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Around the Bonfyre: Improving Internal Communication in the Workplace with Ally Bunin

6 min

Diverse communication strategies are the pathway to engagement at Brighton Health Plan Solutions.

In response to employee feedback, the health plan management organization rolled out a diverse, multi-channel strategy over the course of the past year, leveraging digital, print, and in-person communication in the workplace. These efforts, strategized and implemented by Vice President of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications Ally Bunin, led to an increase in employee engagement scores across the board. For our latest installment of Around the Bonfyre, we sat down with Bunin to unpack her perspective on how to support engagement and culture with internal communications.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You have a great title that got our ears perking up here at Bonfyre—Vice President of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications. What does engagement mean to you?

Engagement is the commitment the employee has to an organization as an emotional state. Without all the buzzwords, I believe it’s a journey, not a destination. Engagement fluctuates just as our attitudes and behaviors fluctuate. A lot of people say engagement is a program. There’s all types of things that influence and drive engagement, but engagement is a mindset.

So how does internal communications drive that mindset?

Internal communications is responsible for keeping employees connected and helping them see the bigger picture. That in and of itself is a huge piece of how committed employees are to the organization. By understanding the values and expectations of the company and connecting to them, employees can live the mission and vision. These pieces of the puzzle connect well when you’re looking at influencing the employee mindset.

What channels do you need to use to reach employees to get at that mindset? How and where do you need to be communicating with them?

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I believe mobile is a huge piece of any good internal communications strategy because we are all in a mobile community. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Every company has similar challenges but different needs. I take a multi-channel approach. We’ve taken a big stance on in-person, face-to-face communications, particularly with leadership and employees. You’ve got basic channels you need to use to create consistency around the message and build a repository of information where employees can understand what’s happening on a regular basis. I still use an email newsletter. Print can be very important. We use a lot of video here, too. We launched our Intranet a week ago – that’s been a massive effort to get communications and some tools employees need centralized in one place, along with content my team manages.

Are there any channels or strategies that are trending today or that people are more receptive to now?

Mobile-first is an increasing trend in all industries. In a former role, my team and I built and launched a custom mobile app and were among the first in healthcare to do so. Many companies are now launching employee apps which is something we’ll see continue. At Brighton Health Plan Solutions we’re doing text message notifications, primarily for weather alerts and office closings, and instant messaging to reduce email. We also use a lot of video and visual communications. It’s very important to use visuals to engage employees and connect with their emotions and senses beyond the written word.

You wrote an article a few years ago called “Burning Down the Firewall” where you advocated for using social media to start employee conversations. Is that a stance you still agree with?

I still feel strongly about social media. It’s often the first entry point for candidates. Attracting talent without social media is near impossible these days. You have to have an active and vibrant social platform to engage with potential candidates and your employees. Many companies are doing this so well that they don’t have to advertise for talent anymore. Hershey’s. Cisco. Southwest. They’re letting employees do the advertising for them through social channels. It’s been really fun to see. I think it’s incredibly important to not lock content behind a firewall. Of course employee personal information and data should be kept behind a firewall, but I don’t see content living there anymore.

How much of a role does employee feedback play in curating your communications strategies?

A lot of useful feedback comes through the employee engagement survey, whether directly or indirectly. Based on how engagement scored, we can see what areas need to be strengthened and where to take a different direction. We also do pulse surveys, focus groups, and one-on-ones with leaders to get their input. Here, we discovered people really needed more face-to-face interaction so we added new forums. And now we’re giving them all these channels, and I think it’s been an adjustment. It really depends on the workforce. Where are your employees? You have to go where they are. My employees are at the desk, and they’re available for meetings. That isn’t the case for many workforces.

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How did employees respond to seeing their feedback manifest in how you approach communication in the workplace?

We actually just got our engagement survey results back, and we had double-digit growth across the board. Specifically, we saw tremendous growth in communications. The data point on how employees rated internal communications year over year went up 74%. We felt great about that. We had a 35% year over year increase in how employees understood the mission, vision, and values of the company and what was expected of them. When you focus on something and listen to your employees, the returns come.

“Culture change” is a theme repeated across your LinkedIn profile. Could you tell us about your perspective on culture change?

“Culture change is really about behavior change. It could be employee behavior change or it could be how you want to be perceived in the marketplace. In order for that behavior change to occur, you have to consistently communicate it.”

Make sure people understand the value proposition and “what’s in it for me.” It has to be authentic. Just about every business and organization needs behavior change. No business can afford to stay static. Every company is really going through a culture change if you think about it that way. It used to be some big scary, theoretical term, but it all comes down to desired behaviors, expectations, goals, and “what’s in it for me.” When all of that starts to work together, you’re making progress.

It sounds like you have a passionate and optimistic outlook on culture change. Many people in the industry doubt the efficacy of culture change.

I’m glad I sound positive. I think people may confuse culture change with different things happening in the organization that require change management efforts. Businesses go through transitions (like acquisitions or layoffs), and then they think about what needs to take place to potentially effectuate change in employee morale. Workforce change management, and getting employees through big adjustments, is extremely challenging. It requires major efforts and initiatives to help employees along. I do think that a lot of stuff has gotten lumped in with “culture change” when in fact they are different.

So when people think culture change, they approach it with preconceived assumptions about what it entails, but at its core it’s shifting behaviors.

I’m not saying it’s easy. You know what some people say culture is? Everybody has different definitions but what has resonated with me are a couple things:

  • Culture is how it feels to work at the company.
  • Culture is how the values are exuded. How the behaviors and values together create how it feels to work there.

Some other people have started talking about how culture is the employee experience. That includes technology, it includes rewards and recognition, it’s how I feel about XYZ. It’s started to get very big. I don’t know if I agree with any one definition of culture, but I associate culture change in and of itself with behavior change and getting people onboard with company expectations, mission, vision, and values.

Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

Our job as communicators is to give employees what they need. When someone tries something new, you often hear from above, “Well, are employees really going to want that?” You don’t give employees what they want, you have to give them what they need. In this space in particular, it’s why we’ve been pushing the boundaries. Employees are the same as you and me. They’re not looking to login to five different portals to access content or a pay statement. Making that employee experience better opens the doors to engagement in so many different ways. 

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