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Got your corporate culture sorted? Great. Now here’s the next thing

26 Sep 2016 by Brian Mairs.

Global Head of Communications - Financial and Risk at Thomson Reuters, Brian Mairs, shares his views on the role of PR in employee engagement in the workforce in his guest Thought Leaders Connected article this week.

Employee engagement has been the subject of a surprising debate lately – from Harvard Business Review, no less.

This dominant approach to organisational behaviour stems from the basic principle that an engaged workforce is more healthy, imaginative, fulfilled, loyal and productive – and surely creating this corporate culture is self-evidently, innately a good thing.

But Harvard Business Review recently reported a very different view. The recent blog post The Dark Side of High Employee Engagement has challenged conventional thinking by pointing out an uncritical approach can result in some missed opportunities for the business - and may still leave some staff unfulfilled and unhappy.

For one thing, complacency and arrogance can set in if an organisation fails to be sufficiently reflective and self-critical; for another, employees who immerse themselves in their corporate culture might overlook other important aspects of their lives, leading to burnout.

The researchers also claim an office full of upbeat people does not have the necessary corrective of insightful pessimists who can question the prevailing view; and such an office has no access to the benefits of negative thinking – principally persistence, focus and attention.

A skillfully designed employee engagement programme can surely overcome these challenges. It needs to. In my experience the people prepared to provide critical thinking – and to speak up about it – are absolutely essential to building effective business strategies. People who think different, as Apple would put it.

And this leads to a further point, beyond the scope of the HBR post but I think particularly pertinent to PRs. 

If our work colleagues are truly engaged with the organization and each other, they treat each other as friends, and can engage as friends on social media. That means the PR team need to be alert to what they are saying.

If the 21st century equivalent of the ciggie break or water cooler conversation is a discussion with friends on Facebook or Twitter, then the risk of that discussion breaking out beyond the organisation is clearly greater. Suddenly a minor issue within the organisation becomes a reputational issue which requires a steady PR hand.

Every organisation will have social media guidelines to cover this sort of episode. And they will almost always fail. The way we socialise stories about our lives nowadays is almost a reflex. Seen something interesting? Take a photo; post it; share it. No guidelines, no code of conduct, can change what is rapidly becoming second nature to a large part of the working population.

The line between our working lives and our real lives has been fading for many years, largely because the way we work has adapted with the technology available. If we work for multinational operations, we will have been required to hold conference calls at inconvenient hours for decades, so we know all about logging in late in the day, or talking to our Aussie counterparts in the early hours.

And of course handheld devices have been contributing greatly to the blurring of that line. Our smartphones offer us access to emails, Webex, messenger services and of course every social media platform. When work time and leisure time merge together, and our devices enable us to do both pretty much simultaneously, internal communications might not stay internal for very long.

The price we pay for our colleagues' flexibility, and for an open and collaborative corporate culture, is occasional challenges such as these. For most companies – and for people who like myself have seen the benefits of highly engaged colleagues – this might be considered a price worth paying.

As long as you have a skilled, experienced and adequately resourced PR team to tackle the problems when they happen, of course.

Thank you Brian for taking part in our Thought Leaders Connected blog this week.

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