Eight rules for engaging with geographically dispersed workers

There are eight key points to bear in mind when trying to engage with employees across different locations, says Trewin Restorick.

Find the communicators in your business and use them to help spread your sustainability messages.

Effectively engaging geographically dispersed workers on sustainability is highly challenging. Global Action Plan has worked with three international companies seeking to engage with their workforce in a wide variety of countries. We do not profess to be experts, but to kick-start discussion we have highlighted some reoccurring themes.

The context

We have worked with companies where bold statements have been made by the leadership on the ambition of their sustainability commitments. An over-arching vision has been articulated and a challenge issued to senior managers to turn this into reality.

The sustainability targets have been set in response to medium and long-term challenges faced by the business usually connected to resource availability, costs, extreme weather and reputation. These issues are not typically front-of-mind for most employees in their daily roles and this immediately creates a communication challenge. How can the overarching message be made relevant and meaningful to employees across the business?

Responsibility for delivering the engagement campaign has usually been given to a global communications team often with a sustainability specialism. These teams understand the strategic importance of sustainability but can be a little further away from the day-to-day activity within the different business streams. Invariably the teams are based in offices in northern Europe or the US again increasing the cultural distance from employees working in manufacturing sites in developing countries.

Most companies have decided to link their engagement activities to a specific period of time. This might be an external event such as World Environment Day, an event that the company is sponsoring or an internal communications timeframe that the company has created.

It is essential to fully understand the routines, pressures and operational structures within which the major groups of your employees operate

Meeting the challenge

Based on our experience of working within this context we have learned eight key things.

1. Extensive consultation is essential

It is essential to fully understand the routines, pressures and operational structures within which the major groups of your employees operate. This may sound obvious but it is a fundamental step often missed. Viewing the world from an employee’s perspective will probably put an entirely different slant on the sustainability engagement strategy and will probably result in a fundamental change in how the strategy is communicated.

2. Build on what is already happening

Again it sounds obvious but often doesn’t happen. International companies are usually running a range of sustainability initiatives but these are frequently described in other terms. For instance they may be efficiency initiatives to cut costs, innovation to reduce packaging materials or use of smart technology to enhance logistics. Linking a broader sustainability engagement programme to these types of initiatives increases the relevance of the campaign, makes it tangible and links it more clearly to business objectives.

3. Keep the behaviour change message simple

We have discovered that the most effective engagement campaigns focus on a limited number of clear actions that have a demonstrable benefit to the employee, the company and the wider environment. In the companies we have worked we have provide a framework of potential actions from which different countries can select the ones that are most relevant to them.

These actions can be incredibly simply such as ‘turn off the tap’. One of the difficulties we have faced is persuading the global communications team that their highly sophisticated sustainability strategy needs to be communicated at this level in order for it to resonate with employees across the company.

Create an engaging story that brings all your global sustainability activities together.

4. Be visual and engaging

The communication methods used to engage employees need to be visual and thought-provoking. In a busy factory table-top messaging in canteens, well designed display boards, high quality use of audio-visual screens and providing physical prompts for use in cascade briefings all have a significant impact.

5. Find the communicators

In any company there are people who are brilliant internal communicators. They could be anywhere in the company but they will be known. Finding these communicators and getting them to understand and display the proposed change in behaviour will help to rapidly engage other employees.

6. Create engaging stories

One of the biggest challenges in running engagement campaigns in geographically dispersed areas is that you can end up with a series of great initiatives which are seemingly unconnected. It is important to provide a strong narrative which brings all these activities together into an overall story which employees understand and to which they can contribute.

7. Create a structure

To further help with coherency it is important to provide a clear structure for the engagement campaign. This will obviously help with communication but will also create a sense of change across the entire business. Linking this structure to external hooks such as World Environment Day is beneficial.

8. Celebrate achievements and do it again

Successful engagement campaigns build momentum over time. It is essential to celebrate achievements, reward participation and have an on-going campaign rather than a one-off hit. The best companies recognise this and create engagement strategies that are delivered over a number of years.

As I said at the beginning we don’t profess to be deep experts in this area and it would be great to hear what other members have learned.

Register for our webinar with Trewin on this topic here.

Found this article interesting? Take a look at our forthcoming stakeholder engagement programme, including a challenge-busting workshop taking place on 28th February, 2014