Connecting Employees in a Disconnected Workplace

All-around PR and social media guru Brian Solis piqued my interest regarding internal communications. His blog on The Disconnect in Connecting the Workplace resonated with me because I’ve experienced or observed every failure he talks about regarding connect employees to information in the workplace.

More often than not, the technology we force onto people forces them to conform to a way of work dictated by technology and those who govern it within the organization rather than use technology as a seamless enabler to get work done, individually or collectively, the way that people organically use technology in their personal life.

In most companies and organizations of all sizes, the distribution of information is usually governed by either the IT or communications team, sometimes both either working together (or even against each other). In massive work places, often times each workgroup will have their own separate communication system. This means employees get multiple messages and oftentimes mixed messages.

Almost without fail, the most broadly distributed communication has the lowest readership and actuation, while the most narrowly focused communication will be the most read and have the highest call to action.

Employees are not dumb. They are generally pretty smart and savvy, particularly in regards to how the company works and the communication they receive. I have general found employees at all levels in a company general has three types of information delivered to them:

  • Things that are critical for my job
  • Things that are interesting to me
  • Things I don’t care about

These are not the same for everyone. Critical information in one customer service may not be critical to marketing. Some employees will immediately delete an email about the company’s United Way fundraising campaign, while another employee will be ready to volunteer. Where I see companies spend the most time and energy is getting employees to engage in information they don’t find interesting and don’t care about.

Why is that important? Generally speaking, companies want their employees to be educated and well-versed on all aspects of the company, not just their job. They also feel that employees who are “in the know” are happier employees.

I know this is a radical thought some of you will reject, but the reality is that neither of these thing are true. I have never seen a company win a “best places to work” award and have the employee feedback say they love the company newsletter. It’s benefits, job security, opportunities and culture that make employees happy. Trying to sell happiness to employees is selling snake oil.

A point Solis makes quite well is companies tend to try to use technology to solve the problem of connecting with their employees. Technology can be a solution, but it’s also part of the problem. Technology cannot replace leadership and engagement. Solis gives some great examples of how technology fails in connecting the work place, but here’s my thoughts on how to make it work:

  • The less the better. Don’t send five average emails when you can send one great email. The worst email I see in the corporate world is the daily update email. Daily emails have a fraction of the readership of weekly emails. Just like with marketing, great content is the key. Make sure each communication is special
  • No one-size-fits-all solutions. Broad-based messages are the least read. Narrow your audience as much as possible and tailor your message to that audience.
  • Lead by example. If you have talking points you want your leaders to discuss with their direct reports, you better be discussing the talking points with your direct reports too.
  • Get engaged. Technology isn’t always the solution, and it doesn’t replace personal contact. Key leaders and communications pros can’t make fly by visits every month of two. If you’re not engaged with a work group on average of once a week, your presence is a hindrance, not a help. In person communication beats technology almost every time.
  • Create a culture. If you there is information you can’t share with employees, don’t preach transparency. If you don’t define your culture, your employees will do it for you — and it won’t be what you want it to be.

While much of this information targets large companies, smaller businesses and organizations can have as much challenge as big companies, just different. I once worked for an organization with employees on two floors. Each group on each floor was in close enough proximity that you knew what everyone on your floor was doing, but you didn’t know what was happening on the other floor. Even though everyone knew each other much better than you would in a large company, there are still physical barriers to connecting.

But just as with large companies, the solutions for small organizations still come down to leadership, engagement and culture. One leader I worked for frequently shifted our work groups so we switched floors periodically and worked with different groups. The temporary disruption was more than offset by the positive gains. It created a culture of cohesiveness, collaboration and acceptance of change.

We also put together a weekly email for our customers, but rather than just having communications draft it on their own, we would hold a 15-minute weekly staff meeting for everyone to contribute. This was an opportunity to share information directly with one another, and often touched on information that wouldn’t make it into an email.

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