It was a throwaway line in The Times Magazine’s interview with Arianna Huffington last weekend (22 March 2014), but it caught my eye. The journalist Janice Turner was being shown around the Huffington Post’s New York office where she noted the “usual hipster internet start-up perks of free healthy snacks and a ping-pong table”. I smiled when I read this because it reminded me of remark made by a Condé Nast exec, part of a panel I heard speak in New York in February. He admitted that while still publishing some of the most popular magazines around, if it was going to survive in the cutthroat world of the New York job market and attract the brightest and best, Condé Nast had to look to its company culture. He summed up their efforts thus: “We’re moving downtown to an office with more open space and ping pong.”

Company culture affects employee engagement, which in turn can positively or adversely affect productivity depending on whether staff feel engaged or not.

Engage for Success, an organisation borne out of a government initiative from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, states that: “There is a firm correlation between employee engagement and high organisational productivity and performance, across all sectors of the economy. Analysis indicates that were the UK to move its engagement levels to the middle of the top quartile such as that for the Netherlands this would be associated with a £25.8bn increase in GDP.”

Internal communications that work

So communicating company culture – a company’s values and goals – through internal communications is key. When I was shown around the downtown offices (naturally) of the social network Foursquare during the same trip to New York, I didn’t notice a ping pong table, but there was plenty of open space. And, more importantly, an attitude of openness between management and staff.

Foursquare has enjoyed rapid growth since its launch in 2009, going from two people having an idea to around 45 million users and 140 employees. CEO and co-founder Dennis Crowley tries to maintain the ‘start-up’ feel the company enjoyed in the beginning by spending a few hours in the staff canteen once a week, when anyone can approach him about any topic they want. It’s a simple gesture, but one that makes Foursquare employees feel like their opinion counts. They’re engaged and the people I met sincerely love their jobs and the company.

If this all sounds a bit niche and ‘New York’, let’s look at a company that’s a lot more populist and closer to home.

Family’s gone to Iceland

Food retailer Iceland was named as the best large company to work for in The Sunday Times Best Companies survey 2014. Iceland has around 25,000 employees spread across the UK so plonking CEO Malcolm Walker in a canteen for a few hours a week is obviously not going to be a productive employee engagement tactic.

In a statement in response to receiving the Sunday Times accolade, Iceland says: “Our staff agree that working for Iceland feels like being part of a family. Everyone at Iceland is on first name terms with each other and we share a strong sense of pride and common purpose.”

Part of Iceland’s internal communications strategy is to connect with staff via an annual survey: “The Best Companies results mirror the findings of our 2013 Straight Talk staff survey, in which 93% of our retail employees told us that they are proud to work for Iceland; 91% feel a strong sense of belonging in the company; 93% enjoy the work they do; 93% consider that their manager treats them fairly and with respect; and 93% would recommend Iceland as a good place to work. These outstanding results were based on a response rate of 97%.”

Yes, you read that correctly; that’s a response rate of almost 100%.

That sort of engagement doesn’t just happen by accident. Iceland employees enjoy good pay and benefits, but they are clearly engaged in other ways – transparent lines of communication are open between management and staff: “We communicate with each other openly, honestly and directly, doing our utmost to avoid jargon and ‘management speak’.”

Shake up your internal comms with social media

There is absolutely still a place within internal comms for surveys and company email newsletters. However, increasingly social media is playing a role in internal comms for large brands. Take Nokia – its Social Media Communications team was set up in 2008 with the aim of engaging employees. One of its most effective tools is its internal BlogHub where employees at all levels can post or comment in posts. It allows people across the company to see what others are working on and share ideas in a way that doesn’t limit internal communication to the traditional top-down model. Management can gather employee feedback and see what’s most important to employees thanks to a voting mechanism, where employees get to rate blogs with the most popular rising to the top.

There are other social networks already in existence, such as Yammer, that allow for inter-company communication should setting up a bespoke system prove too costly. And then there’s always Facebook for sharing company ‘life’ – such as pictures of away days and charity work – approaching internal comms with a content marketing cap on.

And if all else fails there’s always ping pong….