Communication is essential in every aspect of life in today's world - especially maintaining contact between the areas of corporate, marketing, employee and investor relations within an organisation. Employee communication has not been the top of a corporate agenda, even within the human resource context, particularly in Hong Kong. However, the trend has changed in recent years. 'Prior to 1997, most corporations adopted a parental approach, a father-child arrangement. That means the boss would take good care of their employees and did not want them to speak up,' says Paula DeLisle, vice-president, Asia-Pacific, business development at Watson Wyatt, a global consulting firm which focuses on human capital and financial management. In Hong Kong, most corporations did not have any formal employee communication system set up until regulations on retirement plans (Occupational Retirement Schemes Ordinance and the latter Mandatory Provident Fund) were implemented. At that time, corporations were given an impetus to communicate with their employees about various issues, including retirement. 'That was really the time that employers were made to speak to the employees and the communications avenue began,' says Ms DeLisle. Watson Wyatt believes effective and timely communications are especially required when change occurs, whether it is downsizing, right-sizing or merging. 'Employees will immediately think how that change will affect and impact on their jobs and lives instead of working effectively,' says Greg Sargeaunt, head of eHR for North Asia, who also oversees Watson's communications practice. 'Besides the changing times, good communications practice is essential to get employees excited about their work.' The consulting firm works with global corporations in creating an effective communications strategy, approach, or methodology. This includes designing web-based communication solutions, organising education seminars, and conducting comprehensive communication and changes to management sessions. Easily accessible web-based intranets can help employees in all locations access human resources, find information about their retirement plans, health care, mergers and acquisitions, training programmes or change personal information online. This will help dissolve borders and enable communication across cultures and regions. At the same time, the human resources team has more time to focus on strategic objectives and employee relations. On a macro level, this in turn will help lower the staff turnover rate, achieve higher employee satisfaction and minimise disruption during times of change - strengthening the bond between employees and organisations. The merger of JP Morgan, Robert Fleming (Jardine Fleming in Hong Kong) and Chase in 2000 has shown how employee communications weigh within such an organisational change. The merger involved 99,000 employees in 60 countries, with 9,200 employees in 15 Asia-Pacific nations. Needless to say, the merger involved three companies bringing together three distinct sets of businesses and strategies. Affecting employees most were their differences in management and compensation philosophies - one firm was more benefits-driven while another was geared to variable salaries. The respective human resources teams and line managers held several meetings before drafting an integration of compensation and benefits proposal. Once proposal details were fine-tuned, Watson Wyatt helped create communication systems within the merged companies. A presentation highlighting the benefits of changes was created for employee meetings. All communications were tailored for each country and personalised for each employee. Equipped with a wealth of information, the HR staff were able to answer questions on an individual basis. Employees also received a comprehensive folder, including a new guide to HR policies and benefits. Information was also available online to address frequently asked questions with answers, a retirement overview booklet and new HR policies and procedures. The entire communication programme was perceived as a huge success - it kept employees informed and retained a sense of security among staff. By the end of the process, all employees signed their employment contracts and participated in the new benefits programmes. 'The entire exercise took us four months to roll out across the region. It is essential for the communication strategy to be carried out - knowing what to, how to and when to communicate. This is one of our showcases,' says Ms DeLisle. The consulting firm draws on its global experience to advise clients. 'We would know what works and what does not,' she says. In the region, Watson Wyatt is restructuring and re-growing the practice. 'More local corporations perceive the need and value of communication. We have tested the hypothesis that the higher the employee commitment, the higher the financial return to shareholders,' Mr Sargeaunt says. 'I shall say communication is an art form, there is no right or wrong answer. We need to develop the most effective, innovative and customised tool kit to meet our clients' objectives in reaching out to their employees.'