We all think we’re good at communicating because it comes naturally. This leads many organizations to take employee communications for granted. But communication is an underrated contributor to business performance.
A survey of 650 organizations by WTW, risk management advisors, found that those with effective communications were three times more likely to have superior financial performance than those where communications were poor. Communications, they conclude, ‘is not a soft function’.
The evidence suggests that many organizations do not design their communications strategies carefully. As a result, employees do not have the information they need.
This can result in anger – ‘Why won’t they tell us?’, and suspicion – ‘What are they trying to hide?’. This reduces engagement and commitment – and performance.
Research by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that many employees feel in the dark, given information that is too general, or incomplete.
They conclude: “Employee communication is an essential part of business and HR’s role.
“Effective internal communication is important for developing trust within an organization and has a significant impact on employee engagement, organizational culture and, ultimately, productivity.”
The impact of employee communication
Good internal communication has several benefits:
- Employees can understand the organization’s purpose and how they can contribute
- Motivation and collaboration are reinforced
- Staff may be more willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for customers
- Retention may be less of a problem
- Requests for training and development are likely to increase
- A culture of openness and transparency is encouraged.
Poor internal communication, on the other hand, can be damaging:
- Employees don’t feel part of the organization and what it stands for
- They may feel they lack the information needed to do their best work
- They are likely to have low levels of engagement and commitment to the organization
- Customer experience will suffer
Climate control for unpredictable weather
An organization’s communication climate can be closed or open.
In a closed climate, communication is the preserve of a few, with others remaining silent, unable to speak their minds. In an open climate, everyone can express ideas, opinions, complaints, and suggestions.
Given the scope and pace of change, free-flowing communication is imperative.
New ideas are at a premium, solutions need to be found quickly, and senior management do not have a monopoly on the appropriate information and answers.
What does the climate of your organization look like? What do you think it should look like?
|Open communication climate||Closed communication climate|
|Open and honest
Feedback is welcomed
emphasis on providing information
Forgiving; mistakes are inevitable
|Hidden meanings and agendas
Status differences are upheld
Controlling, new ideas are suspect
Criticism is rejected
Emphasis on evaluation
Dogmatic; unwillingness to compromise
The weather for most organizations is unpredictable.
You’ll hear the term ‘permacrisis’ more often. The Covid-19 pandemic reinforced – if reinforcement was required – the need for effective communication in a crisis.
Regular, open communication can allay concerns, encourage contributions, and help to reduce unease and tensions.
As pandemic regulations led to working from home, or from anywhere, managers had to communicate with dispersed and remote staff.
Online meetings became popular, allowing rapid access to others regardless of their location. And we learned to live with the disadvantages: loss of spontaneity, no humor, shallow discussion.
It looks like hybrid models of working will continue for many organizations, and online is here to stay.
Choose your channel
Which communication channels should you use when planning to implement change? We can use a staircase metaphor to answer this.
Bottom step: This is the awareness level, useful when introducing minor changes, involving little or no employee engagement. Information alone may be enough.
Midway: This is the information-sharing level, involving consultation about change, with two-way feedback, but not full involvement.
Top step: This is the high involvement level. Use this for the most significant events, such as major organizational changes, which call for extensive employee involvement, engagement, and commitment.
This typically involves individual and team interaction with all levels of management to maintain and improve relationships. This also involves active participation in decision-making and regular feedback.
P&O Ferries recently chose the bottom step on the communications staircase in order to announce that 800 of its employees were redundant in a short Zoom call. This caused national outrage.
How could a company handle its communication so badly? One explanation lies with our technology-mediated communication, which are cheap, easy, fast, and convenient.
Their use has been encouraged by improvements in the technology, pandemic restrictions on social interaction, hybrid working, and just by the pace of business (meeting others in person is time-consuming).
One trap, which P&O fell into, concerns using the wrong communication channel – online – when face-to-face would have been more empathetic, compassionate, and ethical.
Another trap involves using only one or two channels instead of a spectrum of approaches, particularly when the information to be exchanged is important and complex.
Rethink your communication strategy
Effective communication rests on three pillars: management support, strategy, and feedback.
Management support sounds like common sense. Makes sense, for sure, but common – we’re not so sure. Management support takes more than good words.
It starts with a supportive culture. The computer networking company Cisco earns its ranking in the World’s Best Workplaces by putting into practice its empathetic leadership culture.
Its trust index surveys found teams that were unhappy with their treatment. So the company held small listening groups to identify changes. Those who needed financial help were also identified and offered support.
Another initiative was Nudge, a financial wellbeing app which sends reminders and suggestions to help employees with their finances. This worked well: in a staff survey, 88% said that, ‘Management shows a sincere interest in me as a person’.
Your communication strategy has to be aligned with your business strategy. Look at this from the employee’s perspective.
What information do they want – and need? How do they prefer to receive it? Consider these criteria:
- Timing: too early, and people forget by the time things start to happen; too late and the rumor mill starts
- Leadership: your senior leaders need to own the communication process, agree with the messaging, and be visible and approachable
- Consistency: as we said, messaging has to be aligned with business strategy, but it also has to be internally consistent; inconsistencies create mistrust
- Context: messaging has to explain the background to the changes you plan to make, to put what is going to happen into context
- Channels: in-person is rich and flexible and allows for instant feedback; email and documents are impersonal and inflexible, and feedback is delayed
- Check: assess regularly your employees’ mood and opinion; listen, and let everyone know that their voices have been heard
- Openness: avoid false optimism and partial information; you will be found out, and this will damage trust and goodwill.
Periodically review what’s happening on the ground. Acknowledge that if your communication are failing to achieve original aims, then corrective action is required.
Probes here include:
- Did the communication get through to its target?
- Was it timely?
- Did the target audience understand?
- Did the response lead to the desired actions?
- How can we improve?
The Admiral Group example
The Admiral group, a UK financial services company with 11,000 employees, consciously creates an open communications climate.
Surveys show that staff believe that their opinions are listened to by management, feel they are respected by their line manager, and understand the company’s goals. Transparency and openness are at the heart of Admiral’s management philosophy.
The company takes a multi-strand approach to communications, with face-to-face meetings and staff briefings as well as information via email and the company intranet.
In addition, it holds ‘friendly forums’, small group sessions which bring together members of different departments to meet with managers in open dialogue.
Other ‘meet the manager’ sessions introduce support managers from other locations. The business direction is regularly updated. There is an annual off-site staff meeting. The annual staff survey is supplemented by monthly departmental snapshot surveys. All this information is fed back to employees.
Staff can post questions through the business exchange section of the intranet, which is supplemented by senior management online chats.
Where do you stand?
Employee communication is a key determinant of organizational performance. An open communication climate, and appropriate choice of communication channels are also critical.
In the current climate of uncertainty and change, is it time to rethink your communication strategy? Are you paying enough attention to these issues? Will your communication strategy support your business goals?
Key questions include:
- When did you last review your organization’s communications practices?
- What do you need to do to update your communication strategy?
- Do you use employee feedback methods, such as focus groups and surveys, and do you follow up on the results?
- How well will your communication strategy deal with future challenges?
But the main question here is: Does your top team need to be persuaded that communication is not a ‘soft function’?