Podcasts Gain Favor Amid ‘Always On’ Work Cultures

By Dave Zielinski September 14, 2021
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woman listening to podcast

​Like many employees, those at Outset Medical often find themselves in a perpetual series of Zoom or Microsoft Teams video calls, e-mail exchanges, or text communications with colleagues throughout the workday. Leaders at the company were concerned those demands could lead to screen fatigue or burnout and sought new ways to engage with workers.

The organization, a medical technology provider in San Jose, Calif., began using internal podcasts as an alternate way of communicating with and educating employees.

Stacey Porter, vice president of people operations and strategy at Outset Medical, said podcasts give the workforce a break from phones and computer screens and allow employees to listen to content at a time and pace convenient for them.

"People listen to the podcasts as they commute in the morning or travel for work," Porter said. "Some listen on weekend mornings at their leisure. Employees tell us they appreciate the ability to download and listen on their own schedules."

Porter said her team has created more than 20 podcasts using the streaming media platform uStudio in Austin, Texas, to address topics like onboarding, to conduct in-depth interviews with executives on new company policies or strategies, and to educate workers about medical issues. One series, called "UnPlugged," features motivational speakers talking about how they overcame challenges to build careers or businesses.

Growing Appeal of Asynchronous Communication

The use of corporate podcasts grew during the pandemic as organizations sought new ways to connect with remote workers and to capitalize on the medium's ability to communicate empathy and transparency—relying on the tone and expression of the human voice rather than text on a screen—as workers struggled with issues like mental health, feelings of isolation or concerns about job security.

Experts say the rise of podcasting at companies is an extension of the medium's popularity in the consumer realm. The share of Americans who listen to podcasts increased significantly over the last decade. As of 2021, 41 percent of U.S. residents ages 12 and older have listened to a podcast in the past month, according to a report from Edison Research and Triton Digital, up from 37 percent in 2020 and just 9 percent in 2008.

Podcasts and other asynchronous modes of communication have gained favor among HR leaders as they seek options to the constant stream of synchronous communication—video meetings, webinars, texting on collaboration networks and more—that workers face every day. HR functions also are increasingly using the medium to communicate about critical topics like the delta variant, vaccine policies and return-to-work plans, experts say.

Some companies have migrated to podcasting because it's a user-friendly technology that allows them to easily repurpose existing content. Porter said her group not only creates podcasting content from scratch but also converts existing audio from Zoom shows for podcasts. "We produce some podcasts that use video as well," she said. "It's a fairly low-tech and easy-to-use process."

Best Podcasting Uses, Time Zone Issues

Caroline Walsh, vice president in the HR practice at Gartner, said moving to hybrid work models can create challenges for HR in terms of sharing information equitably and effectively with those working remotely or in the office. Nontraditional ways of communicating like podcasts and other asynchronous tools can help address some of those challenges, as well as issues created by employees working across different time zones, Walsh said.

She said too much synchronous communication can be draining for employees. "Podcasts or recorded communications allow employees to consume information when it's most convenient for them," she said. "For instance, an employee working a 9-to-5 schedule in Singapore, a part-time student employee in London and a flex-schedule father in San Diego all can access the information in accordance with their schedules."

Collin Colburn, a senior analyst with research and advisory firm Forrester, said podcasts can be a potent way to keep remote workers connected to a company. But he suggested first surveying employees to see how they prefer to receive communications from HR.

"HR departments can benefit from audio content with a more narrative style, like conversations between executives," Colburn said, noting that such an approach is more personal and engaging. He said a good use of podcasting is to address issues that have generated significant employee questions or interest, such as a new initiative, policy or product.

"A podcast host could have a conversation with a leader of the new initiative and respond to employee-submitted questions," Colburn said. "After the episode is published, highlights or a few quotes could be distributed via a company newsletter or internal blog, linking back to the episode if people want to listen to more of the podcast."

Addressing Meeting Fatigue

Becky Cantieri, chief people officer at Momentive, a San Mateo, Calif.-based company that helps clients collect and analyze employee and customer insights, found that using more asynchronous communication methods solved two pressing problems in her organization: It provided relief for meeting fatigue and offered more-convenient ways for employees working across different time zones to participate in meetings.

"We now use Zoom recordings and Microsoft Stream for meeting organizers to record video updates and share them with colleagues for independent viewing," Cantieri said. "We've seen success with asynchronous meetings as it helps maximize our employees' collaboration across time zones and frees up time typically spent in live meetings to get work done."

The company also launched a new enterprise app for Zoom that captures in-meeting feedback to help improve meeting efficiency, Cantieri said. "With Zoom fatigue a growing trend, re-evaluating the structure and purpose of a meeting can help determine if meetings are productive or not," she said.

Measuring Podcast Use, Engagement

It can be difficult to measure how employees are using podcasts since they're downloading and listening on their own time rather than attending scheduled events like Zoom calls or webinars. 

Sarah Dawson, a researcher for Forrester, said it can be easier to create analytics around podcast use if audio content is used in conjunction with other communication channels.

"If podcasts are used in connection with e-mail messages or posts on your enterprise intranet, you may be able to gather more data on how they're being used by employees," Dawson said.

Jen Grogono, president and CEO of uStudio, said her company generates detailed analytics for HR leaders that provide insight into podcast use by the workforce. For example, uStudio's analytics can tell HR who listened to content and how they engaged with it. The data can show whether that listening was interrupted or uninterrupted, or done at their desk or by using a mobile device.

Organizations also can analyze podcasting data to determine the sweet spot for episode length, or how long users stay engaged with audio content.

"The bar is always higher with corporate content than consumer content in terms of adoption rates, but companies are learning how to use analytics to help understand which podcast messages are resonating with employees and which aren't," Grogono said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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