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08.15.2005Author: Marc Brownstein Posted In: Big Ideas

Communicating from the Inside Out

With the hectic pace of everyday work, we sometimes forget the importance of interoffice or employee communications. But in fact, the way we relate to our customers is often a reflection of the mood of our own workplace. There is no denying that a well-informed, motivated workforce in any business – whether manufacturing, service, or retail – can play a pivotal role in securing new business, keeping current customers happy, and ensuring the company’s overall financial success.

A six-step model developed by Roger D'Aprix, a noted authority on corporate communications, suggests that, psychologically, employees have to be led from lower-level needs to a point where they're ready to hear organizational messages. The first three steps in this model are “me-based” questions: What's my job? How am I doing? Does anybody care?

Until these three questions are addressed, employees are not able to move on to the next levels of the D'Aprix model. The fourth and fifth levels are more “we-focused” and include questions such as the following: How are we doing? Where do we (our team) fit in? The sixth step is where employees truly get involved and ask: How can I help?

With that in mind, here are some ideas on how you might enhance your own organization’s communications:

Newsletters – The most successful companies update their employees about business developments, human resources issues, and individual achievements on a regular basis. Internal newsletters sent via e-mail and authored by the chief executive can be a very effective communication tool. Many company newsletters concentrate on business affairs only. However, using those news advisories to highlight employee achievements, whether at the workplace or in the community will go a long way toward enhancing morale.

Meetings – One of the best ways to silence the “rumor mill” is through direct communication. Whether it’s in a large group, small group, or one-on-one, face-to-face meetings build trust and credibility while ensuring that employees are receiving consistent messages. The best solutions for employee communication will always involve engaging people in discussion. In larger organizations, new media such as satellite broadcasts, webcasting, or online forums and chat rooms may play a role in keeping communication interactive and two-way.

Aside from details that must remain confidential, sharing information on the course of the company is very important for fostering an environment of inclusion. Our advice: Report positive developments as well as news of setbacks or challenges. Candor always wins in the long run, and whether the news is good or bad, employees should always hear about company happenings prior to external audiences.

E-mails – The advent of e-mail was both a huge advance and a significant complication in internal communication. The convenience and time savings of this communication vehicle must be weighed against the potential for abuse or misuse. Following a few simple rules of etiquette can make e-mail communications more effective.

Before you hit “Send,” take a moment to think about whether the information you’re sharing is really best conveyed in an e-mail, or whether a phone call or face-to-face conversation would be more appropriate. Also consider the “mood” you may be inadvertently communicating. Sometimes, being curt or short in e-mail can give the wrong impression—consider whether you would use the same tone in conversation. For example, avoid the use of ALL CAPS or exclamation points (which imply you’re angry). Symbols like the “smiley face” are best kept out of all but the most casual interoffice communication. And use the “cc:” function judiciously, on a truly “need to know” basis, lest your recipients experience “in-box overload.”

Voicemail – Similar to e-mail, this technology sometimes seems to hinder communication rather than facilitate it. “Phone tag” can be a major problem in some organizations, but you can cut down on the number of callbacks if you provide the right information from the outset.

If you’re leaving someone a message, give him or her some details on why you are calling, so they can do any necessary research or preparation before calling you back. This cuts down on the back-and-forth and makes his or her follow-up call to you more productive. (Some people even go so far as to call with “FYI”-type messages only when they know a person is away from his or her desk, to avoid lengthy chatter.)

Mention when you need a response (to establish urgency and help the receiver prioritize the return call) and/or the best time for them to call you back. And don’t assume that the target of the voicemail always has your return number! Spell it out clearly, keeping in mind that some voicemail systems play back incoming messages more audibly than others.

Employee Input – If you are looking for new ideas, don’t hesitate to survey your employees. Giving staff members the chance to be creative can be a great morale booster, and this appeal for help may provide some real surprises. If employees seem concerned that “constructive criticism” might be held against them, you can offer opportunities for anonymous feedback.

Follow-through is also very important. A company-wide program soliciting suggestions must also be willing to communicate why they are, or are not, acted upon. If you never follow through on any of the things that employees say to you and then communicate them back out to the workforce, it can almost become a deterrent rather than a useful tool in the communication process.

Extracurricular Activities – Company pride and employees’ sense of ownership are supported by open communications. This includes communication around organizational “extracurricular” activities designed to develop team spirit. Group events, like holiday parties, picnics, and sports outings that bring people together outside of the workplace are a tradition in American business. But companies sometimes err by making them mandatory. Encourage participation, but do not make employees feel obligated, as that can cause silent resentment or even disguised hostility. Make sure that when you plan events, people understand that they are invited, not compelled, to be there. Quite often, companies and management fail to think about time as an important element in quality of life. If employees want to participate in enjoyable activities on their time, they will.

One of the greatest challenges most organizations face is taking the corporate mission or vision and translating it into how people do things differently at the day-to-day work level. Consistent internal communication, at multiple touch points through multiple vehicles, can help bridge that gap. Internally focused communications programs must approach employees as consumers and be tightly integrated with external communications, so that workers who seek different points of view about the organization from outside sources do not encounter conflicting information.

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