WOT: Take us back — how did you get your start in employee communication?
EL: I’ve worked in some sort of communication field my entire career. I started on the external side doing public relations at a few nonprofits. Then I saw an employee communication job description at Fifth Third Bank that included a lot of things I really like to do, like writing and storytelling. I took a chance, applied and got the job. That was not only my first employee communication experience, but also my first experience in a corporate environment. I liked being in a role that helped people feel better about where they’re working, from understanding what’s available to them to learning what’s going on in the company and why it’s a great place to work.
WOT: You wear a few hats in your role overseeing associate communications and engagement. How do you describe your job when you’re at a networking event or a cocktail party?
EL: My job is to help people really love working at Kroger, which I do in a few ways. One, by talking about the awesome people that work for our company and the great things that they do to connect with our customers. Two, by sharing career opportunities and why it’s an exciting time to be here. Three, by showcasing the many ways Kroger enriches an associate’s life outside of work, whether it’s through benefits, discounts, tuition reimbursement or other perks.
WOT: Employee communication is a challenge anywhere, but at a large grocery chain like Kroger it seems particularly hard, given how diverse and dispersed your workforce must be. How do you overcome that?
EL: It’s something we work on every day. We have six generations in our workforce, from 15-year-olds at their first job to people in their 90s. It is truly a huge, diverse and unique workforce, so finding a way to communicate that works for everyone is a big obstacle. We need different tools, technologies and messages to reach them. And we may need to tell the same story in three different ways. It’s about having multifaceted strategies and channels.
WOT: What is the role of technology in reaching your in-store associates? Which vehicles work best?
EL: Our store associates aren’t at a computer and they don’t have phones on them during the day. Our intranet is our most important communications tool, and associates can access it at their convenience at the store, via their mobile phone or from a home computer. We post their schedules there to drive them to the site, and once there we have engaging stories and videos.
We also use Yammer, an internal social networking tool, as an app they can download to share what they’re working on and engage with associates all around the country. They like the feedback they get from colleagues, like when they post a picture of a great cake they made in our bakery.
WOT: Open enrollment is a major annual project for any employer, and it’s upon us once again. What steps have you found are most useful in preparing for a successful OE? Are you trying or facing anything new this year?
EL: For us it’s been having great relationships with our Total Rewards team and working lockstep with them. We start by setting up a framework. That involves identifying what will be the key message for OE in the coming year and how we’ll tie all the pieces together so it feels cohesive. It’s an approach that resembles a marketing campaign, and in a way that’s exactly what it is. We want our associates to know the company cares about them and wants them to live their best life. And that means understanding the benefits they’re getting, and how to use them. It’s an approach that’s also useful when we need to communicate changes, or things they might not like as much.
WOT: How do you manage communicating some of those more difficult changes?
EL: We make it a holistic conversation, so when you enroll in benefits and we have your attention, we also talk about the entire package of what you get for being a Kroger associate. We start early and map things out as much as possible to prepare associates for any changes ahead. It’s important to be open and explain why those changes are happening, acknowledge that not everyone will like it, and then give them enough information to understand it and navigate it. Sometimes what we’re communicating can be perceived as negative, especially when we’re making changes in how we reward. We always tie it back into the core message about their total rewards, and what it means to be a Kroger associate.
WOT: How do you know when your communications strategy is succeeding? Are there any particular KPIS or measures that your leadership team look at year over year?
EL: We measure as much as we can, using that data to make decisions about OE every year. The biggest thing we look at is whether associates are actively enrolling. That helps us understand if we’ll need to ramp up communications during OE. We also have a benefits site with robust metrics, so we can measure how often associates visit, where they go, how much time they spend there, and what resources they are using. That data is used year after year to help us make better decisions about where we want to invest.
We survey our employees and our HR associates across the organization at the end of each OE period to understand the overall associate experience. That helps us gauge the content needed for strong, educated decisions — ones our associates can feel good about. Benefits are personal. They’re for our associates and their families, so we want the experience to be a good one.
WOT: What’s the value in working with an external partner like Write On Target, versus handling a big project in-house?
EL: Speed! Having a partner that can really focus on our company’s needs and help us get it all done more quickly is really important. It’s also good to have an objective point of view on communications. External partners like Write On Target bring insight into experiences with other organizations, which helps raise questions and concerns early — along with ideas for addressing them. It’s also helpful to work with people who are year-round experts in the field and can help us stay up-to-date with the latest trends.
WOT: Tell us about one hard problem you’re working on or have worked on recently. How did communications factor in to the solution?
EL: I think a lot of companies are grappling with the rapid pace of change. The world at large, and the business world, is changing all the time. A few years ago, we brought our internal and external communications teams together so we could work in sync to send a consistent message. We try to operate more like a newsroom to get information out quickly, and we make sure we are sharing our story internally at the same time as externally — whether we are talking about the impact of government tax reforms, or new products and services.
WOT: What trend do you see coming down the pike that will affect how you communicate to your employee base?
EL: Our associates have the same expectations of us that they have of any communication they receive outside of the organization. A big thing we are looking at is personalization: How do we take a single message and make it relevant to Sue, who works in the seafood department of a certain store? We are updating our intranet to be able to personalize and aggregate content so that specific roles, like store managers, have the customized information they need to lead effectively.
We take the engagement part of our role really seriously. Both our customers and our associates want more from us than just price and convenience. It’s about the experience — how do they feel when they’re here? Are we creating an environment where people can be their best?
WOT: When you look back on your career so far, what are you most proud of?
EL: I’m proud to have been able to form a career out of something I really love. From a young age I really liked writing and telling stories, and to come to work and do it as my job is a dream come true.
Kroger is an organization that has always been on my bucket list and I’m grateful that I get to do what I do here. My dad was a Kroger store manager for more than 20 years. I was one of five kids, and when I walked into his store, they always knew my name and what I was up to. Dad worked hard, long hours and holidays, but I knew that when he was at work he was with his work family, and that they took care of each other. I really wanted to be a part of that, and his experience with the organization 20 years ago is the experience I’m having today. Anything I can do to help others have that same experience here, I want to do it.
WOT: What do you wish more Kroger associates knew?
EL: I hope each and every associate knows how important their job is to the organization. Every role matters to our business, to our customers, and to the communities we serve every day. Our associates are Kroger and they truly drive our success.
Thank you, Erin!