Business without borders, the reality for many companies, presents unique challenges and opportunities in communicating to a globally distributed workforce. From dealing with language barriers and cultural differences to time zones and legal issues, how do you keep employees informed and engaged? We reached out to a few experts for their take on challenges and best tips for handling global communication.
Take it from the top
"The company culture and leadership attitude and involvement are the biggest determinants of employee engagement," notes IABC member Tilottama Pillai, who worked in communication at Unilever for 12 years and is now manager of professional development at Australia-based Cropley Communication. Pillai says that organizations often develop inspiring values and vision, and the communication teams come up with brilliant campaigns to cascade these to employees. However, if employees don't see their leadership (at all levels) living these values day-to-day, the words remain just that, Pillai points out. Ed Kinney, global vice president of corporate affairs and communications at Marriott Vacations Worldwide, echoes that sentiment. "Overall, your leadership sets the tone and expectation and drives strategy. You want to communicate that across the system so everybody is on the same page," he says, noting the need to be sensitive to your global workforce. "It's critical not to impose cultures or language on someone else."
Employees at all levels need to understand the company's vision, and how their work contributes to it, so they can align themselves towards the same goals. While leadership sets the tone, communication matters at all levels, including peer-to-peer and department- or discipline-specific communications. Stephen Welch, a communication consultant based in the U.K., notes that, from the employees' perspective, probably 90% of communication they receive comes from their manager or other teams. "In my experience, the key to employee engagement and performance is making leaders accountable for how they communicate with their teams rather than abdicating that responsibility to internal communications," says Welch. Because of the sheer volume of messages, employees often filter only the ones they need for their daily work, says Pillai. However, if they hear their own line managers or department heads talk about a particular value or policy, they're more likely to buy into that.
Mix it up
Communicating across different cultures presents one of the biggest challenges, says Masz Razak, internal communication specialist at Flex in Malaysia. With 2,000 employees at her location in Penang and 200,000 worldwide, Razak notes that what works in one region may not work in another. She suggests using a mix of technology and human connection. "We use videos, internal social media, an employee feedback box, town halls, and coffee talks hosted by leaders to promote two-way communication, she says. No matter the approach, the key lies in regular touchpoints. Kinney suggests asking employees how they want to receive information and using what works best for them, as preferences can differ across cultures, age groups, and departments. Adaptability is critical, he points out.
Make staffers feel valued
As busy employees focus on their to-do lists, engagement might fall by the wayside. But that's where communication comes into play, such as providing feedback, celebrating milestones and fostering social ties. "People perform best when they feel valued and what they do matters," says Razak. She features employee or team successes in Flex's internal newsletters, townhall meetings and videos, providing them a space to be seen. Plus, she forms special interest groups (such as hiking, fishing or volunteering) so they can socialize on their own free time. The bottom line: When you approach global communication with the right mindset, strategies and tools, you can fuel employee engagement, connection and collaboration across borders and continents. What technology tools do you use to communicate with a global workforce? Let us know in the comments below.