Our 2020 Trend Forecast continues by examining what's in store for employee engagement this year. Once the graveyard of communications careers, internal comms has emerged as — quite possibly — the most pivotal of all stakeholder groups, responsible for defining an organization's purpose and serving as it's most important advocates.

In a fiercely competitive job market, it seems obvious that employees will take centrestage, but it's worth noting that this was not always the case. As recently as five years ago, internal communication was the preserve of dusty newsletters and desolate intranets. Nowadays, it's hard to find a CEO who does not look to the company's employees as its key primary audience — as the pace of corporate transformation accelerates, change management becomes a critical factor in leadership, with obvious implications for communicators and their agencies. 

"Employment rates in the US are at 50 year lows – translating to yet another year the “war on talent” persists," says Matthew Della Croce, global president at Allison+Partners. "Effectively communicating to employees and potential employees, establishing your organization as a great place to work is paramount in 2020."

"Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report tells us that less than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies from 1955 are still in business, and that last year alone 26% fell off the list," adds people, culture and diversity consultant Jane Fordham. "Productivity growth is falling way behind technological advances. This widening gap represents untapped business performance potential. HR and business leaders must question whether their structure and cultures are helping or hinder them unlock the opportunities of tech advancement and other macro trends. How can they move away from old-school leadership, employee engagement and internal comms and be better equipped to lead in this era?"

With that in mind, what shapes employee engagement is likely to have greater resonance beyond a company's internal walls, informing its policy, values and mission, functioning as a reality check on all of those high-minded pledges of purpose and, of course, posing the kind of activist risk that the likes of Google and Facebook have found to their cost. Here are four trends that will define employee comms in the year ahead. 

1. Second families

"Employees want to be happy at work," says FleishmanHillard Greater China president Rachel Catanach. While this seems obvious, it is often overlooked, particularly in terms of developing an employee culture that reflects the 'second family' status that people often assign to their workplace in today's blended work/life environment. And while much is made of the importance of corporate purpose when it comes to employee satisfaction, Catanach believes that "purpose without a unified employee community behind it is like a manifesto without constituent buy-in." 

"In addition to articulating purpose, companies need to spend more time getting into the heads and hearts of their employees to understand better how to build the second family that employees desire from work," explains Catanach. "This requires a sensitive combination of research and analytics and good old face-to-face communication."

That requires companies to think carefully about the structures that are in place; after all, no one enjoys being in an overly hierarchical family. "Overly rigid structure can suffocate an organisation," says Fordham. "Information flow, broadcast, top down will mean that insight and potential is repressed at the bottom, and multiple levels of management or complexity can foster distrust, the enemy of engaged, motivated people. Today’s younger employees are fluent in the language of the digital age, they expect information to flow transparently in the organisation, and they want to be empowered to execute through learning. As such their leaders need to be tech savvy and skilled at removing bottlenecks to information flow, innovation, and continuous improvement."

2. The rise of the activist employee

Which is not to say that purpose is unimportant. Indeed one of the defining trends of 2019 was the continued rise of the activist employee, illustrated with particular clarity by the clash between management and workforce at such Silicon Valley darlings as Google and Facebook. "Not only do employees want to have a say on issues material to their company and community, they also want their company to stand up and be counted when it matters," says Catanach.

And while much attention has focused on US companies, this is as true for the world's second-biggest economy as it is of the first. "What has been interesting to watch in 2019 is how netizens, particularly those in China, are not delineating between an employee’s public and private view and are calling companies to account when they believe an employee has crossed the line on any particular issue, even if that employee is not senior and their comments are on their own private social channel."

"From a communications perspective," continues Catanach. "in 2020 companies need to plan for employee activism – both from proactive and defensive positions. They should expect more issues management around this topic and should also assess what they would do if faced with a situation, like the NBA, where their purpose and values were tested by commercial imperatives."

3. Inclusion for all

Any attempt to communicate effectively with employees in 2020 is complicated by the sheer diversity that exists across workforces. The idea of a homogenous employee base appears to be a relic of the past, not just in terms of cultural differences but also the generations that are in play. 

“In 2020 the oldest members of the Gen Z cohort turn 24 and are entering the workplace," explaines H+K Strategies London MD of consumer packaged goods Avra Lorrimer. "This means that just as workplaces started to understand how to accommodate millennials, they now need to integrate a new generation of employees. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, Gen Z demand sustainable business practices from removing plastic in the workplace to transparency around environmental footprint. As a generation who grew up on YouTube tutorials, it’s only natural that they will gravitate to digital learning platforms and they will demand the instant gratification they are used to on Snapchat and Instagram via frequent feedback from managers and peers."

"Employers are now faced with unique communications challenges associated with having so many diverse generations in the workforce," adds All Told global president Cathy Planchard. "While each generation can provide diversity in thought and perspective, there is increased potential for conflict if communicators don’t take into consideration what motivates, inspires and retains them. Gen Z, for example, view themselves as global citizens and generally want their employers to take a more proactive stance on societal issues — this will be even more pronounced in an election year. Communicators need to balance these factors with the motivators of other employees in the workforce and how it aligns with their organization’s mission and core values."

These kinds of issues can be complex, as Netflix comms head Jessica Lee explained at our Asia-Pacific Summit last year. Companies, says Catanach, must expect greater polarization of views in the workforce – from political, societal and cultural perspectives. "For global companies, this adds new layers of complexity to diversity and inclusion programmes and places even greater importance on empathetic leadership that can engage and unify. From a communications perspective, it means the same amount of effort that goes into understanding customers needs to be applied to employees. Without employee insight and understanding there is considerable opportunity for 'own goals' from companies who fail to create a common ground for employees."

4. Turning staffers into fans

Long attuned to the idea of turning customers into fans, companies need to start applying some of those ideas to their own people, says Fiona Chilcott, chief people and culture officer at Enero and Hotwire, who advocates more of a 'campaign' approach to employee engagement. "Thinking of your employees more as customers and creating an experience for them is a shift for typical organizations who tend to think of talent as an asset," she notes.

In particular, that means companies need to think about turning employees into brand supporters, rather than just worker bees. "The campaigns can create fans of employees who will leave at some point but might become customers or boomerang back to employees in the future," says Chilcott. "The risk of not paying attention to this audience is alienating the team and in a business climate where talent is incredibly tough to find the investment return seems clear."  

And with that in mind, communicators need to have a clear understanding of what exactly motivates talent. "It’s important that communicators likewise look at the entire employee experience," says Chilcott. What motivates them to stay? What factors drive higher satisfaction and engagement rates? How do employees feel about their opportunities for advancement and professional development? In 2020, the battle for talent will further escalate. That puts the onus on communicators to be more dialed in than ever. If they’re not assessing the totality of the employee experience through annual and pulse surveys, they’re missing valuable insights that can mean the difference between a motivated and productive workforce and one that is simply breezing through their workday and filling their time scanning job boards.