See and Say: Communication Is Critical to Workflex Success

Communicating about workplace flexibility isn't something that only happens at rollout

By Kyra Cavanaugh and Teresa Hopke © Life Meets Work Inc. Dec 10, 2012

Like any worthwhile corporate initiative, workflex isn’t a “set it and forget it” kind of program. You need to build support and foster culture change by keeping flex top of mind. Communication should reinforce the message that your company is committed to flex and provide practical tips to help team members adapt to this new way of working.

Organizations make the mistake of thinking that communicating about workplace flexibility is something that only happens at rollout. Instead, the goal should be to feed your employees a steady diet of flex information.

Top Down and Bottom Up

Leadership buy-in is essential to moving forward a culture changing initiative like workplace flexibility. Once you have their support, make it public.

At McGladrey, a financial services company, executives signed a flex proclamation. A photo of that signing event and a copy of the proclamation were posted to the company intranet as a strong reminder that top leadership supported flex.

Decide who will be the face of flex in your organization. In one award-winning company, flex messages always come from the CEO. For other organizations it might be the VP of HR, or the head of each division—figure out what’s right for your culture and designate a visible leader.

Steps to consider taking include:

  • Highlight best practices through manager forums. Encourage great flex managers to tell their stories and coach other managers (especially resistant ones) through the transition.
    That’s what project manager Erika Wendt did at SoCal Gas. “With managers that were the underlying supporters, we started
    making them champions,” she said. “We got them to stand up at manager forums and say, ‘Yes, this is the way it’s been working for my group. As your peer, I understand the concerns you’re having and this is the way I think it can start working for your group.’”
  • Share employee success stories to inspire others and spread the message. Seeing the story of someone who flexes to train for a marathon, or avoid a long commute, may be the encouragement another employee needs to ask for flex. Try to incorporate commentary about how they made flex work in their job or how it made them more productive.
  • Brand it. WellStar Health System recently developed a brand identity for their flexible work program including new logo design and guiding principles. The FlexWorks brand launch helped solidify that workplace flexibility was an organizational commitment. Plus, the new logo is a quick, visual shortcut that helps employees “see” the flex message quickly, even if they don’t stop to read the whole communication.
  • Target your message. There’s no such thing as over-communicating your flex options, but you do need to make sure your communication is targeted. Cara Williams, administrative director for HR at Scripps Health, recommends a great strategy for encouraging employees to learn more about flexible work options. She holds special seminars targeted to employees at certain life stages, including expectant parents, those nearing retirement, and those caring for aging parents.
    “We’ve found it’s a great mechanism for people to hear the message aloud,” Williams said. “If you’re not necessarily looking [for flex], you might not go into the newsletter and read about it. But if you see that there’s an expectant parent workshop and you’re expecting, you’ll go hear about it.”

Communication Vehicles

When thinking about communicating flex, the company newsletter and intranet site are top of mind. But there's much more companies can do to get the flex message across.

“Think about hitting people from all sides,” said Wendt. “Whether that’s creating videos, or getting managers to talk to new hires about flex, or from the executive level, or a ground up approach…it’s about getting people to understand this is going to be embedded in the culture, not just an HR initiative or flavor of the month.”

At the General Mills headquarters in Minneapolis, they hold an annual Flex Fair to showcase the company’s flexible work options.

“We talk about flexible work throughout the year, but the Flex Fair is our big annual push that really gets it on everyone’s radar screen,” said Denise Silva, former manager of inclusion and flexibility. “It’s big and it’s visible because we want to make sure everyone knows that flexibility is a corporate priority.”

And at companies like Scripps Health, leaders start communicating flex right away during the interview process and at new employee orientation.

Creating new communication vehicles is great, but look around for the tools already used in your organization and carve out space to get your flex message out. You might add a “tip of the week” or a “flex Q&A corner” in your newsletter, for example.

Think about leveraging your existing employee resource groups, too. If you have a working parents group or a veterans group, use some meeting time to talk about flexibility.

Resources and Planning

Work with your communications team to find out what resources they have available for you and what sort of content and materials you’ll have to generate yourself. Then determine what materials you’ll need to develop from scratch and which you may be able to purchase from other flex sources.

If you can, build out a month-by-month communication plan for the year. Decide what aspect of flex you’re going to communicate, how you’re going to reach your core employee group, and how it aligns with the timing of other HR, diversity, or company goals.

Measuring Results

Finally, the best way to know if your communication efforts are working is to ask in your employee engagement survey. Do employees feel like they have access to flexible work? How would they rate your flexible work options?

“In follow-up surveys we’ve done, when we ask people if they’ve heard about ‘Smart Work,’ we’re still not at 100 percent. And I’m thinking, ‘Everyone should know about this,’” shared Wendt. Even though she was concerned about over-communicating, the message still hadn’t reached everyone.

The possibilities for creatively communicating a positive flex message are endless. And that can be overwhelming. Start small and strategic, and build a solid communications strategy over time. A little creativity, advance planning, and a multi-dimensional approach will go a long way toward influencing your culture to embrace flex.

Tips for Communicating Flex

  1. It’s easy to hit “send.” It’s much harder to communicate. Talk to people, not at them. It’s not about telling your story, which is always tempting. It’s about meeting the audience at a place that makes sense in their world. Whatever you do, be short and to the point, be timely and relevant, and avoid corporate jargon.
  2. Don’t join the shiny object bandwagon without a strategy. Think big picture before you introduce flex. Linkage is the key. How do things fit together? What does this connect to in the broader organization? When things are random, people have a tendency to ignore them. Link to HR strategy, corporate strategy, your work/life brand or your employee brand.
  3. You can’t bore people into action.You can’t motivate people if your message is boring. Find innovative, fresh approaches to getting the message out. Just remember, sometimes it takes more time to be creative. If you can’t do more than churn out the same old boring messages, you may be overworked. Engage someone with fresh energy or fresh perspective to join the effort.
  4. Finishing is always harder than starting. Start small. Enthusiasm can only take you so far. You don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and you can’t just set things up and ignore them. When it comes to communication, you have to be all in for every medium you choose, so pick a few and do them well.
    The classic case is newsletters. They’re great in concept, tough to deliver in the long run. Newsletters take tremendous resources. If you run behind and start filling your newsletter with things that aren’t timely and relevant, people stop reading.
  5. Your audience has a 10-second attention span. When you’re embedded in the process, it’s almost impossible to step away and think about flex from an employee’s (or manager’s) point of view. Less is more. Write at a 6th grade level (it’s the same standard newspapers use) and eliminate unnecessary words.
  6. Social vs. old school media…success isn’t the same. Only 3 percent of employees will actively participate in internal social media, 40 percent will watch the 3 percent, and the rest won’t do anything. That doesn’t mean it was a failure. We need social media because it reaches a specific audience that can help influence others.
  7. People love to hear themselves talk! Use managers’ and employees’ own words. Let them win each other over. The message has way more impact if they hear it from each other, rather than hearing it from you. Gather quotes, success stories and testimonials and use them everywhere. Hold discussion sessions and make sure your fans and advocates are in attendance and ready to speak.

Kyra Cavanaugh is president and Teresa Hopke is vice president of
Life Meets Work, an Illinois-based workforce innovation firm that specializes in helping clients discover new ways of working to improve employee and organizational performance. Republished with permission. © 2012 Life Meets Work Inc. All rights reserved.

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