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A New Approach to People-Focused Communications

From April 2021 and September 2021, 19 million employees left their jobs.1 McKinsey Quarterly. “Great attrition or great attraction? The choice is yours.” September 8, 2021. That’s the entire state of New York. If that’s not staggering enough, 36% of employees left before they even had another job offer in hand. This trend has not stopped. In fact, in Achiever’s 2023 Engagement and Retention report 2Achievers Workforce Institute. “The Future is Flexible. Achievers 2023 Engagement and Retention Report.” February 2023., employee attrition continues to rise with 81% of employees finding jobs completely on their own.

There are numerous factors that are influencing employee exits. According to Achiever’s report, compensation is not high on the list. After three years of a pandemic, employee needs have drastically changed. While motivators such as compensation and work flexibility are still important, keeping top talent requires a stronger focus on relational needs as much as transactional ones.

Rethinking employee and human need

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been a long-standing framework for understanding basic human needs. It’s typically presented as a pyramid and articulates that humans are motivated by increasingly “higher” levels of need. Once basic needs are met then we reach our purpose (or self-actualization). The pyramid also suggests that achieving our needs is a linear, step-by-step process—once we complete one step then we are ready to move to the next.

In his book “Transcend,” 3Scott Barry Kaufman. ”Sailboat Metaphor.” April 2020. Scott Barry Kaufman, a supporter, and friend of Maslow, shares that Maslow’s own writing never intended for the human need to be depicted as a pyramid. Unlike a pyramid, life is not set in stone and is not linear. While Maslow saw need as hierarchical, he also believed that being human was an experience and that our needs change depending on the direction we choose. Kaufman suggests that a pyramid is an inaccurate depiction of Maslow’s work.

Instead, he suggests that a sailboat is a better metaphor for life because it’s not about the level you reach but the integration and balance within yourself and how that influences the way you navigate the world.

You don’t ‘climb’ a sailboat like you’d climb a mountain or a pyramid. Instead, you open your sail, just like you’d drop your defenses once you feel secure enough.

How organizations can use the sailboat

The sailboat metaphor is the perfect framework for organizations, especially HR, to better understand employee needs and to change the way we think about employee experience. Employees are looking to feel more connected to each other, their leaders, and their organization. They want to thrive and they want to work with an organization they know will help get them there.

How HR aligns with different aspects of the sailboat.

  • Safety – feeling protected, having job security, and that physical, financial, and emotional needs are met.
  • Connection – Personal connections and relationships – colleague to colleague, manager to employee, employees to their leaders and organization.
  • Self-Esteem – feelings of respect and worthiness, being recognized, and being valued because your voice is heard.

The sail represents growth. Provides movement and helps us navigate wherever we want to go; Growth is a direction, not a destination.

  • Exploration –Fueling the curiosity that drives innovation and transformation, the ability to learn and grow and advance your career
  • Love – Not to be mistaken for connection, love is having the ability to care about people you may not know. Being able to contribute to the common good, serving customers and the community.
  • Purpose – Achieving business outcomes, and feeling that you are working at a place that shares your values.

Additional sailboat elements:

  • Seabird – is thriving—the ability for employees to feel that they are personally and professionally fulfilled and they can look down on what they have achieved.
  • Ocean – a sailboat can’t move without the currents of technology underneath it. The ocean represents the communication and technology systems that influence the direction of the boat and, sometimes, threaten its stability.

Why does any of this matter?

If HR programs and services are the foundation for the experience, communications are the connective tissue throughout it. Effective and meaningful communications help employees feel that sense of security so that they can unfurl their sails and find fulfillment. As we rethink employee needs, so too do we need to stop communicating in a linear way.

A new approach is about context and experience. And understanding employee needs at a much deeper level and then aligning communications to meet those needs. We understand that employees crave the ability to advance their careers. These opportunities exist. We just need to communicate them better. Take, for example, career development. Traditionally, we communicate career development as a linear progression. You start at one level and then you get promoted level by level. However, advancing your career is more than moving up the corporate ladder. You can advance your career horizontally (same-level opportunities that expose you to new work) and diagonally (temporary assignments).

A framework for people-focused communications

Now is the opportunity for employers to rethink a new approach to people-focused communications. Taking Kaufman’s sailboat, we’ve created a message map to align and articulate the HR program and services that underpin the different needs of employees.

People-Focused Communications Message Map | Created by Elizabeth Mull

If you’re familiar with employee value propositions (EVPs), you might think this the same. It is not. Even an EVP can be overly transactional and a laundry list of differentiators—”if you work with us, this is what you will get.” The two should align but they are unique assets. The EVP helps communicators identify key employee touchpoints. This message map helps you think about the employee more contextually and understand employee needs at a much deeper level, aligning communications to meet those needs, and developing messages to drive awareness and understanding. The sentiments of your message map should be present in all of your employee and HR communications. And ideally, you’ll reach a point where all employees will have heard these messages one way or another.

As leaders navigating a tight labor market, it’s important to remind ourselves what employees like about working, why they’ve joined the organization, and what drives them to leave or stay. This new approach articulates to employees that they can come to your organization and have vast opportunities and the ability to go in many directions. More importantly, they can reach their potential in numerous ways — and ultimately thrive.

This article is based on a workshop that I presented at the Millennium Alliance’s CHRO Assembly: Transformation HR in March 2023. You can download the presentation using the link below.

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