. I'm going to be using this for a very long time now. Thank you very much for that! That is absolutely brilliant. 

We've unfortunately reached the end of our time during this podcast, but I absolutely loved this conversation and you make so many really good points that I really hope that Internal Communicators who are listening to this right now are going to sit down and figure out how can we can start creating catering, personalizing this digital employee experience that we have now, and how can we make that in line with what we've been doing before? Simon, thank you very much for being here. 

Simon Field: Thank you very much for having me, Jonathan. 

Jonathan Davies: Alright, that's it! Goodbye everyone.