Employee Engagement

Using Video to Tackle HR Digital Transformation

Our much more digital lives is strongly influencing our expectations at work as well as at home. Recent studies on digital transformation in HR, like this one by Deloitte University Press have highlighted the need for further digital initiatives outside of our products and services. This is the HR digital transformation and there are many facets to the challenge.

But how does one go about tackling this very broad, pervasive challenge? HR neither has the resources or the specialists, but is tasked with tackling this issue across the organization. And many are looking to solve the whole problem, but that’s nearly impossible. So let’s start with a simple, yet effective digital transformation. Video.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on the focus of the next billion internet users: video and voice. “Typing is dead,” they claim. Google’s YouTube service has seen this coming as well, investing time, resources and creative energy understanding the needs and desires of the next billion internet users.  For context, the next billion internet users are coming online from countries catching up on technology infrastructure, like India, China, Indonesia and Brazil. So how does this inform our strategy to leverage digital resources to improve employee engagement?

What we can learn from YouTube and these macro behavioral trends is that we need more video and voice at work. Those long CEO emails? Not read. Posters in the breakroom? Not read. Bulky handouts about your 401k plan? Not read. What employees crave is a more direct connection and when you can’t do it in person for everyone, video is the next best thing.

So let’s focus on some simple ways you can use video to engage your internal audience. It’s not that hard and it’s not that scary. Thanks to a virtual mini-studio we all hold in our hands (smartphones), we have the power to create fantastic videos that really resonate with our team members. There are three areas to focus on when thinking about creating a video message: 

The Best Ingredients
People: identify candidates from around your organization, at all levels, for participation. These include your CEO, an intern, a new employee, support staff and long-tenured team members. 
Story: associated with people are great stories. Stories about their journey in the organization, their role, what they do for your customers and what they enjoy most about the organization. Identify fun and inspiring stories that support the message you are trying to get a cross.
Setting: the office, a customer visit, a volunteer activity or just happy hour get together. It’s great to showcase areas or events not employees see often or have a reason to visit. Bring customer stories to team members who don’t usually interact with them. Highlight activities that others may have missed. 

Appropriate Length
I cannot emphasize enough how important this element is to making an engaging, consumable video. We see so many videos get drawn out, over-produced, over-scripted. Employees want to connect with real people and it’s that connection that brings them closer. The most positively received videos are often off-the-cuff, lightly outlined and aimed to be 45-90 seconds. 

Given the time constraint, don’t try to deliver too much. The whole point is bite-size pieces of consumable information. Aim to deliver video messages relatively often so there is a constant stream of various types of video messages. If this is your first video, take your time to develop a format that works best for your organization.

Maximum Exposure
You’ve assembled the story, the people and produced a quick hitting video. Now what? Get the word out! Put your marketer’s hat on and find channels to promote the video to your teams. If you have to use email, make sure to embed the video link and add a screenshot of the clip. You don’t want to waste your hard work with non-engaging forms of communication. If there is an intranet page that employees visit often or TVs in the breakroom or lobby, use those to show the video.

In addition to videos, think about podcasts. While not as visually interactive, hearing a story directly narrated by a fellow team member can have just as much impact on employee engagement. Given that communications is often a top three issue cited in employee surveys, podcasts and videos are a great way to get the message directly to all levels of employees. The issue is often the filters between leadership and the front line, especially middle managers who are either not equipped, trained or bought-in to effectively pass on the message. 

The great part of using videos is creating that direct connection. Plus, it creates a natural demand for more interactions. Your team will look forward to the next video update with great anticipation. So use videos to kick-start your engagement tactics!

(Do you wish this blog post was a short video instead?)

Learn How to Build Loyal Fans from NASA

In the fall of 2013, the United States government faced a budget quandary and the government shutdown. As an avid space fan and NASA Social participant, I had been on Twitter for several years following and advocating space-related news. But something amazing happened during the government shutdown.

For some background, the NASA Social initiative was started to engage people around the world through social media. As online engagement grew, NASA also started in-person “tweetups” to bring social media fans on-site at various NASA facilities to cover key events, just as regular media would. During the event, NASA Social attendees would use various social media platforms to spread the word. 

Using this strategy, NASA Social has created a huge global fanbase. And this fanbase would come to the rescue during the government shutdown. You see, while NASA employees were unable to tweet or share information, the global fanbase took over. The hashtag #WhatNASAMightTweet became the rally point. During the shutdown, social media fans from around the world took to Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to fill the void. No one got paid. No one got any favors. NASA fans were so engaged that they took the initiative on their own to fill the void - 24/7 for two weeks.

As one of those fans, I was astounded at how strangers rallied together to support their common cause. These were loyal fans. And as one attendee said, “NASA Social alumni is like family to me.” So how do we create loyal fans in our own organizations? Borrowing from NASA Social’s experience, I will highlight some keys elements to consider in creating fans of our organization.

What is the organization’s personality? Great brands create a unified voice to the market and can instill emotions. But is there personality internally? Does the communication style, tone and voice reflect the core values and create the right environment? Creating a personality allows employees to engage at a more comfortable level. NASA Social was able to create personalities around their missions by tweeting as the Mars rover or an exploratory spacecraft.

Sometimes, it takes time (and luck) to find the right personality. Look to your values and culture for hints on what voice plays well with your employee base. Is it really any different than your external marketing voice? Creating the right personality builds the fan base and elevates fan engagement for the content. This is not easy. It’s hard to balance serious, executive messages through a voice that can be more casual. This also means giving some guidelines to leader videos, so everything isn’t necessarily overly-produced, so their personality comes out more.

What captures all our attention is a good story. And like any good story, there’s a plot that intrigues us and characters that we care about (personality!). At NASA Social, they leverage storytelling every chance they get. There’s a team of social media managers that take on various missions or events and for the most part, have discretion over how they approach it. But in the end, they are all strategically aligned on spreading the news and engaging the audience.

For organizations, an ambassador network can work well to provide the stories that matter. And often times, the best stories come from deep in the trenches. Find advocates at all levels of your organization and recruit them to be storytellers. The audience will appreciate the intimate stories from various departments and levels and provide genuine “plotlines” to maximize engagement. Having different perspectives and voices for storytelling keeps it interesting and avoids the “business tone” that often turns off your audience.

No, not that kind of leadership. This is where I break from the norm and talk about leadership from your fan base. During the #WhatNASAMightTweet fill-in campaign, it wasn’t NASA leadership that won the day. It was the leadership amongst the most loyal fans that took the initiative and grew and sustained the effort. 

If you get the first two things right, you create natural leaders in the fan base to help the organization through both good times and bad times. Loyal fans help you fight the fight, so you don’t have to. Negativity can be reversed by loyal fans throughout the organization, without it sounding like “another management storyline.” So find leadership in the fan base so that growing the loyal fan base becomes a self-sustaining cycle.

We can all borrow from lessons from NASA Social’s success over the years on how organizations can create loyal internal fans. Leveraging personality, storytelling and fan leadership, you can create, grow and sustain a base of loyal fans that improve engagement all around. And as a space fanatic, I hope this inspires you to check out the various NASA social media accounts and look for opportunities to apply for one of the coveted spots for the next NASA Social event.

(You can find NASA Social events at: https://www.nasa.gov/connect/social/

Employee Engagement - The Journey to Mars

I was chatting with a friend the other day about our mission at Blast, where we are helping organizations measure, build and improve culture and organizational knowledge through fun interactions on a regular basis. And she asked why organizations find that to be so important these days?

I was about to answer, but then thought about it. Do organizations really believe it to be so important? Where is it on strategic priority lists? Studies from Gallup and Bersin have shown that employee engagement is near the top of strategic priorities for many CEO’s and executives, often in the top four. But how much resources are they dedicating to this problem, relative to others?

In thinking about it, it helps to frame short-term priorities against long-term priorities. For example, customer service issues need to be fixed today. Software issues need to be fixed today. Finance issues need to be fixed today. And by “today,” I mean in the weeks and months ahead. Now let’s frame long-term priorities like increasing profitability, increasing shareholder value and improving organizational culture and employee engagement. We all acknowledge that these challenges are not solved overnight, so organizations often put them off for more tangible, short-term impact items.

Employee engagement is like the journey to Mars. There are lots of challenges and unknowns for a mission to Mars, but we would never get there if we didn’t start taking steps to learn, adapt and innovate. Here are four ways to get started on this journey with a commitment to continue to push the limits.

Start Small
Turn your attention to a specific cohort in the organization that is having the most challenge, either from a turnover standpoint or a performance standpoint. Explore tactics that work with that group. For example, drastically increase communications with those teams. These groups often feel left out or disconnected. Then ask for feedback through skip-level lunches and regular touch points. Go out of your way to make them feel connected and cared for.

The goal here is to learn before committing to a larger program. More on commitment later. Focus on understanding the receptiveness of the audience and what truly motivates your team. Different industries and environments will dictate slightly different strategies, so this is your opportunity to really get to know your team.

Open Dialogues
If you haven’t already, consider adopting a pulse survey strategy, maybe in addition to an annual employee survey. To make immediate impacts, you need to be ready to respond to concerns - genuinely. Getting month-to-month feedback provides more near-real-time visibility to concerns in the organization, giving you the opportunity to show that management hears the concerns and begin to address them in some way.

Focus on the regularity of communications, in both directions. No one enjoys lectures. Create space to have open dialogues and create a way to collect the feedback. Coach managers to respond and prioritize concerns to build trust with the organization. Middle managers are key for opening a two-way communication channel.

Reward and Recognize
Think about rewarding your teams for the fun of it. Everyone loves winning, especially when there’s competition. And rewards don’t have to be expensive. Small gift cards, lunch with the CEO, company swag, paid day off, vendor swag - all of these are basic rewards that don’t break the budget, but can make a great impact for the organization, especially those on the front lines. Competing for rewards helps build bonds within the organization, and that’s always a good thing.

In today’s workplace, there’s an increase in desire for peer recognition as much as top-down recognition. Find ways to be inclusive in the recognition process, so peers continue to build relationships across as well as up and down. 

Just Get Started
There are a lot of moving pieces in preparing for a journey to Mars. Employee engagement is nothing different. The best way to start overcoming challenges is to start solving one problem, then the next, then the next. As with all big, strategic problems, everyone has grand ideas. “What if we could…and then we could…” Create discipline to identify a couple of initiatives you can get off the ground, and focus on creating success with the target audience. Once you do that, you can more easily expand and build upon the success.

But all of this hinges on priorities. Why do this NOW? Because if you don’t get started, you definitely won’t reach your goals. As a customer reminded me the other day, employee engagement takes commitment. It’s commitment of leadership, resources, time and energy to make this happen. You can’t decide to go to Mars and quit halfway through. That will literally leave you in the middle of the solar system. 

So get going. Get started now by committing some resources to exploring what works for your organization’s culture. Your culture really can’t wait.

Employee Engagement Starts with Empathy

Recently the software development team from Blast took the opportunity to get out and visit some of our users. It is critical that we talk to the people who are using our software product and doing so is a regular part of our agile software development process. We always learn a lot about our users and come away with a list of enhancements – many of which challenge our own assumptions. 

It struck me when we began to discuss and compile our findings that much of this approach informs not only our software development but the overall effort to design an effective employee engagement experience. We learn as much about the program communications as we do about the software. Many of our clients, having participated in these sessions, come away amazed at what they learn about the people in their own organization. This should come as no surprise. Both the software and the employee engagement program are intended to connect with people – and they can tell us a lot about the effectiveness of our approach.

Building Employee Engagement is Like Building Software

The approach we take to building software is cyclical. We start by connecting with our users to gain an appreciation for their perspective. We brainstorm ideas to address what we learn and then test and implement the solutions we develop. The process then starts again. We continually iterate in this way. By so doing, we build the right features and solve the right problems.

In developing a communication program the same dynamics are at work. We can learn a lot when we take the time to ask our audience what they think and use this to make improvements. This approach is known as design thinking. It puts the people we serve at the center of the process. In this way we don’t build based on our own biases and assumptions, but on the evidence we gather from our audience. We can then apply our creativity to solve the problems that we discover rather than the ones we imagine are important. This makes what we do more effective and we connect with our audience in a more meaningful way.

Developing Empathy for the User

The beginning of understanding lies in empathy for the user, in the case of software, or the audience, in the case of employee engagement programs. The key to developing empathy is listening to them.

At Blast we gather input in a variety of ways starting with our clients. We undertake a process of discovery with them to understand their objectives, learn about their organization and the content to be delivered in order to configure the software and plan the program. We encourage our clients to apply design thinking by including regular feedback from employees along the way.

Most important is developing empathy for the end user – the users we want to engage in the programs supported by our software. We observe them using the software. This gives us the feedback we need to understand usability issues. This is a very granular level of feedback and points to problems with the interface or workflows that frustrate or prevent a user from using the software as intended.

Perhaps most importantly, we conduct interviews. In our discussions with employees, we start with a big picture view of their overall experience. We follow a line of questioning focusing on what their life at work is like, how they approach their responsibilities and what the challenges are that they face day to day. In this part of our discussion we don’t talk about the software at all. We want to appreciate the user’s perspective first. After we understand this context we focus in on where our software fits into their daily activities. 

We schedule a cross-section of employees for these interviews so we can form a comprehensive picture of the variety of users. We will meet with the overall administrator who is responsible for driving the program across the organization. We meet with managers and supervisors who lead the teams and who we rely on to champion the program. And we meet with employees from different parts of the organization representing the range of occupations that make up the workforce.

Putting Empathy to Work

Invariably, once we have gathered feedback we are amazed at what we’ve heard and how we can learn from it. We are buzzing with ideas and insights we would not otherwise have had.

Distilling all this information into the fuel for action quickly follows. We sift through all the information and organize it into common themes and pinpoint any problems that exist. It is important to remain objective as we organize our findings in a way that will highlight the most pressing needs and the greatest opportunities for improvements. 

Once we have distilled the feedback we unleash our creativity and turn to brainstorming solutions. We have the confidence of knowing we are focused on the most urgent items that will yield the most value to our users. This in turn leads to development, testing and implementation of the new solutions.  

One of the ways we test our ideas is with our own Blast Beta program. We use the software ourselves and gain insights from our own hands-on experience and the feedback and observations of our Beta users. This is a test environment where we can experiment. We try new approaches and give ourselves permission to fail in the service of learning.

Then the process starts all over again as we circle back to our clients and users for additional feedback.


These same methods are applicable to an overall employee engagement program. Having clarity from the outset of the objectives and desired outcomes, testing or piloting your ideas, observing employees interacting with your program and conducting interviews to collect feedback at regular intervals provides insights that you can use to continually improve. 

There is comfort in knowing that you are never too far out in front of your audience or disconnected from them before checking in for feedback. Your audience become your partners in developing effective solutions. And who better to rely on for guidance – after all, you’re doing it for them.





3 Key Challenges for Middle Managers and How to Help Them

The message to nowhere. We’ve all been there and seen it happen. Sometimes we anticipate it. Sometimes we see it like a slow motion car accident. Sometimes we look back on it. As leaders, you scratch your head wondering why your message isn’t being effectively absorbed by the front line. As a member of the front line, you wonder why leaders keep wasting your time with irrelevant information. 
The missing link is middle managers. Imagine a typical hierarchy in an organization. C-level executives at the top with a thin layer of vice presidents and directors, then a heavier layer of managers overseeing the front lines. Often, the best laid plans are hatched at the top and pushed down through the organization. In better organizations, ideas from the bottom filter up and turn into re-envisioned plans that are pushed down. But the information conduit often hits resistance at the middle management level. 
But before we lay blame on this cohort, let’s think about what we’ve done as organizations to create this communication and leadership void. And what we can do about it. Middle managers face three key challenges:
Lack of training
Do you remember the first time you became a manager? Not just in title, but to manage people. I remember my first manager role, leading a team of four talented individuals completing supply chain projects around the world. How much training did I receive before becoming manager? How do I handle conflicts between team members? What about customer issues? And what were the policies around performance reviews and time-off?
If your experience was anything like mine, you didn’t receive any formal training before embarking on a manager role. If you’re lucky, you may have enrolled in training after becoming a manager. But very few managers receive adequate (or any) training prior to taking on the role. 
We need to do a better job of preparing talent to become managers. The lack of training and formal guidelines creates challenges in managing our teams, especially in communications. How much are you supposed to tell your team, and how do you tell them? How do you lead by example and embody core values? We need to equip middle managers to carry the message if we want an effective conduit to the front lines.
Lack of personal engagement
As a newly minted manager, you might not realize just how important your role is. And how much the team looks for your leadership to guide them. This comes in the form of personal engagement as well as providing tactical guidance. So much of our actions are based on those around us and managers help set the tone for the front line. Sure, it’s okay to be “one of them” and have fun while building rapport, but you can’t let the team think that you’re just their friend. The manager has to lead by example and if the manager makes off-hand comments like, “oh, it doesn’t really matter” or “I don’t listen to them anyway,” then the team will take that as a sign that they shouldn’t care.
The lack of personal engagement from the manager creates a void in the leadership voice and is often where messages and key initiatives from the top die. Employee engagement starts with organizational leaders and those who carry the tone from the top to the front line. We need to reinforce accountability with our manager and ensure that they are avid fans of the brand and carry the message through their personal actions. We need to give new managers time to get committed - not as an individual contributor, but as a manager. We have to reinforce the importance of personal engagement as part of the responsibilities of being a manager.
Lack of leadership
The lack of leadership in middle management is a direct result of the aforementioned challenges. As team members are pushed into a leader role, often because of unplanned transitions rather than well-planned successions, individuals are most often unprepared to be THE leader. How do you manage colleagues you were friends with? How do they approach difficult conversations? As organizations, we need to do a better job preparing true leaders, not just those that have great technical skill.
A crucial leadership skill is communications. Leaders are the conduit - both in managing up as well as managing the team. As such, middle managers are a crucial conduit of information, representing strategic direction and feedback from the front line. To enable this communication, we need to help middle managers dissect doing from managing. Managers need to be trained to lead their teams by providing timely communications, being empathetic and exhibiting strategic influence. We can’t count on natural leadership abilities, which are often missing for first-time managers.
So as you think about improving engagement throughout your organization, think about where the roadblocks are and how you can enable middle managers to be better ambassadors of engagement with an emphasis on personal engagement. It’s no longer sufficient to be a good worker, you now have a responsibility to lead the team and be a leader of the organization. It is crucial for us to overcome this hurdle in the middle.