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Employee communication needs to be what employees want

01 Jun, 2020 Employee engagement, experience, satisfaction, Internal communication

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

During the first half of my PR career, most corporate managers thought all that was required for employee communication was for someone, usually a junior employee, to churn out the internal newsletter regularly.

Slowly it dawned on them that employees wanted more than that. And what’s more, the employees wanted to see more face-to-face communication from their supervisor or manager rather than outpourings from the PR team.

In recent years, the pendulum has swung further. In most western countries, skilled employees are scarce and labor markets are tight. Therefore, employers have been forced to find better ways to attract and retain quality staff. One of these new ways is better employee/change communication.

However, many communicators have continued to use the traditional arms-length channels of print and electronic media.

Extensive surveys by Australian employee communication consultant, Rodney Gray, show that we have been using the wrong tools to communicate. Gray’s figures relate specifically to Australia but are very consistent with research findings in other countries.

Gray found that the traditional tools of newsletters, senior executive road shows, emails and the intranet usually have little impact on overall employee satisfaction.

Renowned internal communication expert, Roger D’Aprix, takes the same view in his book, The Credible Company:

“Practically all of the research indicates that the most preferred communication experience at work is live and face-to-face. This is particularly so in the relationship between the worker and their immediate supervisor.”

The types of communication employees want most

The types of communication that employees want most:

  • Senior management communication
  • CEO communication
  • Upward communication (feedback to management and managers ‘listening’)

The types of communication that employees want more, but not as much as the first three types:

  • Change communication
  • Consultation and involvement
  • Cross-functional communication
  • Senior management should meet face-to-face more often with workers

    The lesson for communicators is that employees want to see the CEO and senior managers face-to-face more often. This will have a much stronger impact on employee satisfaction than newsletters, mass emails and intranets. The responses from focus groups confirm these findings.

    Your job is therefore to train (or arrange training) and motivate senior managers and the CEO to spend more time talking face-to-face with employees, preferably in small groups. Obviously a CEO can’t meet everyone individually, but can at least be seen to circulate around the workplace periodically and to address employee groups of up to 40-50 people at a time about the direction of the organization.

Image: from Bonfyre.

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit report, 2018: Communication barriers in the modern workplace.

The above 2018 US survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit, encompassed the views of 403 mainly senior managers and executives, whose views indicated their use of various forms of communication. Overall, they considered face-to-face meetings to be the most effective means of communication, with 88% of respondents reporting that face-to-face meetings were “very effective” or “somewhat effective.” Around 86% of the respondents thought email was “effective” or “somewhat effective,” and 85% of them thought phone or conference calls were “very effective” or “somewhat effective.” This kind of survey is fine for finding out the opinions of managers and above, but it doesn’t give any indication of what employees actually want! Emails and team meetings generate overload and are notorious for wasting employee time!

COVID-19 is causing massive communication changes

And COVID-19 has caused major changes in team relationships. Organizational life is more complex than it used to be – and it is vital for bosses to gain feedback from their team members about their preferred contact options that can take place in view of the need for physical distancing.

Enabling and acting on employee feedback is important for them – and you

One of the keys to effective communication is gaining feedback. One-way communication is ineffectual. For communication to work, everyone needs to have a voice. Obtaining feedback should be a priority. Use social technology to send out surveys and ask questions, leading to confidentiality and more honest opinions. Face-to-face meetings where everyone participates and gives feedback valuable for finding out their wants, needs, and experiences.

But just collecting information isn’t enough. All employee feedback has value. If an idea seems worthwhile, especially if various employees raise it, then leaders should evaluate how to put it into action or adapt it usefully.

Improving communication means that it must be reciprocal. Just as employees have their own evaluations and listen to feedback on their work, managers should welcome feedback.

It’s powerful common sense – ask employees about their preferred sources of information

One way to find out what your employees want is simply to survey them on their preferred sources of information on selected important topics compared against the actual range of sources to identify where any gaps lie.

Typical questions to ask the respondents would be:

  1. “What is your main current source of information on that topic?”
  2. “What is your preferred main source on that topic?”

For simplicity, the sources of information could be numbered as follows for each item of selected information:

  1. = CEO
  2. = My Divisional General Manager
  3. = My supervisor/manager who directly supervises me
  4. = My manager (where the manager does not directly supervise me).
  5. = Hard copy newsletter
  6. = Email newsletter
  7. = Intranet

A follow-up survey should be conducted to check that any communication activity initiated after the survey has resulted in a smaller gap between the main source of information on a topic and the preferred main source of information.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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