Gail Franks explains how to create an honest and healthy dialogue between employee and employer by following the three Ts: - time, tailoring and two-way communications.
At the best of times, in any organisation, internal communication is very important. Add a recession, insecure employees and an uncertain future, as companies such as JJB Sports and FirstGroup are currently experiencing, and internal communication becomes paramount.
Many of us have experienced periods of economic downturn in the workplace. It’s a time when the office or factory becomes a hotbed of uncertainty and can leave staff feeling apprehensive about what’s to come. Employees need to know the short-term and long-term aims and objectives of an organisation to work to their best, so clarity and communication are a must.
In essence, employees are a company’s first and most powerful messengers – the vehicle through which messages to external audiences are relayed. So how can an organisation ensure that the message "on the grapevine" is ideally positive, or at least neutral and not negative?
An employer needs to give employees a clear picture of the future, share information as soon as it comes to hand and answer employees’ questions and concerns quickly and honestly. As we know, the recession is not usually about good news, but the messages communicated should provide the employees with a clear outlook of the future and help the organisation to:
- Align its people and its purpose – with a common goal and unified aim, employees will not only have a clearer goal, they will feel like a team.
- Get its employees where it wants them to go, faster and more efficiently – recession is not an excuse for employees to take their eye off development and training.
- Shape their evolution and culture to support their goals.
- Build their capacity for change.
In any situation where people are liable to be concerned abut the impact of any issue on their personal future, their instinct is to want to know as much as possible on a continuing basis so they can take any action as an informed decision. Many businesses do not manage to meet this need.
Research from Weber Shandwick showed that 71 per cent of people felt that their company should be communicating more about current economic problems. It is also particularly important during times of change that employees and their management have open two-way communications. High-impact changes – such as mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, restructurings, downsizings, corporate rebranding, entering new markets or deregulation – frequently lead to employee anxiety, uncertainty, speculation, and even anger and resistance against change.
An investment in effective internal communications is comparatively small for the value that will be reaped. It can have a positive impact on a company's ability to attract and retain quality employees; important in times of economic downturn.
Firms that communicate effectively are also four times as likely to report high levels of employee engagement as firms that communicate less effectively.
It seems natural – when staff are clear and comfortable about their future, they more readily commit their minds to focus on working for the business. That is reinforced by Watson Wyatt's 2007/2008 Communication ROI Study which showed that:
"Effective employee communication is a leading indicator of financial performance… a significant improvement in communication effectiveness is associated with a 15.7 percent increase in market value."
Effective employee communication during a recession can help to:
- Maintain productivity.
- Ensure the business remains profitable and competitive.
- Make employees feel valued and help staff retention.
- Protect your culture, and your internal and external brands.
- Give clear aims and focus for the future.
Communication in times of uncertainty should follow the three Ts: - time, tailoring and two-way communications.
Employees should hear any news from the company first. If news is broken from other channels before the company has communicated, the employee will feel let down, demoralised and, ultimately, distrustful of the management going forward.
Tailoring – multichannel communications
Good internal communications systems are paramount as managers will not always be able to tell staff face-to-face.
These need to be researched and thought-through very carefully to ensure that the messages can be conveyed to each individual in the way which is most suitable and practical for each person, according to the nature of their role and working activities.
Desktop alerts will be more immediate than email and using these for only important communication means employees will know they need to be read.
Obviously, not all employees in all companies have computer access, so communication channels need to be right for that business and immediate enough to avoid the situation of staff finding out elsewhere.
For those who cannot easily be reached by computer-based communications, options could include text messaging, face-to-face briefings and traditional print.
This will build a community and avoid a "top-down" approach all of the time. By seeking to engage with information flowing from one party to another, it will allow people at all levels to give their opinions and get feedback.
For instance, when looking for ways to make the business more efficient and to cut out waste, it is often the team "on the front-line" handling matters day-to-day who can most readily see what could be improved.
Give staff the opportunity to share their ideas for saving costs or implementing new ways of working.
Encourage them to talk about their own experiences using a newsletter, intranet or internal magazine.
Discussion forums and manager or employee blogs appeal to many people. They will give a good indication of how people are feeling and can alert the company to issues that may not have been considered.
In conclusion, effective internal communications in recession will help reduce fear, build engagement and maintain effectiveness. Whether or not it can actually turn around the economic climate remains to be seen, but there is no harm in trying.