Workplaces today are filled with a generational jumble of four different age groups: veterans, baby boomers, generation X and generation Y. And the different dynamics of these groups have employers scrambling to find tactics to engage and inform them all.

The influx of the youngest set of workers, generation Y, has had the greatest impact on the complexity of employee communications. Born between 1980 and 2000, gen Y comprises roughly 80 million North Americans. According to MetLife’s 10th annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends, as many as 70% of these younger workers would value receiving information about their benefits plans through social networks, mobile devices and text messages.

Understanding Gen Y

To understand how best to engage gen Y employees, let’s examine some traits common to this demographic. Gen Yers value flexible work schedules and telecommuting. When researching a potential employer, they tend to focus on its social responsibility platform as well as their ability to work near their friends.

According to Anne Egros, a global executive coach, gen Yers will change jobs an average of 15 to 20 times over the span of their careers. They are capable and committed—and, if engaged, will work collaboratively and generate amazing results for their employer. Raised amid rapid technology and communication advancements, gen Yers can multi-task with great fluidity and are technologically savvy. They instant message, tweet, blog and email. Appreciative of frequent and well-timed feedback, they want to share and collaborate, and they tend to respond well to communication that incorporates action words, humour and a fun and informal learning environment.

Just as important as engaging gen Yers at work is the need to connect them to the value of their benefits plan. Finding ways to share plan details in a way that is meaningful and easily consumable by younger workers is a challenge for today’s benefits communicators. Aside from the need to incorporate new media technologies that appeal to younger workers, employers need to ensure that the messages they’re sending will help employees understand and make informed choices around benefits—particularly when the price tag associated with total compensation can represent upwards of 40% of payroll.

A two-way street

One-way paper-based communications take a lot of time to write, proof, design, approve, print and distribute. And they don’t generally lead to discussions with, or collaboration from, the intended audience. Yet benefits information remains traditionally communicated through print and, to a certain degree, links to an associated website. Electronic communications open up the possibility of two-way conversation around workplace issues. Email, intranet portals and social media can allow employees to interact with management and peers.

Gen Yers will change jobs an average of 15 to 20 times over the span of their careers

There is another benefit to incorporating electronic communications into benefits communications. Given recent economic turbulence and increasing belt-tightening, employers are looking for less-expensive alternatives. The many electronic channels available today can enhance a company’s ability to attract and retain talent from the generation Y pool in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way.

The pros and cons of social media

While employers are still struggling to determine the best way to use social media to communicate with and engage employees, many are seeing its potential as a gen Y recruitment tool. According to a 2010 survey by the recruiting software platform company Jobvite, Inc., 83% of employers polled are using or plan to use social media for recruiting purposes.

Tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have different functions, yet they all enable users to quickly publish information that is viewable by a broader audience on the internet. In a very public way—one that is particularly attractive to gen Y—social media has broken down barriers, allowing users to converse and share in an environment where information is easily obtained and constantly available.

Many companies are taking a watchful approach to social media for a variety of reasons. Some worry about a possible negative impact on their reputation, since the two-way nature of social media communication takes an element of control away from the employer. They also worry about the amount of time that employees spend using social networking sites at work. Additionally, social media does not fit into a neat model for measuring return on investment, and many companies don’t trust what they can’t effectively measure.

But instead of being paralyzed by social media’s negative side, employers should consider the opportunities. The number of followers and re-tweets on Twitter, as well as “likes” on Facebook, are obvious ways to gather some basic analytics relating to social networking. Furthermore, engaging social media monitoring tools such as Klout and Radian6 can help to capture influencers and a company’s social media reach with little to no cost investment.

Several Fortune 100 companies have decided that social media has a great deal of potential. Currently, 79% of Fortune 100 organizations are using at least one social networking tool. Twitter, on a steady upward trajectory, appears to be the most prominent, with 65% of Fortune 100 companies using it. And 20% of these firms completely leverage social media through Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds and YouTube.

Rules of engagement

Employers that are considering social media will benefit from developing and clearly communicating guidelines on their use to employees. Without rules in place, employees will be left to create their own—a risky proposition for any employer. And employees will appreciate knowing why “thinking before they tweet” makes good business sense for all involved.

Perhaps the most challenging issue is how to incorporate social media into the benefits equation. Employers are realizing they need to listen and ask questions, which is difficult, if not impossible, to do when benefits information is pushed out in the traditional print-based manner. What better way to know what gen Yers are struggling to understand or value than to read what they share in a discussion forum or read their response to a tweet?

Once an employer has a good sense of what benefits information to highlight, it can leverage social media to shine spotlights. FAQs or information about wellness, for example, are excellent targets for social media deployment. Using a blog to demonstrate the value of voluntary benefits and how they fit into the larger benefits framework can help encourage attention from gen Yers. A tweet linked to a benefits website or blog can draw employees’ attention to the benefits topic of the day.

Employers can also harness the power of social media by creating a Facebook page to remind gen Yers about meetings on benefits plan enrollment or retirement savings. Well-timed tweets can draw employees to a Facebook page or website containing questions and answers about the importance of shopping for a better-priced pharmacy dispensing fee, for example.

Depending on what needs to be communicated, some social media tools work better than others. While tweets can be a great way for an employer to share quick facts and educational Web links, a two-minute YouTube video featuring gen Y employees discussing the benefits they appreciate is a word-of-mouth endorsement that may prompt other gen Yers to pay more attention to their plans.

Too often, workplaces are siloed, with hard-to-scale business units. This can be particularly disengaging for gen Yers, who don’t want to be inhibited by layers of hierarchy. Social media affords the ability to build communities both within and across these silos, puts everyone on the same page and encourages collaboration.

Isn’t it time to start an online conversation with gen Y? Are you ready to speak—and to listen?

Susan D. Cranston is assistant vice-president, small business marketing and advisor services, with Manulife Financial.

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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