When I was at university, I kept myself in beer and textbooks by working part time in the sports section of a large department store. The store had been struggling to compete in a fast-changing market, and had recently appointed a new CEO and decided on a new strategy. That strategy was to move away from the store’s historic reputation for outstanding customer service, and instead adopt a Kmart style ‘DIY’ approach with few staff on the floor, but lots of stock on display so customers could help themselves.
How do you think it went? It’s fair to say, not well.
I remember in the lead up to Christmas, one frustrated father slamming his fist down on the counter where I was working. “I just need some HELP!” he screamed. He’d been trying to purchase a baseball bat for his young son, but had no idea what size to buy. When he’d looked for help he’d found nothing but tumbleweeds, couldn’t see the check outs and couldn’t make himself heard over the pumping music.
This experience was repeated countless times a day, yet management persisted with the strategy even as customers rushed for the exits. We heard rumours trickle down that they were deeply concerned about losses, but didn’t know what was causing them.
“Good Lord,” we all thought, “why don’t they just come and ask us?”
This is why internal communication matters
There’s a common misperception that internal communications is the department that writes the weekly newsletter.
This overlooks the significant contribution that well managed communication can make to an organization’s performance - and how much loss can be avoided when it’s done right. Had the department store management embraced a culture that treated employees as strategic partners, and established communications structures that allowed frequent, two-way dialogue, they could have intervened far earlier to turn around a disaster that took over ten years to recover from.
Here’s why your organization needs more than a newsletter.
No more duvet days
Employee engagement has been around for a while now, and most organizations understand the importance of having employees that feel good about coming to work every day. An engaged workforce has been shown to contribute up to 40% additional profit to a company’s bottom line. On the flip side, disengaged teams bring down productivity (usually dragging otherwise engaged employees with them), increase risk and repel customers.
Communication is one of the most frequently cited areas of dissatisfaction in annual engagement surveys, but it’s rare that the survey says why. Organizations will sometimes throw money at the problem, for example by rolling out an Enterprise Social Network (because that’s how people today communicate, right?) only to find the next year’s survey results show little change in perception.
Engagement surveys are a useful tool, but they should be seen as an opportunity to ask more, and better questions, not as an end in themselves. The most powerful and lasting improvements are made when HR (who are usually seen as the ‘owners’ of engagement) and communicators team up to better understand where communications gaps exist, and why.
The most useful way to gain these insights is by conducting a communications audit, which will assess quantitative data (like intranet click rates) and qualitative (employee opinions, obtained in interviews, surveys or focus groups). Efforts can then be directed towards addressing the real issues. Every organization has opportunities to improve - it’s not about assigning blame, good data leads to good decisions, and then everyone wins.
While we’re using retail as an example, if you need further proof that engagement matters, have a look at the astonishing results that Gap was able to achieve in a recent pilot, increasing productivity by 600 percent.
Travelling in the same direction
Only one third of employees are able to articulate their organization’s strategy. Astoundingly, only 10 percent understand how their role contributes to that strategy.
Why does this matter? Because 90 percent of the people you’re paying don’t understand what they’re working towards. The efficiency cost of this is enormous. It also comes back to engagement - people who understand the importance of their contribution, whether they’re in the mailroom or the C-suite, perform better and stay longer, boosting productivity and minimizing the cost of turnover.
Humans are notoriously bad at perceiving risk - from driving too fast to buying lottery tickets, we overestimate the benefit and underestimate the downside of our choices. However, risk is something organizations have a vested interest in monitoring and minimizing, to reduce costs of insurance and the likelihood of lawsuits and reputational damage.
Communication, particularly storytelling, can help employees relate abstract concepts of risk to themselves, and change behaviours.
I used to work in communications at a medical research institute, where many of the laboratory workers were reluctant to wear safety glasses, because of the annoyance of using them with microscopes. One day, a young PhD candidate had corrosive chemicals splash into her eyes and had to be rushed to hospital. Happily, there was no lasting damage. With her agreement and input, we generated a communications campaign that told her story. Suddenly, it wasn’t the preachy OH&S team telling scientists what to do - one of their own had something important to say, and they listened.
Well-designed communications can have a significant impact on creating a risk-aware culture, protecting employees, customers and your reputation.
The F word
Fun. We’re talking about fun.
Most of us will work for at least a third of our adult lives. As humans live longer and the cost of living increases, this number will only go up.
If we’re spending so much time at work, why shouldn’t it be fun? We’ve spoken a lot about the ‘serious’ side of communications - improving productivity, minimizing risk and so on. But one of the most powerful things communication can do is to help create a culture that people want to be a part of.
A recent study showed that fun workplace cultures have higher levels of creativity, lower levels of stress and fewer sick days. So the numbers back up what we probably all intuitively know - when work is fun we want to be there, and we want to contribute.
The bottom line
Whether you’re selling baseball bats or campaigning for wildlife, learning to listen to employees as part of an outcome-focussed communications strategy can make a huge difference to how your organization performs, and how happy the human beings are that work there.
If you’d like to have an obligation-free chat about how you can increase the effectiveness of internal communications to make a difference in your organization, please drop us a line. Our first hour is always free.
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