Measuring employee communications effectiveness during COVID-19

How brands such as Southwest Airlines and Blue Shield of California are making sure they're getting through to employees at home.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).
(Photo credit: Getty Images).

Ask any in-house communications executive, and they'll tell you about the need over the past 14 months for a comprehensive internal communications plan to keep employees in the know during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Internal communications has changed, too, to include messaging about work-from-home policies to initiatives about public health and safety.

With health and safety hanging in the balance, how do internal communications teams ensure they're reaching their colleagues? And what does success look like?

While initiatives themselves have changed, many of the measurement tools were already in place.

One major resource is staff surveys. Courtney Newman, SVP of learning and internal Communications at Allison+Partners, explains that the agency frequently solicits staff feedback, most prominently through its annual employee experience survey. This year, the team included questions about the agency's response to COVID-19 as well as more standard queries, such as those about work culture.

High marks in both areas told the internal comms team that its efforts were succeeding. "In fact, scores for our (mostly virtual) company culture in 2020 increased slightly over 2019," Newman adds.

Gina Ormand Cherwin, EVP and chief people officer at MikeWorldWide, shares similar findings. The team at MWW rewrote its annual staff survey before it was disseminated in August to ensure it included questions that reflected a most unusual year.

The survey asked how employees were feeling about the transition to work from home and how to better support people working remotely. It also queried employees, "How much do you agree with the following statement" in areas like clarity and consistency of communications about COVID, feeling heard and supported with concerns and whether there is an open dialogue at the agency. Despite challenges employees expressed experiencing, overall positive marks have been used both as an indication of success as well as a means to help inform this year's business plan.

Looking forward to a return to the physical office, MWW also created and fielded a non-anonymous survey to see where its employees stand.

"We asked questions like if individuals planned to get the vaccine and if they weren't to share why not, what a most positive work day would look like, and sought to understand comfort levels around a return to the office," Cherwin says.

The agency plans to implement a hybrid work week with more flexibility around work from home. Once they decide on and implement a new work-week model, the agency will likely field another survey to ensure that people are happy with it.

The Estée Lauder Companies have also used surveys over the last year to better understand the needs of corporate employees while they work from home, as well as perceptions of health and safety for a return to the office.

Beyond that, it has used tools to measure its proactive internal comms efforts.

"As a starting point, we measure awareness of our internal communications campaigns by evaluating a variety of key metrics that vary depending on the communication vehicle we're using, like e-blasts, intranet articles, videos or SMS alerts," a company spokeswoman explains. "When sending out e-blasts, for example, we measure open and click-through rates. For our intranet articles, we measure views, likes and comments."

The company also measures shifts in action and perception for some of its campaigns. Last April, it launched the ELC Cares Employee Relief Fund to provide financial relief to employees impacted by the pandemic. When the company sends out messages about the fund, it measures both spikes in donations and number of applications to receive grants.

"Interestingly enough, we've seen significant traction reaching our ELC employees using external social media channels, like Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter," the spokeswoman notes.

At Blue Shield of California, executives have been using similar tactics.

"Internal communications plays a key role in articulating our business strategy daily via our intranet channels, and we measure clicks, likes and comments by our 7,500 employees," explains Don Campbell, VP of corporate communications.

The organization has been focusing on publishing content that is useful to its employees. After it noticed an increased demand for more timely and relevant information about the pandemic, it focused on sharing that content.

"Content that saw the highest engagement among employees covered issues like COVID-19 safety and vaccines, mental health and well-being while working from home and health equity and social justice," Campbell adds.

Southwest Airlines has been relying on largely the same set of tools. With thousands of communications efforts focused on and targeted at employees last year, Southwest has tracked employee conversation via its intranet and private social media groups.

"We have baselines we use to identify when something is 'spiking' above normal, or manually mine the data around comments to see what's trending and what's the sentiment," explains Cindy Villafranca, manager of insights and analytics, communications and outreach. "This ensures a lower margin of error than natural language processing, and allows us to alert the appropriate subject matter experts of what may be bubbling up in our employee groups."

Southwest has also turned to external reputation data to understand how the airlines was being perceived when it came to workplace and employee well-being.

"We had company leaders who were instrumental in developing and implementing internal policies like voluntary separation and extended time off to save money and jobs during the pandemic," says Villafranca. "All of these things drove news coverage and social conversation, ultimately driving our reputation scores to higher levels than we've seen in the past."

Success for Southwest has been seeing these higher reputation scores in areas like governance, workplace and leadership, as well as positive employee sentiment around optimism and engagement reflected in their staff surveys.

Allison PR's internal comms team has also used tactics beyond the staff survey. For one, it has prioritized two-way communication between senior leadership and staff.

"We used a range of tactics to provide transparency about business performance and job security, including virtual town halls and 90-second video messages from our founders," explains Newman.

It has also solicited staff input via live Q&A and anonymous "ask me anything" sessions to understand concerns and gauge staff well-being. By procuring a range of feedback in a variety of ways, the agency was able to better tailor its comms and pandemic-related programs and policies.

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