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Preferred employee communication channels

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

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. Employees want communication that helps them do their jobs and interests them. Therefore, it is important for organizations to find out the preferred employee communication channels of their workforce. This  will help strengthen employee engagement levels.

What’s more, preferred employee communication is for more tailored interaction with their supervisor, manager or higher management rather than outpourings from the PR team.

  • Senior management should meet more often with workers

    The lesson for communicators is that employees want to see the CEO and senior managers face-to-face more often. In these days of more hybrid work, electronic tools like videoconferencing etc at least give face-to-face interaction, even if behind screens and monitors.

    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 or even electronically. Obviously a CEO can’t meet everyone individually, and COVID restrictions certainly reduce that, but at least the CEO is accessible electronically and can address employee groups of about the direction of the organization in Zoom meetings.

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 preferred employee communication channels, especially since the trend to remote and hybrid working. Read more about this in my article, “Employers need to communicate more during stressful times.”

Remote teams

Technology is changing every industry in the world. A 2018 study found 70% of professionals worked remotely – telecommuting – at least one day a week, while 53% worked remotely for at least half of the week. This was before the dramatic global impact of coronavirus from 2020. The proportion of remote workers rose quickly then, and much of that trend will remain over time.

Remote work means that most business unit communication is what the managers are providing. If an email tone is too harsh, there is no facial expression to soften the sting. If your question during a phone conference feels abrupt, there might not be video that shows you literally leaning into the conversation in interest instead of a perceived attack. For this reason, videoconferencing may be ideal and should be encouraged.

Much of our language is nonverbal. When managers are forced to limit the nonverbal cues available to their direct reports, they increase the chance for miscommunication, defensiveness and conflict. Managers need to communicate with their teams in several ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team’s work while they are away from the office. Gallup consultants in 2020 recommended:

“Managers should ask how [remote] employees prefer to be contacted. Are text messages OK for urgent issues, or is that an invasion of privacy or stressful? Do they have everything they need to videoconference comfortably? Managers should also proactively schedule weekly check-ins with their teams, replacing the informal office conversations that relationships are made of.

Owl Labs reported in 2019 their survey findings that the biggest challenges for remote workers during remote meetings and hybrid meetings are interruptions/being talked over (67%) and IT issues during meetings (59%). Managers need to be aware of these limitations and act to minimize their occurrence.

Find out preferred employee communication channels

It’s difficult to find and retain good staff these days, and senior managers are much more conscious of the need to treat employees well or lose them, especially in high-tech organizations in a post-coronavirus world. Therefore, go straight to the people – get the facts from staff to support your case by conducting an IC survey. Senior managers are hard nosed and take notice of such facts.

Include communication questions in employee surveys

Also, employee surveys overwhelmingly reveal that staff are unhappy with the quality of management communication with them. If your HR department conducts a regular annual employee survey with no coverage or little coverage of IC, it would be easy to ensure IC questions are included. Test the questions with a sample of staff to check if their understanding of your questions is accurate. A good survey will probe employees’ priorities and intentions to remain or leave the organization. The responses will show a correlation between poor communication and intentions to leave – a persuasive case to put to senior management!

Conduct your own communication survey

Alternatively, you can conduct your own organization-wide IC survey. Choose your timing carefully so employees don’t get survey overload from being polled too often. You need to include questions additional to the ones about managerial communication, or probably you wouldn’t get management approval to conduct the survey. They are not masochistic – they are not going approve a survey that is entirely about their inadequacies! What’s more, take note that only “13% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization,” according to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, so be careful about questions on the communication of top management.

Even in high-tech organizations you will find employees literally want to see more of their senior managers. Industry surveys consistently show this. They also reveal good communication is absolutely vital to good levels of employee engagement in organizations. An abundance of electronic channels can’t replace face-to-face communication. The survey will reinforce this. All the same, you can ask the respondents about their communication preferences, which obviously will include electronic techniques.

Take the results of the survey to the executive committee or ask an onside senior manager to do this to persuade management to be more proactive with their staff communication. The results will make management take notice.

Speak to HR about building communication behaviors into the key performance indicators of all managers.

Conduct your own focus groups

If you don’t have the resources to conduct a full-scale (quantitative) survey of communication, you can conduct your own 2-3 (qualitative) focus groups comprising about 8 employees in each location at minimal cost. Invite a cross-section of reasonably articulate and forthright staff, or you can ask HR’s assistance to identify names. If you aren’t able to attend the other locations, you can supply the questions to HR in the other places and ask them nicely to run the focus groups for you. You could also try a teleconference, but their value is limited because you need to see people’s faces for this activity.

The focus group participants are likely to point out revealing examples and common threads in the shortcomings of management communication. Use these results to hammer managers about their communication performance. Either record the sessions or make notes of some of the best quotes to put to management. But first guarantee to them their identities will never be revealed to management!

Another way to ask about preferred employee communication channels

One way to find out what your team members 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?”
  3. “What is your preferred communication channel to receive this contact?”
  4. “How often would you like to receive this communication?”

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.

Some further thoughts on preferred employee communication channels are added in my article, “How to measure information gaps in your communication.”

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, 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 his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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