The Web 2.0 era has changed the basic landscape of communication, including that of the internal communication of companies. Organizations today can access various communication tools for reaching and engaging employees, ranging from traditional print publications (such as newsletters, magazines, and posters) to phone calls, intranets, face-to-face communication, and emails to Web 2.0 tools (such as blogs, instant messengers, and social networking sites). Although some companies now use social media for internal communication, many others don’t or do not recognize the benefits of using such tools. The Towers Watson’s 2013 Change and Communication ROI Survey found that only 56% of organizations use social media as a part of their internal communication initiatives to build community. Only more than a third of these organizations rated social media as highly effective.
“The medium is the message.” With its two-way, interactive or dialogical, communal, and relational features (such as webcams, embedded audio or video, commenting and sharing, and online chat functions), social media can help personify the organization, blur internal communication hierarchies, facilitate employee conversation with management, and most importantly, build communities. However, do social media alone engage employees? If so, how effective are social media compared with traditional communication channels? What should companies do to truly embrace new technology and capitalize on its advantages?
To answer these questions, I surveyed 400 employees from different medium-sized and large corporations across more than 20 industries in the US. The results show that although social media are still the least commonly used channels for employee communication in the workplace, they effectively engage employees. The organization’s use of social media (i.e., internal social networking sites, employee or leader journals, blogs, wiki sites, instant messengers, and audio or video streaming) including the leader’s, positively impacts employee engagement. In other words, the more often companies use social media to connect with employees, the more engaged employees feel. When employees are engaged, they feel empowered, involved, emotionally attached and dedicated to the organization, and excited and proud about being a part of it.
Additionally, the results show that traditional channels of face-to-face interactions (such as employee meetings and communication with direct managers) and emails strongly influence employee engagement. These two-way forms of communication facilitate the exchange of information, listening, and conversation. However, the widely used traditional print media, such as memos, brochures, newsletters, reports, policy manuals, and posters showed negligible effect on employee engagement.
Without doubt, social media are essential elements of employee engagement that increases productivity and are the driving forces of community building within the company. Although there is no clear consensus regarding the most effective social medium (i.e., one that is effective for a company may not be effective for another), and the overall cost-effectiveness of social media remains inconclusive, companies that aim for employee engagement cannot simply ignore these thriving digital platforms.
Of course, engagement in social media within the company is not really about the software or the crowd. It’s more about people who instill vigor, spirit, and emotions into the cold community. Likewise, embracing new technology to engage employees does not necessarily mean abandoning traditional forms of communication. As my research shows, the most personalized and richest channel—face-to-face interactions—and an indispensable part of the daily routine of employees—email communications—remain effective in building dialogues and engaging employees.
Therefore, organizations should strategically optimize their platforms for internal communication to engage digital-savvy employees. There might not be a one-size-fits-all approach to such strategic development, but the following tips based on research may help start such efforts.
- Understand the advantages of each medium and know which works for what.
- Align multiple media solutions to business and communication goals.
- Be open-minded, embrace up-to-date technology, and develop a roadmap to sequentially use social media tools.
- Identify internal thought leaders (including executives and supervisors) who are authentic, transformational, and charismatic and help them develop communication and social media skills.
- Encourage the participation of employees by rewarding “social” employees and fostering a culture of collaboration, sharing, community, and learning.
- Enforce a solid social media policy that clarifies what is and is not acceptable.
- Develop measures and metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of communication and engagement through different media.
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at Southern Methodist University.