In the early months of the global pandemic, working from home and starved for physical interaction, employees at multinational companies around the world reported something surprising: increased job satisfaction, as measured by employee Net Promoter Score℠. As Zoom transported them into the living rooms of bosses, clients, and colleagues, employees felt more connected. They bonded over the surprise appearance of pets and children. They empathized with one another. The effect was most dramatic in China, where 46% of employees surveyed by Bain & Company between late April and May of 2020 reported increased satisfaction, but the trend was notable in the US and across European economies as well.
Now, well into Covid-19 year two, with no clear return to normal in sight, it is time to think about how we retain—and in many cases rebuild—that initial sense of unity. Job satisfaction appears to be dropping now, with one recent study finding that more than half of US employees are considering a job change this year. How employers fare during this period of “Great Resignation” will depend in part on how they cultivate the connection all humans need.
The more connected employees feel, the stronger their company performs. In our recent Harvard Business Review article, “How Good is your Company at Change?” my coauthor, Kevin Murphy, and I summarize the nine most important components of an organization’s ability to change. High change power correlates with better financial outcomes, company culture, and employee engagement. While all nine components are important, the element of connection has the greatest correlation with overall change power. It is also a topic that comes up repeatedly in discussions with executives. Many of them have ambitious, transformational goals for their businesses, but without the engagement, commitment, and energy of their people, they know change will sputter.
Bain & Company research has found that organizations on the whole fail to adequately address their people’s need to be heard, informed, and connected during times of transition. Only 22% of frontline employees report feeling connected to others. How, executives ask, can we improve that in today’s hybrid and uncertain environment?
I give three answers, all building upon classic approaches but with important new twists, updated for today’s environment.
1. Omnichannel communication cascades
An old idea now enjoying renewed life, communication cascades aim to quickly get critical information to the staff closest to customers in order to help them make better informed decisions. First, management makes sure the company’s strategic priorities are well understood, including what makes them priorities and what benefit they will bring to individual staffers.
To really involve people at all levels and get the messages through, an omnichannel approach is critical, utilizing not only one-way channels like company social media platforms, town hall meetings, video broadcasts, and newsletters, but also in two-way dialogue. Everyone should hear from a trusted supervisor and be given the chance to ask questions and share their thoughts. A cascade that leaves employees feeling heard, valued, and included has a strong chance of unlocking the discretionary energy and creativity of employees.
Within my own firm of Bain & Company, keeping 1,000-plus leaders around the world feeling engaged and empowered in a partner-owned enterprise is no small feat. Then there are the 13,000-plus employees spread across more than 60 offices and 38 countries. To connect us all and communicate important changes, we use a multitude of channels, from live, virtual town halls to internal newsletters to social media platforms. Two-way dialogue is coordinated via geographies and practice specialties in dynamic workshop formats that solicit feedback, collect ideas, and foster commitment and action. We have employed change ambassador networks of different sorts to listen to what’s really happening on the ground, and then assess what we learn both quantitatively and qualitatively. All of this engagement planning is done with specific populations in mind, to make sure we are addressing the unique concerns and needs of different groups of people, from newly hired first-year consultants to senior experts in every segment of our business. It often feels like a Herculean effort, but it’s absolutely critical to harnessing the full power of our people.
2. Networks of change agents
The notion of creating some kind of network of ambassadors to help support organizational change is also a classic, something Kevin and I have done in our consulting work for years. Recently, the power of networks has only grown, to the point where it can even eclipse traditional management hierarchies for creating a feeling of connection during periods of change. Digital tools can improve our ability to identify and mobilize corporate networks. Tracking patterns in email and meetings is one form of workforce analytics that can show how connected a given employee is. There are also more direct collaboration tools, like OrgMapper, that specifically track influencers in an organization. Additional collaboration platforms such as Trello, Slack, and Microsoft Teams can then help these networkers communicate quickly and effectively across geographic boundaries.
A company in the US that went through a large-scale business transformation used such a network of more than 100 change agents, a first for the company. Selected by leaders based on their credibility, energy, enthusiasm, and reputation for being candid and objective, these change agents’ strengths included an ability to synthesize and present complex ideas and a deep understanding of the organization. Every two weeks, this diverse group—drawn from different functions, teams, levels of the organization, tenure, and genders—filled out a short change pulse survey to give management a sense of how the organization was doing and then met a few days later to discuss concerns and share ideas on how to do better.
Because they were close to the front line, this group could help ensure change took hold, acting as the eyes and ears within their teams, warning management when the organization was rolling out more than coworkers could absorb or the rationale behind the changes was not being made clear. Understanding that there would be some resistance to their planned changes, as there always is, management felt the network could help them move through the disruption and initial resistance as quickly as possible and begin to build commitment to a transformation they believe will make it possible for the company to thrive in the future.
3. Working “middle out”
Many a traditional communication plan has gone straight from the boardroom to the front line, disenfranchising middle managers just when they are most needed. Smartly engaging key influencers in this stratum of management can accelerate change. In Japan’s traditional, lifetime employment model, for example, the middle has tremendous power. I moved to Tokyo recently and not long after had the opportunity to meet with a senior executive of a large Japanese company. During our conversation, he lamented senior management frustration with what he described as a clay layer in the organization, through which it was nearly impossible to push any meaningful change. Unable to go around these midlevel employees, or fire them, management has to work with them. A first step in converting these workers from liability to asset: engaging them and giving them a meaningful stake in creating a cultural transformation of the business.
Finding the influencers and empowering them, helping them become better, more committed change leaders by sharpening their capabilities with coaching and training, helps build connection and improves the chances change will truly take hold. It makes these influencers part of the solution.
For organizations seeking to increase their power to change, building connectivity is an important place to start. Two-way omnichannel communication that cultivates networks of change agents, particularly in the critical middle, will help. In today’s fast-changing work environment, connection and changeability are more essential than ever.