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Ideas Influencing Employee Communication

I often hear clients say: “We want to do something new and different!” or ask “What is new and exciting in employee communication?” While the forms of communication haven’t changed in recent years—print, web, mobile—the approaches we use to maximize these media have.

Generational Overlapping

Audience segmentation by role is nothing new (i.e., HR, leaders, managers, employees), but adapting communications to engage diverse generations is becoming an area of focus. This is where media mix comes into play. For example, baby boomers prefer print and face-to-face communication that is open and detailed. Digitally-native Millennials prefer electronic communication that is meaningful, brief and visual, with the option to get more detail. Surprisingly, Millennials love face-to-face interactions for complex or important subject matter. Sandwiched between the two is Generation X—technically very competent and preferring email or electronic communication with higher levels of complexity.

One way to address diverse generational audiences is through media mix and tone.


A U.S.-based engineering and manufacturing company has employees ranging from the age of early 20s (millennials) to mid 60s (baby boomers), with an average age of 42 (generation x). For an initiative such as retirement readiness, this overlapping mix of communications will best reach this broad audience:

  • Posters or full-sized banners with stand and a 30 second commercial spot (plays on local kiosks/monitors and website) to generate awareness
  • Postcard mailed to homes to engage spouses
  • Interactive guide with a downloadable/printable PDF
  • Microsite with layered information (page content, PDFs, videos, links), including testimonials (diverse ages and job functions) and a short game or quiz
  • Employee meetings organized similar to a health fair, including a short presentation and various vendor/financial planning experts

The trick to success is to match media to audience preference, even if you repeat yourself using varied forms. The important idea is to reach your audience in the from it prefers.

Sensory Immersion

Sensory immersion creates engaging experiences that heighten awareness and increase engagement. Sight, smell, taste, touch and sound are common in marketing and in the gaming industry but also can play a part in any communication. This approach is particularly compelling for Millennials, who are always hungry for new meaningful and entertaining experiences.

Brilliant images, like those below, when attached to compelling headlines will hook your audience. They can be paired with other sensory inputs or merely suggest the types of experiences your audience finds compelling.

  • Sight—Given our age of rapid technology, such as email, smart phones, the Internet and social media, sight can be challenging to engage and maintain. We have become accustomed to tuning things out due to oversaturation, so there needs to be a visual hook and strong sense of hierarchy. This can be achieved with unique typography, provocative imagery (especially macro imagery) and/or use of solid geometric shapes with bold color. Evoking the sense of sight can tie in nicely with communications that focus on the future.
  • Smell— Did you know that we can recall 10,000 unique smells! While we can’t reasonably infuse scents into most employee communications, we can certainly suggest them through imagery in a way that triggers recollection of a smell, and the feeling(s) associated with that memory. For example, the aroma of a steaming hot beverage on a cold morning that also warms your hands, or the smell of roasting marshmallows over a fire as you prepare to indulge in s’mores. Stirring up these memories can come in handy when communicating healthy behavior, such as eating delicious and healthy food, engaging in yard work in the spring or taking a relaxing vacation at the beach.
  • Taste—As with smell, taste is something we can suggest through imagery that can trigger a memory and feeling to make a more personal connection with the audience.
  • Touch—Print appeals to the tactile sense, including various weights of paper and textures that can enhance or support a communication. Embossing/debossing and coatings such as varnishes also can elicit the sense of touch. It is more challenging to engage touch electronically, but we certainly experience it with gaming and phones (vibration) and here again, we can use macro photography to tap into the sense of touch. For example, drawing people in with the feeling of holding a sparkler, the rough texture of new money or the gentle softness of a fluffy pillow to rest your head on.
  • Sound—We can use sound to enhance a video or influence the mood of a website or interactive environment. See what Volkswagen did with sound that resulted in a 66% increase in taking the stairs that were positioned next to an escalator: Today we can’t cost efficiently integrate sound into a print employee communication, but we can suggest it in a way that can trigger a memory so it comes to life in our minds.

Infographics blend information and visuals in a minimalistic way to help people comprehend content. This approach oftentimes is used to convey complex concepts, processes and/or to visually break up dense content. After all, 65% of people are visual learners!


Long Format Websites

With over 80% of the U.S. mobile market using smartphones, we have had to start thinking more about the user experience on an array of devices—computers, tablets and phones. This means thinking more about adaptability of the communication (look and functionality).


For a long while web page design has been focused above the fold to eliminate scrolling. Now, those same web pages have a different experience on smartphones, meaning lots of scrolling— there’s no way to avoid it with a small device. As a result, design has begun moving toward long format or scrolling pages.

Designers are finding advantages to this, such as creating a fluid and creative storytelling experience (this dovetails nicely with sensory immersion and appealing to millennials). It also promotes interaction, has greater user consistency from one device to another and it opens the door for training or other game-like experiences.


Rapid technology has enabled organizations of all sizes to work effectively with communication that is fast and electronic. Conversely, the explosion of easy digital communication, is also creating a desire for face-to-face interactions for significant situations, such as organizational transformation, annual benefit enrollment and retirement readiness.

Certainly this won’t be the only touch point with employees for a large communication initiative, so the content should be high-level and offer additional resources for greater detail. PowerPoints or similar tools can be used to guide the conversion and should be used to tell a story that provides meaning to employees. In other words, avoid “death by PowerPoint” or reading the slides word for word. The face-to-face interaction is more about humanizing the message and providing employees with the opportunity to listen and ask questions. The high-level presentation should be fluid so it can be distributed/posted and make sense to the end user. Here’s an example of a creative and fluid PowerPoint that tells the story of how Google works:

Innovate to Engage

There are many creative approaches that can both attract the attention of a diverse workforce and align with budgetary needs. Next time you communicate an initiative to your employees, instead of printing the same old letter-sized booklet or emailing a PDF, consider:

  • Addressing various generational media preferences
  • Increasing engagement through sensory immersion
  • Maximizing comprehension by matching images to content with infographics
  • Building fluidity and story-telling into mobile and desktop web design
  • Meeting face-to-face to increase impact

Kara Pernice (2016), Top 10 Intranet Trends of 2016, Nielsen Norman Group

Natalia Lumby (2016), Sensory printing: engaging all of the senses, Graphic Arts Magazine

PewResearch (May 2015)


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Money Talks

Communicating About Compensation

You’ve just completed a compensation review, made pension plan changes, or are about to award annual bonuses. Now you need to communicate the information to affected employees or the whole organization. This can be a stressful moment.

Communicating about compensation can be a vexing experience for both employers and employees. Employees don’t always trust that they are getting the straight scoop when it comes to how their pay stacks up against other employees, both in your organization and in the marketplace. And often they seem un-interested in the total value of their benefit and compensation programs. They simply want to be paid well.

On the employer side, managers often lack skill and/or credibility when explaining rewards to their direct reports. Complicating matters, confidentiality can become an issue when leadership struggles with identifying a comfortable level of transparency.

So, how can you effectively discuss pay with employees? 

Try Your Hand at Mindreading

There is a cognitive disconnect when it comes to pay. HR thinks about market comparators and midpoints, but employees think about their gross and net pay.

All successful employee communications are built from the perspective of the employee rather than the employer. When you put yourself in the shoes of your audience, you can address what’s on their minds and initiate a connection. Communicating effectively has more to do with building a relationship than it has to do with words and pictures. A message must resonate with your employees.

Instead of starting with the method or format of a communication, think first about your audience—what’s on their minds? Then determine the best way to deliver that message.

Over half of companies surveyed by WorldatWork in 2016 believe their employees do not understand the company’s compensation philosophy. A sound communication strategy starts with education on the basics such as philosophy and an overview of how programs are administered. Sharing knowledge about what guides these decisions helps lay the groundwork for establishing trust.


Whatever is driving your financial communication dictates the content of your message (e.g., special market pay adjustments, a pension plan freeze, a global compensation review, annual bonus awards, change in FSLA status, etc.). Regardless of the content, consider if and how your employees are empowered by the information you are sharing. Relate the message to all areas where the employee has some amount of control.

For example, a younger crowd may feel that a five-year vesting period is a long time away and retirement is a lifetime away. Focus on the near future first, and then distant goals. When communicating about performance and pay adjustments, direct employees to resources that explain things they can do to increase their pay. Also, empower the audience by creating space for questions and feedback. Don’t fear a negative response when it can be turned into an opportunity to increase understanding.

Nearly eight in 10 employees (77%) are engaged when workers strongly agree there is open communication, opportunities to provide input, a clear connection between current changes and the company’s future, and management support for changes that affect their workgroup.

Gallup Business Journal, “Managing in Tough Financial Times: Does Engagement Help?”Chris Groscurth and Stephen Shields (2016)

Open the Door

While it’s important that pay policies and benefit programs are documented and accessible, the communication can’t stop there. Two-way, face-to-face communication is crucial when it comes to financial matters.

Gallup’s 2016 study, The State of the American Manager, Analytics and Advice for Leaders, finds a strong correlation between employee engagement and regular meetings with managers. In fact, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times more likely to be engaged than employees whose managers don’t. Regular communication removes ambiguity and addresses concerns before they become problems.

Complete the Story

With most communication, the audience first tunes into the story and then decides whether or not the information is credible. Conversely, if information is watered-down by being vague or omitting too many details, credibility is shot.

But there must be balance—it’s easy to overwhelm when discussing pension plans, 401(k)s, and salary structures. The key is figuring out the appropriate hierarchy of the information and then organizing it in a way that creates a coherent and relatable message. A large amount of data can be comprehended if it is well organized.

If you leave out too many details your audience will look for alternative information sources. Coworkers, friends in the industry, and websites sit ready, willing, and able to provide your employees often inaccurate or ill-informed information. This information often comes with personal perspectives on fair salaries and other financial matters. You want to be a trusted source for information regarding your employees’ pay.

For example, if base salary levels or this year’s merit pool are below historical levels or competitor rates, explain why. Maybe your company rewards more through bonus than base. Or, training and development opportunities are far better than your competitor. Sometimes it has just been a bad year and budgets are tight. If employees perceive they are sacrificing pay, they’ll need a good reason why. Whatever the reason, don’t gloss over it—just say it.

Temper the Emotion

Financial messaging is wrought with emotion.

The strategy behind your company’s approach to pay is objectively based on market position, growth plans, the current talent market, and the last quarter’s returns. Yet, when you talk about compensation, the conversation can become very personal to the employee. Impersonal market forces can feel like an indictment of a person’s worth and value.

With any financial communication, it’s important that you demonstrate the company’s commitment—even passion—around the program and its impact on employees. However, be careful to detach this emotion from the facts. Don’t communicate “bad news” in a way that is self-congratulatory.

Constantly educate your workforce about the science behind pay and the work that went into creating a pay program or financial benefit. Remember that the program itself is not the company. It is just one component of the company’s business strategy. At the end of the day, your employees should be able to explain why they receive the pay or financial benefits they have and feel good about them.

Avoid the Fluff

Don’t waste your audience’s time—and risk losing their attention or trust—by filling your communication with rote content. Your audience will quickly tune out if it’s just more of the same thing they’ve already heard too often. While repetition has its place, too much can lead to boredom.

Include only what’s important and what will hit home with your employees. Find a good editor who understands the content. Creating succinct, effective material takes longer than creating lengthy pieces that often go unread. Make sure to allow enough time to create the right message.

Consider the ROI

There is no shortage of data linking solid communication practices to increased employee engagement, retention, productivity, and financial performance. Even in a downturn—especially in a downturn—spending a small fraction of your salary or benefit expense to communicate the value of compensation to employees can help you realize substantial return on your talent investment.

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Peering into the Future of Private Benefits Exchanges

Early on in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs across Professor Marvel, “acclaimed by the crown heads of Europe” as someone who can “read your past, present and future in his crystal.”

Professor Marvel greets Dorothy, saying: “And who might you be? No, no, now don’t tell me.
Let’s see. You’re traveling in disguise. No, that’s not right. You’re—you’re going on a visit. No, I’m wrong. You’re, you’re—running away.”

To which Dorothy responds, in all sincerity, “How did you guess?”

When we consider past predictions about the future of private benefit exchanges (PBEs), we find that experts have struggled as much as Professor Marvel to discern the future. And, in 2018 when we consider the viability of PBEs—especially in light of Washington’s mixed support—well, our “crystal’s gone dark,”— just like the Professor’s.

Still, we can’t help but wonder: what will the future of PBEs be?

First, a Definition

PBEs are defined in a variety of ways, but for our purposes, we are thinking of PBEs as does the Rand Corporation in its 2016 report “Private Health Insurance Exchanges[1]”:

“Typically, businesses using a private exchange will offer employees a credit that can be applied toward the purchase of a health plan. Employees can then access a variety of health plans through an online portal and can chose and enroll in plans that meet their needs. . . . [P]rivate exchanges are run by insurance carriers or consultancies, rather than the states or the federal government. Plans offered on [a] private exchange are regulated as group coverage, and employees shopping on these exchanges are not eligible for the ACA’s tax credits or cost-sharing subsidies.” 

Dorothy, Meet Malcolm Gladwell

In 2015, Accenture made a bullish prediction: PBE enrollment growth from the then-current level of 6 million to 40 million by 2018.[2] It looks like that growth curve will fall short: in 2016, the actual number of enrollees was only 8 million[3]—making 40 million in 2018 a big stretch.

Why are the numbers off? It’s not because of lack of growth. In November 2016, Employee Benefits Adviser reported that “Since September 2015, the number of employers using exchanges has increased 144%, the number of employees enrolling in benefits through the marketplaces has risen 92% and the number of lives covered by the plans sold on the platforms has jumped 100%.”[4]

Employers’ intentions should have borne out the predicted curve: A 2016 Aon survey found that “15% of organizations are in full replacement now and another 43% are considering it in the next three-to-five years.”[5]

So PBEs aren’t lacking in popularity; it’s just that the growth hasn’t met expectations. It may simply be that Accenture’s projected growth curve was the wrong shape. In his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell[6] describes an “epidemic curve” that tracks the “contagious spread of a new idea” as a bell curve.

Accenture noted that the “mid-size employer segment of 100 to 2,500 employees is driving initial growth,” which follows Gladwell’s premise. Gladwell writes that Innovators and Early Adopters tend to be smaller companies, more willing to take risks. (Think: “I am Dorothy—the small and meek.” Dorothy undersells herself; she is a leader and a risk taker.)

For the Early Majority—more typically big companies—trying something new is harder because more complex change has to be managed to create success. Because the risk is greater, it is taken on more incrementally and therefore the anticipated benefit also is measured more incrementally. Accenture agrees: “Many large employers have been reluctant to be early adopters of the emerging private health insurance exchange model.” (Think: the Scarecrow, willing to follow Dorothy only after careful debate. And, you know, a song and dance number.)

Lions and Tigers and Bears

What, specifically, makes an employer reluctant to join a PBE? Those 43% of Aon-surveyed organizations who are still considering a PBE could be described as Gladwell’s Late Majority (they want proof) or Laggards (they see no urgency for change) or Cowardly Lions, but that last name would be so judge-y.

Employee Benefit Adviser found seven reasons that employers hesitate to introduce a PBE.[7] I’ll restate these reasons as fears, which of course, is what they really are. These questions explain the stall in Accenture’s projected virality of PBEs; let’s call it the “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” syndrome. Fear makes us walk more slowly.

  1. What if our employees or executives confuse private exchanges with the federal marketplace?
  2. What if we lose control of our plan design or contribution strategy?
  3. What if we incur extra costs due to administrative change?
  4. What if we have to explain different state-mandated benefits to employees across multiple states?
  5. What if we have to give up a consulting relationship we value or pay more to maintain it?
  6. What if we aren’t getting objective advice from our PBE sponsor?
  7. What if our carrier networks are disrupted?

PBEs are answering some of these questions. For example, the Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative found in a 2016 survey that some 44% of survey participants who had implemented a PBE saved money by doing so.

With that same early experience, some Innovators and Early Adopters are now insisting PBE sponsors introduce more flexibility and customization to their offerings. The next growth area for PBEs may be a combination of continued expansion of the mid-size market and new growth in the larger employer market as the Late Majority becomes satisfied with the answers to its questions.

PBEs Began with a Carrot, Now Here’s the Stick

Dorothy begins her journey with a carrot (she wants to see the Wizard) but that journey is propelled by a stick (the Wicked Witch of the West). As always, the PBE story is not so different. PBEs began by offering choice, glorious choice. But in 2018, so does the stick.

PPACA reporting requirements, the Employer Mandate and the Cadillac Tax—the hassle factor—all may lead to a surge in PBE enrollments as PBEs are well-equipped to satisfy these requirements. Perhaps this will be the urgency the Laggards have been waiting to feel.

Employee Choice

As communicators, we often worry about employees who disdain reading having to sort through oodles of choice. But the reality is that we deal with near limitless shopping choices in our daily lives (thanks, So, is healthcare choice really so overwhelming?

Yes, yes it is. Health care, while acknowledged by employees to be vital to their employment decision,[8] is not sexy. It’s complicated and a little boring. And this is where Smith sees PBEs not living up to their potential. The templated communications that are bundled into PBE services are often overly long and impenetrable, as well as lacking in any relation to the employer’s story, culture and brand.

Introducing a PBE and educating employees about their options doesn’t have to be a dry, dull business. You do have to pull back the curtain, and transparently show how a PBE works. The 2016 survey from the Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative also found that employers who had implemented a PBE cited “communications and sufficient time to implement as critical success factors.”

Wherever we can make the PBE shopping experience more like any good online shopping experience—intuitive navigation, more consumer reviews, easier to understand comparison tools, improved decision support tools—we’ll help turn employees into savvy consumers.

When our communications succeed, the choice that could be overwhelming can become what employees value most about their healthcare benefits. And, the shopping experience can drive employee understanding of their benefits. What remains to be seen is whether the PBE also can increase long-term engagement in wellness and consumerism.[9]

It’s All About the Shoes

So PBEs seem here to stay. They are working for employers and employees alike. They may be growing more slowly than expected, but they will keep growing. And the answer to their future growth, like the power of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, is something we’ve had all along—employers just have to learn it for themselves.

Further Reading

Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative

Employee Benefits Adviser, June 2016:

Employee Benefits Adviser, December 2016:







[6] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Print.



[9] Willis Towers Watson Roundtable Discussion: The Evolution of Private Exchanges for Active Employees (February 2016)

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Worth 1000 Words?

We’re being deluged by a torrent of pink and red—there is no Valentine’s Day without roses, candy and, especially, hearts. The symbolism is immersive and overwhelming, leaving little room for misinterpretation. If you see a heart during the first two weeks of February you know what to think.

What the Heart Wants

Swimming against this rushing romantic river is the American Heart Association who, along with the U.S. government, has designated February as American Heart Month.  When the AHA shows a heart in February they’re being a bit more literal. Carving out visual space for the actual organ this month is a Herculean task.

Maybe the thinking is, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Or, maybe the heart lobby is being ironic. More likely, American Heart Month has been swallowed up by the marketing frenzy that now surrounds every modern holiday. American Heart Month was first proclaimed 1963. A lot has changed in public relations, marketing and advertising in those 55 years, not the least being a proliferation of heart-related images afforded by ubiquitous media.

The efforts of the American Heart Association are laudable and illustrative. They point to a challenging aspect of communication—the use of images in shifting contexts.

Two Weeks Makes a Difference

There is no universal visual literacy. Unlike written language and mathematics, we don’t learn strict grammatical formulations about images. Romance =♥. The heart shape typically, not universally, stands for love in our culture. The shape of that love, the emotion involved, is not so clear. Hearts can be puzzled, incomplete, committed or caged.

There doesn’t need to be a romantic connotation at all. Do the hearts below express affection, whimsy or health? Or, do they point to reading, nature and cooking?


Designer and architect George Nelson identified “social context” as a necessary ingredient to understanding an image or design:

“In visual reading, like verbal reading, the completeness of the reading relates directly to the quality of the reader’s stored information…it uses a code or language which has to be intelligible to the receiver.”

How to See p17

An image doesn’t communicate on its own. It needs context. Since we have no formal literacy, context is derived from a myriad of sources. Accompanying words, common uses, cultural symbology, literary references, technology, fashion and more all inform how we “read” an image.

Timing is another element that affects context. An image of a pumpkin signals something different around Halloween than it does around Thanksgiving. Just as the image of the heart means romance in the weeks leading up to St. Valentine’s Day.

Choosing the right image infuses our communication with near instantaneous emotion, identification, interest and other connections that are increasingly difficult to achieve with words. If we want maximum impact, we must keep an eye on the ever-shifting social contexts that inform the images we use.

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