COMMUNICATION: Communicating With Staff – Crucial To The Bottom Line

We all know how to use change in tone, gesture or look to change the meaning of sentence. But that is natural communication. Organisational communication operates on different scale and uses set of tools that are impervious to nuance, such as teleconference, email and PowerPoint.
These are all great tools for communicating with large, widely spread audience but they are also often blamed for managers’ failure to communicate effectively. People managers too often assume they can use these tools to engage with an unnaturally large audience without acquiring any additional skills.
In 2008, Wellington Communications agency Ideas Shop undertook survey into the state of employee communications in New Zealand, surveying 50 of New Zealand’s biggest organisations. The results showed many leaders are unaware of the latent benefit employee communications has to their business success.
The result is lost opportunity and lost value – which is becoming even more marked this year as managers and employees cope with the added external stresses of the current economic environment.
Companies with effective employee communications programmes have been proved to have much higher shareholder returns than those which don’t, with international studies showing the differential to be as high as 57 percent.
These same companies also report higher levels of employee engagement, which translates to greater staff retention and higher productivity, and also higher levels of customer satisfaction.
Despite international evidence that employee communications plays vital role in supporting productivity gains and building shareholder value, in New Zealand employee communications is often under-utilised in supporting organisations, particularly during times of stress.

Communicating during change
No company, small or large, can win in the long term without energised employees who believe in its mission and understand how to achieve it. That’s why effective change communications is so vitally important.
Communication during period of change is therefore as much about the future of your business as managing the here and now.
Conversely, failure to manage change well can impact on brand and reputation – reducing productivity and engagement, and affecting customer satisfaction. It’s high price to pay.
During the economic downturn many Kiwi and international businesses are looking to step up their communications to staff as way to manage anxiety and change.
However, international consulting firm Watson Wyatt found employers are often focusing on the wrong messages. They are more focused on reassuring staff about the company’s performance than answering the gritty questions around job security. Most organisations were also relying too heavily on their top-level leaders to deliver messages.
The result is almost exactly what companies are trying to avoid – misinformation, increased uncertainty and absenteeism, and reduced safety and customer service.
Leadership, and leaders who work with staff on daily basis, are at the very heart of strong employee communications culture. Having these leaders present messages to staff, and giving them the opportunity to ask questions ensures clearer delivery of information and creates greater stability and security in the workforce.
Why? We look to our manager for information about the business and our role in it. They are the most trusted source of information. Emails, newsletters, staff magazines and annual conferences have very important role to play – but it’s supporting one.
Frontline managers are in touch with staff and have better understanding of how they’re thinking and feeling. Just as importantly, they also know exactly how to make the business strategy and business health relevant to their people’s day-to-day work.
Take change announcement as an example. The chief executive in medium-sized organisation could make major announcement to all staff via email. Or the message could be delivered face-to-face through managers who can put it in the context of the day-to-day work of staff and reinforce how their work contributes to the health of the business.
The manager can tack on another couple of sentences that the chief executive can’t – and answer any questions immediately, which makes the vital difference between an engaged and trusting workforce, and one that’s not.
For example, the manager can say: “In the marketing and sales department, our sales are down and, as you know, our budgets have been reduced. The chief executive has reassured me that the business is doing all it can to minimise the impact of the current economic climate on our business and that jobs are safe for now. For us, this means we need to work even harder to convert prospects into customers. We can do this by x, y and z.”
A discussion can then be had between the manager and the team, and questions and answers exchanged ensuring maximum clarity on the issue and how it affects employees and the workplace.

Changes to make right now to make difference to your employee communications
Good employee communications is often about doing what we already do, but doing it more effectively and efficiently.

1) Put infrastructure in place to support good communication
Employee communications teams are no longer about maintaining the intranet site or churning out the employee newsletter. Organisational communications needs have moved on considerably. But even within progressive organisations there is still legacy of poor channel infrastructure, usage and management to be tackled.
Getting the infrastructure right to support communications is vital – this should include small and well-defined set of channels, processes to support good communications within and across teams, and regular measurement.
Reviewing the employee communications function can be an effective way to identify the barriers to effective communications, and develop an approach to take advantage of the benefits strong communications culture brings.
The review should ask questions such as: How do staff find out information? Do they have an opportunity to be heard and influence decisions? To what extent are leaders – those managers who manage teams – used to communicate and cascade information? How well do the employee communications and HR functions work together, if at all?

2) Make sure your communication is being measured and reported on
Beyond the engagement survey, an annual review of the health of employee communications, at all levels, is vital. Effective communications is an iterative process and regular measurement is vital to keep it top-of-mind and instil process of constant improvement.

3) Take customer-centric approach to your staff
Every message has the potential to engage and inform – and equally, to disengage and confuse.
I’ve witnessed several organisations taking radically different approach to employee communications after asking themselves “how would staff like to find out about this information?”
Communication is process of sharing information – that is both transmitting and receiving it. Organisations with effective employee communications have opportunities for staff to give feedback. Simple ideas such as having regular agenda at the weekly or fortnightly meeting which staff can contribute to can make significant difference.
Actively look for ways to demonstrate that the feedback has been heard – and ideally acted on.
The good news is that employee communications practice can be fixed quickly. In many instances, it’s as simple as being smarter about how you use your employee communications and HR functions and ensuring leaders play vital role.
And research shows even small improvements in employee communications herald significant results, and these changes happen almost immediately. Watson Wyatt found that in one year alone, businesses that significantly improved their employee communications experienced 15.7 percent increase in market value.

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