At a time when there are more ways than ever to communicate and connect with and among employees, one way stands out as enduring: face time. Bringing leaders and employees together – face-to-face – is an essential part of a comprehensive employee communications strategy for every organization.

We’ve all heard countless data points that attest to the dismal state of trust in institutions today. Among them, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer terms today’s environment as an “implosion of trust” in business, media, government and NGOs. Troubling signals – and they’re amplified as we all grapple with a breathtaking pace of change and a surround sound of disruption across industries.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and see this as our call to action to invest in cultivating trust from the inside out. Start with employees and invest more in the value of face time.

Like many companies, we’re continually questioning the status quo when it comes to organizational communications. We’re listening to employees and adapting to ever-changing needs and expectations. As we map out communications strategies for the next few years, the need to transform how we engage and enable audiences is pressing.

Yes, we’re all finding benefits in the reach and power of internal social media. More than ever before, social media channels give employees voice, make new connections with peers possible, ease virtual collaboration, and minimize barriers of time and place. There’s more value yet to be realized from the powerful potential of internal social media to create corporate community.

With limited resources, it could be tempting to use more traditional communications. Remember: It’s not one or the other; it’s both. Take advantage of the power of the “and” – and of the original “social” media – that, while emulated, should never be eliminated. Simply put, people need people. Nothing can replace seeing and hearing from leaders directly — the chance to look a leader in the eye, hear the inflection in their voice, see their body language, and just talk. Face-to-face builds trust. Builds relationships. Builds understanding. Builds credibility.

It’s reinforced by both data and anecdotes. One thing that stood out to me in our company’s annual employee communications surveys is that employees consistently tell us how valuable informal channels and face-to-face venues are.

Take time to assess your organizational communications mix. Do you have a good balance of “Big C” (corporate-driven, formal channels) and “small c” (informal, interactive opportunities for conversation)?

The opportunities for in-person venues are many. Challenge your team to come up with what’s next – or to add unexpected elements. Here’s just a sampling:

Employee Town Halls: Long a staple of employee communications, it’s typically the CEO’s forum — a chance for senior leaders to provide updates about business strategy and accomplishments. But don’t stop there. Bring people together – in person, if possible. If not at the meeting location, “watch parties” can gather teams to participate together. Provide simple tools to prompt reaction, questions, conversation. Incorporate interactive elements – live polls, live Tweets, live or text questions from the audience. On occasion, we’ve featured an unexpected element – such as the time we engaged a professional comedy troupe to present a humorous skit poking good fun at some ways of working that were becoming a thing of the past.

Leader Forums: Downscale the town hall concept for targeted groups. In our company, an Executive Exchange for senior-most leaders and a Leadership Exchange for next-level leaders bring together these groups for insight, interaction and dialogue on business matters.

Small Group Conversations: About 8 years ago, we launched a forum that was daunting – and even uncomfortable – for some leaders at first. It quickly gained a following. Many leaders not only came to value it – but organically spun off their own. Simply called “Let’s Talk,” it’s an informal gathering for a leader with 15-20 employees. No agenda – just a chance to get together and talk. Employees opt in and show up. The leader makes a few opening remarks – sharing something about their area of the business and always something about themselves personally – and then simply opens to questions. The conversation unfolds based on what that group wants to talk about – business matters, company direction, ways to lead, ways to grow professionally, or even building on a personal interest. Inevitably, an hour of rich conversation unfolds. Many leaders have adopted this and host such gatherings in their business area.

Interactive Learning and Ideation Events: Tap into shared experiences that bring employees together to learn or solve a problem. To introduce the next generation of our company strategy last year, our corporate strategy team engaged Root Inc. to develop Learning Maps and hosted interactive strategy workshops. Nearly 90% of our employees took part – and loved them. Workshops brought diverse groups together to dig into business trends, talk about the big picture of company direction – and to do so in a high-energy, engaging way. The workshops were a pivotal part of building awareness and belief more broadly in the company strategy. On another note, our digital innovation team regularly hosts hackathons. These started with groups of developers focused on technology breakthroughs, but are growing into broad-based ideation events to invite employees at large to solve business problems.

Recognition Experiences: Finally, remember that thanks go a long way to reinforce trust, commitment and engagement. Recognition experiences matter. The investment can range from very modest to large scale. We’ve hosted a variety – such as pop-up #THX2U series. Try something simple: Invite employees to wear a Hawaiian shirt on a Friday, then bring in a local steel drum band over lunch and have leaders hand out ice cream bars and popsicles. Or host a food truck or two on your campus on a summer Friday. Or scale it up to include employees and families for a company picnic at your local zoo or outing to a ball game.

Whatever you choose, make it a priority to connect people to people. In an age when instant, temporary, transitory, and mediated are commonplace in all corners of our life and work, keep in mind how essential it is to take time for face time.


Leslie O’Connell is director – strategic communications/corporate at Northwestern Mutual, a Fortune 100 company that has been helping families and businesses achieve financial security for 160 years. She is passionate about inspiring employees to believe in their company and bring out their best. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieOConnell2.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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