Taking care of your people first so they can better serve your organization’s audiences
When my organization was founded more than 10 years ago, we implemented formal policies related to flexibility, accountability and open communication to empower employees to do their best work. I’m glad we had this foundation in place, as these policies have made adapting to the pandemic’s challenges much easier. In light of today’s unique challenges, company leadership must now find ways to serve a broad constituency—encompassing employees, customers and shareholders—that includes individuals experiencing these challenges in vastly different ways.
Many leaders now find themselves straddling a number of needs as individuals face varying levels of stability when it comes to healthcare, finances, childcare and other concerns. When we spoke with Peter Atwater, an economist and adjunct professor at William & Mary, he discussed the difficulty that some businesses are facing in navigating a path that placates multiple audiences which may have conflicting interests. Leaders need to strike a deft balance and understand where messaging can bridge conflicts among interest groups, he said.
Safety mandates and work-from-home policies have placed leaders in a more precarious situation, as some individuals are now operating from partial or whole bubbles—penetrated only by Zoom calls. Others, though continuing to work on-site, now work with physical divisions from colleagues and managers and even some ideological divisions when it comes to how the pandemic should be handled. This further separates leadership from their communities and employees, fueling detachment from the daily needs of their people.
Address Your Employees’ Practical Needs
Even before the pandemic, experts touted the importance of employee engagement and investment. Now social pressures have placed the onus on brands and businesses to take a stand for things that matter, including a commitment to the community, to diversity and inclusion, and to fair treatment of employees.
There are practical things you can do first to care for employees. Dr. Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, says, “You’re building healthy communities and healthy families by giving people a living wage or giving them access to paid sick time or leave.”
We’ve seen the benefits firsthand when you focus on employees’ tangible needs. Unlimited time off and flexibility can allow people to stop punching a clock and start collaborating and engaging. This approach can give employees more accountability and ownership of their work, which makes them more efficient, not to mention happier.
What About Your Other Audiences?
For people experiencing a period of low confidence, Atwater told us that messaging and operations need to be nakedly authentic. Confidence and scrutiny are inversely correlated: Consumers who feel vulnerable or anxious will more closely scrutinize and judge a brand for mistakes. Businesses need to take definitive, confident action to reassure audiences that are feeling vulnerable and uncertain. At a basic level, communications must be frequent, transparent and understandable.
Messages should absolutely be consistent across all audiences, but you should balance your delivery and level of detail. For example, if you have implemented a diversity and inclusion strategy, you’ll want to illustrate to shareholders why this is important to the bottom line. Tell employees about any new policies that affect them and improve their workplaces. And tell customers specifically what you are doing, why it is important and how it reflects your brand values. Of course, there’s overlap here, but the bottom line is that communication is your friend.
Don’t make empty promises. Show initiative by taking the proactive, tangible actions necessary to back up your messaging. To further the example above, you could take formal steps such as:
- Creating and publishing an equality and diversity charter.
- Building in new required training for employees.
- Creating community service and giving programs to support the charter.
No matter the initiative, companies need to “put their money where their mouth is” or consumers will see through the facade.
How to Discover What Your Audiences Want You to Say and Do
It’s clear that audiences are experiencing a wide variety of obstacles and perceptions right now, with individuals facing their own set of challenges, concerns, and fears. Your audience isn’t the same as your neighbor’s. In order to understand where your people stand, your insights strategy needs to reflect this changing ecosystem. That calls for a multifaceted approach, gathering data and insights that focus on the individual, in order to serve the whole.
- Make sure you’re talking to the people in the (sometimes virtual) building! Have open and honest exchanges with employees so you understand their challenges, both professionally and at home.
- Conduct market research that actually reaches all of your audiences. Survey respondent groups that are tied to national demographics often don’t give researchers large enough base sizes to capture economically disadvantaged, minority or non-English-speaking communities. If they’re not included in your research, you won’t know how to talk to them.
- Cut any narcissism from your brand strategy. Research isn’t about you, it’s about understanding your customer and how they perceive you. Don’t ask them questions that they can’t relate to or try to push messaging in your research. You want to gain their perspective, not the other way around.
- Bring customers into the boardroom. Use a mix of research methodologies not only to address issues with proper representation, but also to really bring in the consumer’s voice. Leverage video, imagery, and verbatim responses to build a “conversation” between your team and the ultimate decision-makers: your customers.
Any business is going to have a diverse audience, some of whom still feel very vulnerable. People’s situations are very different and will continue to be so in the future as we emerge from this crisis. Companies need to stay on top of the manifold needs of audience members, including (and prioritizing) employees, and employ nimble strategies to imbue confidence and stability.