The Gatehouse Blog

Internal Communication: The Battle for 5 Minutes of Their Time

By Jean-Louis Bénard, CEO and Founder of Sociabble

Never before have human beings had so many means of communication and so much access to information. Ironically, though, employees are less and less informed about their company, despite the resources at their disposal. Which is unfortunate, because well-informed employees are usually the most committed—those who invest their time and energies because they know that their work is part of a larger whole that they understand and that makes sense to them. The causes of this disconnect are quite simple; the solutions, a little less so. But we can find solutions, nonetheless.

It’s a Fact: People just aren’t paid to learn about their company

This may sound like a provocative statement, but it’s still a reality. In the subconscious of most employees—and managers, for that matter—getting information is just not a top priority. Having well-informed employees is essential for the company, that’s understood by all, but when it comes to showing a clear and measurable return on such an investment, at the team or individual level, results aren’t always obvious, and such measures are inevitably given a low priority. Yet the numbers are unequivocal; positive performance corresponds to having well-informed employees. Indeed, 85% of employees say they are more motivated when they receive regular news from their company (JobsInMe). And companies that communicate effectively with their employees are 47% more valuable to their shareholders (Communication ROI Study Report), and are 3.5 times more likely to do better than their competitors (Towers Watson). The numbers speak for themselves.

A Darwinian struggle for those 5 precious minutes of free time.

Because getting information is not a priority for most employees, it becomes necessary for companies to make do with the only “5 minutes of free time” that’s actually available in their daily schedule. During their commute, a coffee break, a restroom stop—whenever they normally check their devices to see the news and social media updates. No, it’s not very glamorous, but that’s the reality. It may be on a subway car or in line for the bathroom that you have a chance to inform your employees of company news. But the problem for companies today is that they’re not the only ones vying for their attention during those precious five minutes of free time. Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, SMS… the list goes on. It’s truly a Darwinian struggle to be present and compete with those giants. But in this battle for their attention, the company often fails to position itself correctly beside these able competitors. And the battle is lost before it’s even begun.

Newsletters, Intranets, corporate social networks… are these the right tools for battle?

Of course, many companies try to find the quick fix for informing employees. Just think of how many billions are wasted on intranets. According to Prescient Digital Media, only 13% of employees regularly visit their company intranet, and even then, primarily just to go to critical applications whose link is accessible only from within it. And 31% never use them at all.

Newsletters are not a bad idea in and of themselves, but creating them is so painful that they’re usually reduced to a monthly newsletter, completely non-personalized, that’s supposed to inform all categories of employees at the same time. An e-mail lost among the thousands, a pebble thrown into the sea which we hope will actually make visible waves. And of course, none of these options are well-suited for mobile.

Corporate social networks are also a good idea. Yet my belief is that their natural role is that of collaboration rather than communication. Corporate social networks, whether conversational (like Slack) or dealing with newsfeed walls (like Yammer), only meet the needs of dialogue and collaborative work that involve specific projects, initiatives, and communities. Their bottom-up character, which is their strength, is also their Achilles heel when it comes to internal communication. All information is at the same level, i.e. the announcement of a big company merger is presented in the same way as the announcement of the next company football pool or karaoke night. This obviously doesn’t work well when the company wants to make sure a piece of crucial information is seen.

And last but not least, regardless if it’s intranet, newsletters, or corporate social networks, all of these tools suffer from weakness on mobile devices, and as a result, struggle to win the battle of 5 minutes of free time, when employees rely on mobile to receive information.

And then there are the disconnected employees.

The real tragedy of the story is that all these efforts are made on behalf of employees sitting in front of their PC, often at office headquarters or in decision-making centers. But what about employees in the field, on construction sites, in factories, in shops? In short, the bulk of the troops? Most do not have a professional mobile phone or even a professional email address. Don’t they have the right to be informed? Rather than engaging with them directly to keep them informed, they are asked to connect to a company’s Facebook page—just like a customer—to keep abreast of what’s going on.

But what exactly is a well-informed employee?

We talk about informing our employees, but of course there’s no chance to win the battle of those precious 5 minutes of free time if you keep presenting the same old corporate news.

Informing your employees means creating a good mix of content: certainly some top-down information, but also information created by employees and which is valuable to others—you can increase their engagement by making them stakeholders. This content mix can also include updates about life at the company. Not only the global events at headquarters, but also great moments from everyday life, in the shops, in the factories, anywhere employees spend their time. Last but not least, it’s critical to include outside information in the mix, linked to their ecosystem, regarding what the competition is doing (they look at it anyway), and more general information about what is going on in the world.

However, information also needs to be adapted and targeted to each segment of employee. The needs and desires of a head office employee in marketing may have nothing to do with the expectations of an employee on an assembly line. Companies expend resources to intelligently target their customers, so why shouldn’t they do the minimum for their employees?

And knowledgeable employees become brand ambassadors.

When we started Sociabble almost five years ago to help companies make their employees effective brand ambassadors, we were far from realizing that the Employee Advocacy tree was hiding the Internal Communications forest. All over the world—in the United States, the country of information, and in Europe and in Asia as well, we discovered a reality that is often kept hidden from the CEO. Everywhere, this battle for employees’ attention and time was being lost. How can you encourage employees to communicate on social networks about their work when they don’t even know what is happening at their own company? For two years now, we have decided to tackle the issue head on. Ambassadors are first and foremost knowledgeable contributors, that’s our belief. They have to be informed before they can build positive brand awareness.

It’s easy to offer criticism. But how do we solve the problem?

Unfortunately, there’s no single easy fix. But there are integrated solutions. For me, the first ingredient of the cocktail for informing employees is energy and willpower. Most companies do not start with an even playing field or a clean slate, they’re hobbled from the start. The 5 minutes of free time employees use are already locked-in by other mobile applications. The employees have their ingrained habits. It takes patience, effort, and unwavering support from top management, who must accept that the first measures of performance will likely not be good. Nobody is waiting for you to occupy their brains for a few minutes while waiting for the restroom, on transport, during a break. The obstacles must be made clear.

Second ingredient: the content mix we talked about. Good content is not enough. It requires great content, which will attract people, engage them, and hold their attention. So agree early on to start with a low proportion of corporate content. One client we worked with even decided to start with 0% corporate content, and to center their efforts around fun moments of business life and sports news first, to get employees attention, and then start to inject small amounts of business content. And the inclusion of user-created content plays a vital role as well. The content displayed must be adapted to the profile of the employee. Their language, their department, their function, etc. And finally, you have to properly orchestrate everything so that the truly important content is visible first.

Third ingredient: the mobile experience. It’s simple, you have to do as well as, or better than, the mobile apps that normally occupy those precious 5 minutes. The app must be simple to use and super-visual (large pictures, etc.). It must allow the employee to share content (photos in particular) as easily as on Facebook or Instagram. Encourage employees to give their opinion in one click via polls, quizzes, etc., so that their participation is not limited to merely posting photos. They must feel that their voice is being heard and that they are part of the experience.

Fourth ingredient: stay “top of mind.” What does this mean? Well, much more than newsletters in the form of emails. You have to use push notifications on mobile to give alerts in real time. You have to display the information on the screen so that employees have the reflex to go back and see the details on their mobile. And you have to add the information as widgets on the intranet. In the United States, one of our customers told us: “my developers will never get out of Slack.” Not a problem, a bot can push content to relevant Slack groups. We must abandon the idea that people will consume information by going only to a single point. As with marketing, it’s necessary to multiply the points of contact. This is a battle, after all, you have to use all the tools at your disposal.

Fifth ingredient: gamification. No, gamification is not immature. Because at the end of the day, we are all children. Children who have grown up, of course, and who have lost some of our childlike wonder, but in many ways, we remain children—especially when it comes to games. In all countries, in all sectors, we see gamification help engagement levels to explode. Even in fields where the idea was initially greeted with skepticism, such as audit firms. Gamification works especially well around sporting events. In India, the program we set up with Hp involving a cricket competition (Hp was a sponsor of one of the teams) brought thousands of employees onto the new mobile application, to learn, to share content, and to bet on the matches. I truly believe the battle of 5 minutes cannot be won without it. And it’s essential that the company finds the right kind of employee rewards that inspire their employees. In Belgium, for example, Fortis rewards the commitment of its employees by planting trees to help the planet. Inspiring, no?

Last ingredient: reconnect those disconnected employees. This, for me, is a major issue, one that I also find to be the most exciting. I often speak with the boss of the supermarket near my home. A small link in a large chain of retail locations. She does not have a professional mobile phone, nor does she have a professional address. But she’s passionate. She set up a Facebook page, and she takes pictures of her fresh arrivals of fruit. And the entire neighborhood subscribed. Do employees like these not deserve to be informed, to be rewarded for their tremendous commitment? Let them use their personal mobile device. They have a pay slip, so why not an ID? This is how they can connect and be authenticated, no matter if they have a professional email address or not. This battle is a mobile battle, where conventional email no longer has a place.

The longer we wait, the more difficult it is to integrate into employees’ blocks of free time and win the battle for those precious 5 minutes. So let’s get to work!


Biography: Jean-Louis Bénard 


Jean-Louis is the CEO and Founder of Sociabble, a software company dedicated to delivering top of the line, mobile-first enterprise solutions for internal communication, employee advocacy, and employee engagement. In 1994, he founded the digital agency FRA, acquired by Digitas in 2001. During this time, he was actively involved in the setup of the first e-commerce platforms in Europe. In 2003 he founded Brainsonic, a leading digital communications agency with over 120 employees, where he still serves as chairman.