The title of this blog post would probably have meant something different to you before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, after some fits and starts, it appears that many employers are slowly encouraging their people to return to the office or other company sites. But many employers are not. Even before the pandemic, there were millions of U.S. workers who didn’t report to a company headquarters, local office, or retail or manufacturing site. For some, such as construction and building maintenance workers, the job site changes on a regular basis. And for others, such as over-the-road (OTR) truck drivers, the worksite changes at an average speed of 50 miles per hour.
So how do you successfully communicate with a dispersed workforce for whom a regular office location (including home offices, bedrooms, basements, etc.) with a computer is not part of the work routine?
The fact is, every workforce is unique. Even when nearly everyone has a regular office and computer access, there are different ways to successfully communicate with employees. For example, some employers rely heavily on relatively new channels like Slack or Microsoft Teams, while others still use email. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for any employer situation.
But when it comes to a dispersed workforce, there are even more variables. Retail and manufacturing employees may show up to the same location for work every day, but the channels they have access to, and the time they have to access those channels, will vary greatly. And the start times for when they show up to work may vary on an individual basis. Plus, an always-on-the-road salesforce will pose unique challenges, just as with OTR truck drivers.
The good news: There is a solution for successfully communicating with dispersed employee audiences. It’s all about having the right strategy.
The first step in developing a communication strategy is to determine what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s difficult to communicate with a dispersed population. So what, specifically, are you trying to communicate, and how do you know if you’re successful?
Some of the frequent issues we hear, include:
“Our employees don’t know half of the benefits we offer.”
“We send all of these materials home, and it’s clear that no one reads any of it.”
“XYZ is such an amazing program, but none of our employees enroll in it, and we are below average for XYZ’s book of business.”
“Even when our employees are told they have to do something, they still don’t do it, and we end up extending the deadline.”
If you face any or all of the issues stated above, your first important step is to identify which issues you want to focus on and, ideally, how you will measure the success of your communication strategy.
Once you have a handle on what you are trying to solve for, the next step is to identify the barriers, or what’s stopping your organization from successfully communicating to your people. When your workforce is dispersed, you may find some extra barriers in addition to the standard ones. And, in order to be successful, your organization will need to overcome all of them.
Some standard barriers include not communicating frequently enough, requiring a username and password to access communications, writing copy that is too long or dense, using too much industry jargon, not writing so that an audience of non-English speakers can understand, and not grabbing the reader’s attention.
With a dispersed workforce, the standard barriers become magnified, because the workers don’t have regular access to a desktop or laptop computer or a consistent work location, and the satellite work locations feel disconnected. And, whether all of your employee population is dispersed, or just part of it is, it’s important to segment your employee audience based on similarities, both in terms of lack of access to certain channels, such as computers, as well as other demographics like age, family size, etc.
Some of the barriers will seem obvious, but it’s always best to get feedback from your employees through a listening exercise such as a focus group or a survey. Results from the listening exercise will help you understand exactly which barriers to target as part of your communication strategy.
With an understanding of the different segments of your audience, the barriers they encounter, and the level of engagement you’re aiming for, it’s time to determine tactics.
Every situation is unique, but we also see some common issues, such as a lack of regular access to a desktop or laptop computer and infrequent or zero attendance at a regular work location.
Here are 5 tactics you can deploy to facilitate better communication and engagement with a dispersed employee population:
These are some, but not all, of the tactics we’ve seen that have been very successful in engaging a dispersed workforce. And you’ll probably notice that all of these tactics could be employed as part of a benefits communication campaign, whether your employees are dispersed or report to the same location every day with regular access to a computer.
As the nature of work changes and in-person work declines across the board, employers will need to be flexible and adjust to the changing needs of their workforce. The situations will differ, but the first step is always strategy.
We're proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
Brandon Moore, SVP Strategic Accounts Director, with more than 15 years of experience in HR communications, leads our large client relationships and strategic partnerships.