Regardless of a company’s size, communication and engagement programmes must exist to ensure a smooth-running successful business. Sabrina Zolkifi speaks with senior HR leaders to find out their secrets to building a strong culture of engagement.
Famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Indeed, in a corporate environment, even the most well thought-out business plans and goals can be rendered useless if they are not effectively communicated to the rest of the organisation.
“You can’t run away from not communicating. Every HR leader knows this,” says K. Thiveanathan, CHRO at semiconductor provider UTAC.
“HR needs to create the right environment for leaders to communicate; HR are the employees’ advocates and need to make sure they create the avenues for engagement.”
And, in being an employee advocate, HR’s role is extremely critical when it comes to ensuring open communication is the norm. The need to create a clear line of sight between the company’s vision and strategy and what employees are doing every day is imperative – but there’s no doubt it’s a difficult task, which is specifically amplified when you’re dealing with thousands of employees.
At UTAC, Thiveanathan says there is roughly 11,000 employees spread across five countries.
“Because we have so many sides to the business, each has different levels of maturity when it comes to engagement and communication,” he says.
“We can’t have one programme and expect the same results from all the different sides.”
Therefore, the manner in which feedback is collected from the workforce becomes critical.
Thiveanathan, who joined UTAC just under a year ago, took on the responsibility to develop and introduce new communication initiatives to drive up engagement within the company.
One method is through town hall meetings, which he says are encouraged to be held quarterly. Each side of the business has its own general manager, who also takes the time to have lunches and skip-level meetings with staff to gain a better understanding of their needs.
“When I was in China last month, I spent about an hour with 12 engineers from across the company getting feedback from them over coffee,” he says.
Engaging from a grassroots level
Feedback from the ground-up is something Ng Yuan Ying, human resources director at the Singapore Economic Development Board, also believes in.
“Getting feedback in general is definitely a useful move in order for the organisation’s leaders to get a better sense of the ground, or to understand the sentiments of its employees on a specific organisational initiative or policies,” she says.
“This better informs the leaders on how to best steer the organisation.”
She echoes Thiveanathan’s sentiment, adding it is “important to build skill and finesse in getting the right feedback in the right manner”.
Failing to do so may cost the company time and effort. Ng says:
The organisation may end up getting feedback for the wrong problem statement or feedback for the right problem statement, but in the wrong context – both of which would be very non-constructive.
At FedEx Express, one of the key ways the company gleans feedback from its workforce is through skip-level meetings.
“Such channels are particularly useful in communicating change,” says Amy Leung, managing director of human resources services at FedEx Express South Pacific.
“As with any change, it takes time for employees to fully understand the changes and benefits. During skip-level meetings, employees can raise concerns they have with their managers or directors.”
It will then be a perfect opportunity for management to clarify the rationale behind changes or provide feedback for further review. Leung adds an open door policy also encourages team members to communicate upwards, strengthening the relationship between employees and various levels of management.
“This two-way dialogue benefits everyone – employees are more engaged, the customer enjoys better service from employees, and engaged employees bring FedEx more profits from satisfied customers,” she says.
In an ever-changing business environment, employee feedback provides timely intelligence on what is happening on the ground.
However, because of the nature of skip-level meetings, Thiveanathan cautions leaders to manage them carefully.
“When we receive feedback from employees during skip-level meetings, we need to manage it properly so it is seen by both the employee and manager as a positive development,” he says.
Engagement at all levels
To complement the company’s new communication strategies, UTAC has a programme called CIP, or continuous improvement programme, where employees are able to raise ideas from the shop floor straight to the management team.
“When the GMs and senior leaders visit the site, employees can present their ideas. For example, we are currently in the process of acquiring three more sides to the business from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia,” Thiveanathan says.
“We formed teams in each country and asked them to inform us which aspects we need to focus on in terms of the acquisition. They’re doing so with little supervision; that’s how we engage the teams and make them feel as part of the change process.”
Another way UTAC and FedEx get feedback and a baseline of engagement levels is through employee surveys.
But surveys have their limitations if the company lacks an underlying culture of open communication, Leung says.
At FedEx, we follow a survey-feedback-action programme to ensure that suggestions don’t disappear into a box never to be heard of again.
The same can be said for the communication structure at UTAC.
“We appreciate it when feedback is received and while we may not necessarily respond with a solution, people need to know they’ve been heard and their bosses are doing something about it,” Thiveanathan says.
For example, leaders can let employees know what action they will be taking based on the feedback received, or explain when certain changes can’t be made.
Employees are very smart – they want the company to be successful, and they want a happy working environment. They will understand [the company’s reasoning] provided we are sincere in responding to them, he says.
But for Thiveanathan, annual engagement surveys are too frequent.
“We can’t afford to do it every year. By the time you get the focus group together and the action plans done … before you’re able to see the results, it’s time for the next survey.
“The important thing is continuous communication about what we’re doing.”
Ng says one piece of advice when it comes to employee communication, which has stuck with her, came from the CEO of a European-based biotechnology MNC, who said when an organisation’s leaders have something important to share, they should share it at least seven times.
“I have started to appreciate the importance of this; there can never be over communication, and the organisation’s leaders have to invest in constant communication and engagement efforts to bring employees from awareness to internalisation,” she says.
In addition, the way the same message is communicated should be bespoke to different levels of employees, anchored on what aspect would matter to them the most.
At the end of the day, Leung says the secret to good communication and engagement is the organisation’s ability to put its “employees at the heart of their company philosophy”.
“But building engagement requires more than just communicating,” she adds. “A company also needs to walk the talk in providing programmes and policies to support our people-first culture.”