Communicating with offline employees | S2 E16

First published: 11 May, 2021

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Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Communicating with offline employees | S2 E16

Communicating with offline employees

This week Craig Smith talks to Eoin Weldon about the challenges of communicating with offline employees.

Eoin is Internal Communications Manager and Communications Business Partner, UK and Ireland at Merck Group. Prior to this role, Eoin has 10 years in house and agency experience and has held internal communications roles at Tesco and Vodafone. Eoin is currently based in Cork, Ireland where Merck have a big membrane manufacturing operation but like many people at the time of recording, he has been working from home during the pandemic. The interview relates to all of Eoin’s career experience and not just his experiences at Merck.

Merck is a leading science and technology company that operate across life science, healthcare and performance materials, with over 56,000 employees. Eoin works within the life science operation who help solve problems within the industry by collaborating with the global scientific community. Merck’s promise is to accelerate access to health for people everywhere. They are a key supplier and collaborator for many of the global pharmaceutical companies.

Identifying offline employees

Typically, offline employees are not desk based or sitting in front of a laptop so getting the right message to them is more of a challenge as they may not have access to digital channels such as Yammer, Slack or email. The number of non-desk employees differs across different industries, for example Tesco has frontline employees stacking shelves so they may have access to apps on their mobile phones but in certain manufacturing industries you’re not even allowed to take your mobile phone into the workplace. Eoin explains that

Firstly you have to identify who your offline employees are, what their profile is and how to get that message to them.”

At Merck’s Cork site 70% of the employees are desk based but there are also different profiles with people working in labs and people on the manufacturing floor who may have 12-hour shifts. These people are working in highly pressurised environments often dictated by customer demands, so you have to think long and hard about how you get that message across to them.

You also have to remember that there will be a demographic of your employees who are not ‘tech savvy’ for many various reasons and they might not be comfortable with online communication.

Ways of communicating with offline employees

It’s important to remember that you have to communicate with your employees on their terms and think about how they consume their information.

“A lot of companies globally rely on newsletters and social enterprise tools to communicate with employees.”

Eoin is an advocate of ‘back to the future’ communication, using noticeboards and snap frames on the back of toilet doors or behind the hand driers. They are still an effective way of getting your high-level messages across.

You also have to empower your line managers and supervisors to get those key strategic messages and company updates across. Everyone is flooded with information so you have to be tactical about the information you want to filter down so you don’t overload them. You need to be concise and brief.

You need to capture people’s attention, but this is only one element of communication. It has to be supplemented with options of how they will consume the information be it a plasma screen in reception or notices on the canteen tables, Yammer or the company app on the intranet. It’s giving employees a variety of channels to use but making sure they all have up to date information.Eoin says it’s about getting “the right information to the right person at the right time”.

It’s important:

  • to know your audience and how they’re getting their information and then you can build your plans around that.
  • to get the balance right across the platforms you use be it physical newsletters, noticeboards, intranet or email.
  • that the offline employees have a choice about the type of communication they use.

The use of content and tone to engage with offline employees

When Eoin worked at Tesco, they had a physical newsletter that they created once a month which blended corporate information with human interest stories. People were always keen to send in photos and stories about charity fundraising, weddings, babies and other celebrations. People need a reason to open the newsletter and reading about what their colleagues are doing seems to work. Despite it being a traditional form of communication, it really helped getting conversations started and improved engagement.

At which point do you take offline employees off the frontline for communication purposes?

Eoin explains this isn’t something you can do every week as you have deadlines to meet, and you can’t just shut down production lines so at Merck it’s something that is done successfully every quarter. Everyone gets together for an hour long ‘town hall’ meeting which is recorded so employees who are off site at the time of the meeting also get a chance to hear what was said. The meeting is usually a blend of company updates and performance along with human interest stories. They use examples of how the products they make at their site contribute to the safety of the end user such as patients. It helps people to feel proud of working with a company that makes a difference.

The role of line managers and supervisors

Line managers and supervisors are pivotal in the role of communicating with offline employees. It’s often something that doesn’t come naturally to these people so it’s important that you provide training and opportunities for them to upskill in this area. Their role is vital not only in cascading messages down but also feeding back up to senior management what the reactions to the communications are. Without this two-way communication a situation can arise where senior management sit in their offices and assume everyone understands what your strategy is.

Eoin’s experience is that line managers are always keen to upskill in this area as they recognise what an important role they play. It also helps them in their day-to-day work of getting messages across, giving and taking feedback and constructive criticism and generally making them better communicators and managers.

Summing up

  • Need to identify your offline employees
  • You need to know your employees and the access they may have to consume information
  • Don’t assume everyone likes to be communicated to in the same way
  • There’s value in some of the ‘old school’ channels of communication e.g. newsletters (listen to our interview with Amy Holmes from Marshalls in Series 1 Episode 5 Using traditional comms channels effectively)
  • You need to invest in your line managers capabilities as communicators

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