The Art of Employee Engagement Through E-mail
By Josephine Monberg, Stephanie Carlson, Caroline Koenigsfeldt, Lauren Gibbons Paul | 10 min read
It’s challenging enough to craft clear, effective communications with employees during good times. But it’s even harder to do so when times are tough and changing fast. Charles Cohen, managing director of Benco Dental, a U.S.-based distributor of dental supplies and equipment, learned that lesson overnight.
At the beginning of the pandemic, all of Benco Dental’s customers – dental offices – were required to close within a matter of two days. As a result, Benco Dental’s business dropped by 75% immediately, and senior leaders had no choice but to lay off one-third of its workforce, about 500 people in all. Devastating as the cuts were, the leaders were committed to keeping these workers engaged so they would want to return to the company as soon as conditions improved.
“They’re good people, and we knew that it was going to be temporary,” says Cohen during a webcast hosted by Axios. So communicating with the laid-off workers regularly through e-mail newsletters was part of Benco Dental’s strategy to keep them in the fold. Eight weeks later, as business resumed and jobs opened up, they were all willing to come back. “At the end of the day, partly because of our communication strategy, we got back every single person that we wanted to.”
Internal communications at large organizations is a tricky business. Leaders want to get their message out, share important news, shape the company culture, highlight successes, recognize contributions, and explain corporate strategy. The importance of strong employee communications rises during times of crisis, as Cohen learned.
E-mail newsletters offer a convenient, low-cost method for doing all those things. Done well, the newsletters can provide the transparency that employees crave following the pandemic. This is critical to bolstering engagement. The Gallup 2021 State of the Global Workplace survey found 80% of employees worldwide report a lack of engagement; not a happy situation by anyone’s measure.
E-mail and e-mail newsletters are among the top methods companies use to share messages with employees, notes Jessica Walter, a communications strategist and leadership coach who is a senior consultant at Kincentric. Walter says employees like these newsletters because they can deal with them in their own time, and search for a message to reread it or forward it to a colleague.
Still, leaders are challenged by the fact that e-mails are ubiquitous. Workers’ inboxes are bursting, adding to the screens that demand their attention with electronic notifications, chat messages, Slack updates, and even automated alerts from machines (as in healthcare).
So while e-mail newsletters can be an important tool to increase workers’ engagement, they can get ignored if they are not high-quality. “When there’s an inundation of too many things that start to waste their time, workers get stressed out,” says Walter.
While e-mail newsletters can be an important tool to increase workers’ engagement, they can get ignored if they are not high-quality.
There are high-profile examples of companies recognizing and addressing this problem by making internal communications a “must read.” Take media companies – professional communicators — for example. The New York Times Company has posted a job for an employee storyteller to spearhead the writing of internal e-mails that engage its workforce. Axios has launched AxiosHQ to teach business leaders how to write e-mail newsletters in the style it uses to share national news.
Benco Dental, one of Axios’ customers, has found the frequency of communications to be critical as it sought to retain ties to its laid-off workforce. The company began sending those workers e-mail newsletters two times a week, eventually opting for once a week. Cohen says the key was letting people know, “Here’s what’s going on, here’s why it’s important. Here are the resources you can have, even though you’re not technically part of the organization right now. And here’s why we we’re very hopeful for the future.”
Cohen credits the newsletter communication strategy with helping keep valued people connected to the company. There are lessons here, for when it comes to writing effective employee e-mail newsletters, three principles are key: simplicity, relevance, and timing.
Simplicity: Keep the language clear and the message direct.
Clear and direct messages are crucial for enticing employees to read. That means using basic vocabulary and short sentences to make the content consumable.
The reason to do this? You’re doing your employees a favor, saving them time they might otherwise waste trying to figure out fancy lingo.
Clear and direct messages are crucial for enticing employees to read.
Walter says some people need to be convinced about this emphasis on simplicity and clarity. Earlier in her career, Walter surveyed 10,000 employees between 2016 and 2021 and found they were afraid that using simple language wouldn’t sound “professional.”
“They felt like if they wrote short, concise things that were on a fifth-grade reading level, for example, then they’re not being good writers and not being good communicators,” says Walter. “But, actually, it’s inconsiderate to write more than you need to. And it’s inconsiderate to use the bigger words because of the time, energy, and effort it takes to consume them.”
Never write a long sentence when a short sentence will do, advises Walter. Headings within the newsletter help guide readers through separate topics. Bullet lists are useful. Visuals, too. In our hyper-scrolling age, less is more.
“You should assume people are scrolling and looking for what they want,” Walter says.
Relevance: Pick topics that show the company’s progress and how employees belong.
Just as important as the style of an employee newsletter is the subjects it contains.
For example, Walter’s research found that employees are most interested in knowing about their company’s plans and how they fit in. But other key topics are also relevant.
In her internal communications study, Walter found three other important categories for internal communications: updates about the company’s work, news about individual employees, and information that meets employees’ personal needs. (Her five-year research included the employee surveys, plus focus groups, in-depth interviews, and analysis of open rates and other data from communications platforms.)
The reasons employees want to know about these topics were clear, Walter says. Workers want:
- To know about the company’s future plans, so they can understand how their role fits now and how it may change
- To feel safe in their jobs
- To know the company is stable and will continue having a positive reputation, because that that reflects on them, too
- To learn about the company’s progress on stated goals
- To gain inspiration from their colleagues’ work
Including information on topics such as these not only provides useful news, but it creates feelings of confidence, inspiration, and a sense of stability and belonging to a valued community. For example, employee news often includes employee profiles, photos of group activities, awards and recognition, job anniversaries, and lists of new hires.
Another category can include news related to pay, benefits, wellness, updated company procedures, training opportunities, and career advancement. This information helps workers feel that they’re being compensated fairly. It also communicates the company’s appreciation for their work.
Timing and meaning: Issue regular updates on what’s important and why.
Set a cadence for your newsletter that fits your corporate culture. Many companies send newsletters to their employees monthly or weekly. Consistency sets reasonable expectations (and avoids coming off as spam). If there is urgent or particularly important corporate news, communicate it before any other constituency finds out.
To do otherwise erodes employees’ trust, says Kim Reich, who oversees e-mail newsletters for a large manufacturer.
“If I had a family situation, and I told the whole world before I called and told my best friend, they are likely to feel confused or sad,” Reich says. “So, we try to take care of our own folks by giving them the information first. Employees should be more important than the general public.”
Walter says that trust goes two ways. Most employees understand that some company details cannot be shared. “If that’s the case, that’s OK. You just need to tell them why you’re unable to share more and when you’ll be able to provide more details,” she says.
At the same time, Walter says that it’s wise to expect that any type of targeted communication to a specific stakeholder group – including employees – may be shared with others unless it’s clearly marked as confidential. It’s important for leaders to be clear on how sensitive information can or cannot be used.
Benco Dental sends a weekly company-wide e-mail newsletter. In an interview, Cohen, who owns the newsletter, says that weekly is the right cadence for his company. “In a world that is changing so quickly, weekly communication is important,” he says. He notes that departments such as sales and field repair are beginning to experiment with e-mail newsletters of their own that appear less often, such as monthly.
There’s something very good about everyone getting the exact same communication at the same time, all the time.
- Charles Cohen, managing director of Benco Dental
Cohen believes the weekly message received by everyone at the same time has a unifying power.
“We’ve got people making upward of several $100,000 a year, our sales team and our professional people, all the way down to people in warehouses who are picking orders and fixing dental equipment in dental offices,” he says. “There’s something very good about everyone getting the exact same communication at the same time, all the time.”
Cohen says he’s learned by using his company’s newsletter system to communicate not just what information is important but why it’s important. For example, Cohen recently included in the newsletter a report from the U.S. government about the state of oral health in this country. The report cited access to dental care as one of the top issues.
“We used the newsletter to say, here’s an update and it matters to us because we focus on dentistry and expanding access to oral healthcare. We wanted to help all our people, even in back-office roles, understand why what we are doing is important,” he says.
Measure newsletter value: Emphasize self-assessments.
The best way to assess how well you’re doing at engaging employees through e-mail is to benchmark against yourself.
Open rates (the percentage of recipients that open the newsletter in their e-mail system) and click-throughs (how many recipients click on the links presented in the newsletter) are the most common measures.
Walter says that the experience varies by the organization. The key is to track change over time – and pay attention to which topics generate interest. According to Walter: “It’s important to benchmark against yourself, and to keep an eye on which topics are getting the most clicks and time spent.”
Cohen said Benco Dental’s newsletter open rate runs at about 40% but that’s an improvement from where they started. And considering the competition for employees’ attention coming from everything from work-related e-mails to TikTok, he’s satisfied with that rate for the moment.
Employee feedback is another invaluable indicator of how you’re doing. Surveys are a great way to collect that input. And these don’t have to be elaborate. According to a report from the e-mail platform Contact Monkey, pulse surveys, which usually take under five minutes to complete, can be used multiple times a year to gauge how employees feel about a particular event, including e-mail newsletters. Given their short format, pulse surveys are likely to garner a higher number of responses, according to the report, and they enable you to adapt your strategy based on real-time employee feedback.
At Benco Dental, e-mail employee newsletters are part of a communication strategy that also includes town hall-style meetings. With e-mail newsletters, Cohen says he discovered his dream communication tool. “I like to tell stories about what is going on around this organization,” he says. “This is the best way to share stories [about] what we are doing – and why.”
- Use simple language. Short sentences with active verbs work best. Bulleted lists convey important info fast.
- Don’t write it if you could use a visual instead. A revenue chart is better than a long discussion of results.
- Communicate not just what you’re doing, but why.
- Ensure employees hear key messages from the company first – not from outside sources.
- Set a regular newsletter cadence – and don’t bombard employees with unwanted e-mails.
- Send newsletters to all employees at the same time to increase their sense of being part of a team.
- Survey employees to assess what types of e-mails they like and dislike.
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