HR Management

The Secret to Great (and Highly Effective) Employee Communications

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Want to create an excellent workplace? Take a look at your employee communications.

Most people you ask — employees and “great workplace” experts alike —  agree that open and plentiful communications are high on the list of factors that make a job great.

But as you set out to ensure you’re communicating in a way that befits an excellent workplace, keep two things in mind:

  • The basic rules of communication never change.
  • Today, the basic rules of communication have changed.

Don’t you love a good paradox? Let’s start with the second rule.

The rules of communication have changed

Today, organizations communicate with employees via email, social media, Intranet sites, video conferencing, podcasts, texting — the list of new electronic media is mind-boggling and ever-changing. You may embrace these new technologies or they may terrify you, but I’m afraid you have no choice about using at least some of them.

Except in the very smallest of organizations, digital communication is here to stay. How long since you last used a book to look up some quick bit of information?

Along with this change in platform come certain other new or at least reinforced expectations:

  • Employees expect information to be interactive. They want to comment and question. Since experts agree that listening is at least as important a part of communicating in an excellent workplace as speaking is, this is good news. Digital communications give you an easy way to hear what your employees have to say and respond to their concerns, questions or ideas.
  • Employees expect communication to flow in multiple directions. Interactive doesn’t just mean up and down. Employees want to talk with each other; if they’re not doing it within your organization than they may well be doing it outside of your organization. Of course, they’ve always done this—applications like Twitter have just made it a lot easier. Again, you can take this as good news. Employees can be your brand ambassadors — as long as they feel good about your brand.
  • Employees expect information to be up-to-date. Unfortunately, in the digital world, out-of-date is not really an option. Luckily, it’s a lot easier to change text on a website than it is to reprint a handbook.

So, with a little bit of care, the new world of digital media can do a lot to enhance your workplace. But don’t be fooled by all the bells and whistles. Communication is communication, and some things still apply. Which brings us back to Rule No. 1.

The basic rules of communication never change

The social philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.”

I’m sure he knew what he was talking about. (It had to do with the way different media affect our culture and understanding of the world.) But on at least one level, I’d like to respectfully disagree. We may have all kinds of fancy new ways of communicating, but ultimately, the medium is not the message. It’s just the medium.

Whether they are printed on paper, pixellated on a screen, or flown in on the tail of an airplane, good employee communications all have certain things in common:.

  • Honesty — To paraphrase your mother, if you can’t say something truthful, don’t say it at all. (OK, that’s not quite right, either—see the next bullet point.) While it is fine to try to put a positive spin on things, it’s much better to say something that might reflect negatively on you than to pretend it didn’t happen — or worse, lie about it. If your organization is going through a hard time, the last thing you want is for employees to feel like they’re being kept in the dark. You can bet they are imagining the worst, anyway, and chances are their imagination is much worse than reality. Plus, if you share in the truth you are more likely to get them to share in the solution.
  • Presence — Despite what your mother said, if you can’t say something at all, that’s bad, too. Remember that it’s not necessary to have all the information in order to share it — it’s much better to update people on what you do know about a situation, admitting what’s still uncertain and promising you’ll communicate more when you know more, than to wait in silence until you have the whole picture.
  • Plain, direct language — There’s a big difference between taking a professional tone and using corporate-speak. Try to keep in mind that “maximize” is just an overused way of saying “get the most out of,” “leverage” is a noun, and in no dictionary does “opportunity” mean “weakness.” The problem with jargon is that it numbs the mind—so instead of communicating, it often slams down the gate on understanding.
  • Allure — There really is no rule that says formal communication has to be boring communication. Think back to when you last saw a really great presentation or read a great article. What made it so good? I’ll bet you anything it wasn’t just the subject matter. Maybe the speaker was funny, or the author conveyed information in a way that was more like telling a story than reciting facts. Remember, you’re competing for employees’ attention, and your competitors are formidable: from Facebook to Dan Brown to Stephen Colbert.
  • Information — The purpose of communications is communicating. Put yourself inside the heads of your target audience — what will they want to know? why will this matter to them? what should they do about it? If there is a next step, make sure you’ve been clear about what it is, and make it as easy as possible for them to take that step.
  • Repetition — How many emails have you skimmed and forgotten about already today? Especially in today’s media-frenzied world, saying something once is rarely enough. If you have something important to communicate, communicate it frequently, using a variety of media.
  • Character --  Just as with external corporate communications, the best employee communications fit comfortably within their corporate culture and brand. In this way, they serve a double duty — not only conveying whatever message is at hand but constantly reinforcing your organization’s mission, values and style.

Embrace the paradox of employee communications in today’s workplace, and you’ll have taken a giant step toward creating an excellent workplace of your own.

This originally appeared on the Robin Hardman Communications blog.

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition as great places to work by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” submissions — from Working Mother to Fortune to all the smaller ones in between. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.