Apply these building blocks to your next communication strategy

Most communication campaigns aim to increase awareness and understanding of a new or important benefit. That’s great if your employees don’t know much about the benefits and resources you offer. But what if most of your employees know about their employee benefits package and employee work perks and just aren’t using them? You may need to adjust your strategy — in a big way. 

A strategy aiming to change behavior needs to do more than capture attention. To create a positive employee experience, you must consider all the factors that behavioral scientists say influence behavior and incorporate them into your strategy. And you must nail down a way to provide your employees with the right information at the time they need it. 

Know what influences behavior

High engagement grows out of a tailored, interactive experience founded on an individual employees’ needs and life stages. How do we make it relevant to support the employee journey? Start with behavioral science.

Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, identified three principles critical to behavior change: people are different, context matters, and things change. Pagoto says she and other behavioral scientists are working on ways to better combine behavioral science and connected health: “I see enormous opportunities for innovation at the convergence of behavioral science and connected health. Unfortunately, we have been in separate worlds and haven’t yet reached the potential of that convergence.” She cites progress in moving in the right direction with improving outcomes on diabetes management, smoking cessation, insomnia, physical activity, and depression, to name a few.

Elizabeth Friesen, Chief Scientific Officer at PartnerComm, is working in this space to connect behavioral health to employee engagement with wellness and other employee benefits communication. She lays out her approach, adapted from Pagoto’s work in this Conference Board Strategy presentation from April 2023.

This framework, based on Friesen’s work, can improve the odds that your campaign will be relevant and ultimately change underlying perceptions or behaviors. Apply these three factors to ensure your employee engagement strategy is built on a solid foundation.

1. People are different: The factors that affect perceptions or behaviors include demographic variables, personal characteristics, and previous experiences. For example, a person who has previously used a health benefits feature like telemedicine, an onsite clinic, or a healthcare support resource, and had a good experience, is more likely to use the benefit in the future compared with someone with no previous experience.

2. Context matters: Elements that shape an employee’s reality may include things like manager support, community support, work environment, and access to opportunities for the target behavior. For example, an employee who has a manager who regularly talks to them about their well-being and encourages self-care is more likely to feel cared for and engage in healthy activities like exercise. Take a good look at your company culture and environment. Make sure those experiential factors are baked into your employee experience strategy.

3. Things change: This principle reminds us that an employee’s needs change over time and over their life cycle. A person's decisions are likely to vary depending on their marital status, number of children, and health. Those who are single and recently graduated from college, for example, may make choices that differ from those who are married, have children, are divorced, or are ill.

Considering all three factors in your communication strategy — people are different, context matters, and things change — will allow you to prepare fertile ground to support engagement and behavior change. You’ll be able to identify the right people, the right situations, and the right times for reaching out. Engaging employees when they’re most open means we have a really good chance of changing understanding, perceptions, and even long-term behaviors.

Put it into practice

You may be thinking this all sounds very “science-y” — but how does this framework change your next communication campaign?

Start by considering each principle and determine if you need to solve it. For example, if you have a diverse employee audience with a large discrepancy in age, location, or tenure, you know “people are different” factors apply. You should consider targeting your communication to make it relevant to your audience.

You might have some employees who work onsite and some employees who work remotely. Work environment is a “context matters” factor and means you need to use a variety of channels to ensure your message reaches both audiences.

Finally, consider how your communication campaign may differ by life stage. This will determine if “things change” factors apply. For example, if you are implementing a financial well-being campaign, consider what financial problems employees are most likely to experience throughout each life stage and what benefits will help them.

Younger employees may really value programs that help with student loan repayments, while employees with children may value income protection benefits or family savings benefits like Bright Horizons. Your individual campaign tactics should make it easy for each individual to find the solution that meets their unique needs. 

Employee experience surveys and focus groups segmented by life stage can be a gold mine of information to help you understand what really matters to workers.

Avoid the pitfalls

Employee Benefits News urges communicators to avoid the common pitfalls of employee segmentation. Key among these is making sure you don’t exclude or overlook certain groups or make too many unfounded assumptions about what a particular sub-group values.

To avoid a campaign based on faulty assumptions, initiate stakeholder conversations with a diverse subsection of your employees. These may include those from different geographical locations, recent hires vs. long-time workers, managers vs. hourly employees, and office-based employees vs. those who work remotely.

Tip: If you have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program, one potentially rich source of feedback may be your employee resource groups, or ERGs. ERGs may include Black, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), LGBTQ+, veterans, and others. They may help you spot needs or perspectives you may have missed.

Find the barriers

Employee research is worth its weight in gold. How many communication or marketing efforts have failed because the communicators failed to identify barriers that were blocking their effort? If you’re not getting the engagement you want in an employee benefits program, or failing to bend the curve on desired behaviors, you might be missing the obvious. If you ask employees, they will tell you.

A great story by Cisco Systems, Inc. illustrates the point: Cisco business leaders had been frustrated by disappointingly low traffic to their onsite health center. To solve the riddle, they went to the source: the employees themselves. With a series of focus groups, they committed to finding out why people weren’t showing up. The answer wasn’t as complicated as they expected. People simply didn’t know the health center existed, and the ones who did know about it didn’t know where it was. After a vigorous campaign focusing on these basics, the barrier to participation was cleared and site visits increased significantly.

In a Harvard Business Review study commissioned by League, the authors set out to identify why employees so often fail to engage with their health benefits. The study cites four areas to overcome:

  • Lack of awareness of all the employer’s program offerings
  • Lack of centralization that puts all the content in one place
  • Lack of personalization to reflect employees’ needs
  • Lack of decision support

A well-researched strategy and the creation of communication support systems can help topple these and other barriers.

Keep it simple

One of the most common mistakes communicators make is trying to say too much in a single communication vehicle. Yes, everything is important, and packing it all in there may allow you to say, “you told them.” But our aim is to truly engage employees and shape their behavior. You can get the audience analysis right but then still fail to engage employees who may be feeling overwhelmed by your messaging tactics.

Remember that employees live in a cluttered communication landscape with hundreds of messages vying for their attention. The fact is, if you communicate everything, you’re really communicating nothing. Focus for effectiveness.

Get ready to engage

All of these techniques together allow you to create a measurable impact on true engagement. When you take the time to thoroughly know your audiences, solve their differing needs, address barriers, and craft focused messages, you can deliver content and experiences that are relevant, received, and acted on.

Best of all, you’ll give employees a gift that they truly want: communication that’s just in time, solves a problem, and makes them feel heard.