Cynthia IsaacCynthia Isaac

The pace of business today is faster than ever before. Connecting employees from different geographies and cultures, providing 24/7 anywhere/anytime access to information, and automating tasks formerly performed by people has become the “new normal.” Adding to the complexity is four generations of employees—Boomers, GenX, Millennials, and GenZ—converging in the workforce, each bringing with it diverse workstyles and differing expectations of employers. Across every industry, no issue is more integral to success than maintaining the highest levels of employee engagement and the retention of top talent.

Savvy leaders in human resources and internal communications functions have always understood that internal communications and employee engagement are critical business imperatives. A recent Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Study indicates that internal communications is a leading indicator of financial performance, revealing that firms ranked as highly effective communicators earned 47 percent higher returns across five years compared to firms that were ranked the least effective communicators.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '17 Healthcare & Medical PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '17 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

Despite their importance, engagement and retention remain top challenges for business leaders in healthcare. The 2017 ProClinical Employee Engagement Life Sciences Benchmark Report reveals a drop from 67 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2017, while commitment to remain with their employer for the long term has dropped from 60 percent in 2016 to just 47 percent in 2017. Similarly, our team works with several large pharmaceutical companies employing sizeable outsourced field forces to combat high turnover rates and low engagement.

Why is employee engagement such a challenge? We believe three core trends are having a global impact:

First, trust in large businesses is declining, with only 18 percent of Americans reporting “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in big business, with similar declines worldwide. When asked about healthcare, only nine percent of Americans surveyed believed that companies put patients over profits. Is it any surprise that employees in an industry eyed with suspicion and who don’t believe that their values are aligned with those of their employer aren’t willing to go the extra mile to create value for their company?

Second, many companies are moving toward an “outsourced” and highly distributed business model: lean and flexible core teams supplemented with specific expertise from consultants and freelancers as needed, allowing companies to rapidly adapt to changing customer needs. It appears that the workers who desire the more “traditional” path are becoming fewer in number as perks like greater flexibility in schedule and more control over their work environment increase in importance. While today 34 percent of the total US workforce is made up of freelancers, 41 percent of full-time employees indicate they expect to become independent workers in the next year, and 53 percent—more than half—anticipate becoming independent workers within the next five years. This is truly a new workforce, and one that brings different expectations about their relationship with their employers to the job, along with a strong desire for relationships and collaboration. As a result, companies must find new ways to build strong connections to the company, its culture, leadership and mission if they are to capture the innovations these consultants can bring to the enterprise.

Third, the demographics of the workforce are undergoing a seismic change. As 3.6 million Baby Boomers retire, one-fourth of Millennial workers will take on management roles as an increasing percentage of Generation Z enters the workforce. With this shift in demographics (which amplifies the cultural differences brought forward by globalization), comes expectations about employee experience in the workplace. Despite the trend toward a distributed workforce, a 2017 Future Workplace survey showed that Millennials and Generation Z desire collaboration and in-person communication, with 56 percent answering “the people I work with” when asked to name the top attribute that enables them to do their best work. Viewed through the lens of this relationship-centered environment, reports that Millennial managers feel ill-prepared to lead are alarming—29 percent report their education has not prepared them to resolve conflicts, 28 percent report lacking negotiating skills and 27 percent say they do not know how to manage people.

The challenges are clear, so what should HR leaders and internal communications leaders think about in in the context of these trends?

Defining a shared purpose. The purpose of a company defines why a company exists, and how it addresses larger forces at work in society and the broader economy. Most employees want to feel that they are working for a greater good, and with many agreeing that a shared purpose is more important than a paycheck.  Instilling a sense of shared purpose through the company’s narrative, communications and actions can attract and energize not only the right employees, but also a company’s customers, partners and vendors.

Building trust. The rumor mill is damaging in any company, but particularly in one with a highly-distributed workforce. Building trust requires a two-pronged approach that provides continuous and consistent communication. Leadership communications must continually reinforce how the current business strategy supports the company’s shared purpose and values, and must be as transparent as possible regarding the company’s business, success and future plans, even when the news is not good. At the same time, managers must communicate consistently with their teams so all employees understand the role they play in achieving the company’s goals. Equally important is offering regular opportunities to provide feedback, so emerging issues can be identified, and meaningful solutions that will strengthen trust are offered.

Shaping culture. Companies can define their culture on paper, but engaging employees to take ownership of the company’s culture requires modeling real-life examples of culture in action. To accomplish this goal, HR and internal communications executives must consider aligning both learning and development and rewards and recognition programs to reinforce core behaviors. A recent Harvard Business Publishing State of Leadership Development Survey of learning and development professionals and business managers from large enterprises showed that only 19 percent of business managers strongly agree that their leadership development programs have a strong correlation to the business issues their company culture is designed to address. Taking a fresh look at these programs and ensuring they are in line with the company’s current direction and focus should not be a rare endeavor, but an ongoing evaluation. In addition, programs that reward positive behavior — and ideally allow for both peer-to-peer and manager-to-employee recognition — bring culture to life in a way that creates stronger bonds between teams.

Managing the transformation of the global workforce is certainly fraught with challenges. Human resources and internal communications leaders are in a position to provide the competitive advantage to their companies in the race to recruit, retain and engage talent by empowering a workforce aligned in objectives, values and purpose.

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Cynthia Isaac, Ph.D, leads the Corporate Communications practice for the public relations group of INC Research/inVentiv Health.