Why is Good Employee Communication So Important During an Economic Downturn?

Maintain staff productivityNo news is definitely not good news from an employee communications perspective. October 2008 research from Weber Shandwick showed that 71% of people felt that their company should be communicating more about current economic problems. Unfortunately, the uncertainty caused by lack of internal communications can cause staff to be less productive. In fact, Workforce Week reported in October 08 that 48 percent of staff said that the economic uncertainty has caused them to be less productive at work.Maintain operational effectivenessUncertainty due to a lack of effective internal communication can cause high performing employees to jump ship. Low morale within remaining staff can impact customer interactions and damage brand identity. Uncertainty can also damage a company’s culture. Competition for internal resources can increase between (and inside of) departments. Focus can shift onto projects that ‘look good’ but don’t really contribute towards real business objectives. Good employee communications can enable you to retain your best employees, protect your company culture and maintain the strength of your brand. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it costs at least one-third of a new hire’s annual salary to replace them. There are also associated opportunity costs such as lower productivity during re-training to consider. It is much more cost-effective to retain good staff and profitable customers than to replace them.Retain revenues in a shrinking marketIf demand for your organization’s products or services is reducing, in order to keep revenues healthy, it becomes even more important to drive organizational performance to increase your share of a shrinking market. In a competitive marketplace, organizations need to be agile, to reduce process inefficiencies and to increase effectiveness across the business. Effective employee communications plays a critical role in achieving these goals with an investment that’s small compared to value gained. Good employee communication is a competitive advantage.Employee communication tips during an economic downturn:Don’t cut employee communicationsWhen budgets are tight and the future looks uncertain a knee-jerk reaction can be to pull back to the bare essentials and not try anything new. Organizations may be tempted to cut costs in areas such as Internal Communications at a time when effective employee communications are even more essential. The Return On Investment (ROI) of effective employee communications can be huge. Watson Wyatt’s 2007/2008 Communication ROI Study 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”. Firms that communicate effectively are also four times as likely to report high levels of employee engagement as firms that communicate less effectively. Good employee communications can also help create an advantage that competitors aren’t likely to have. Involve your Internal Communications team in strategic planning sessions. They will be able to make proactive recommendations on items that have a communication component along with suggested employee communications strategies. Internal communications breakdown can be a major source of inefficiency. As can inaccurate, slow-moving, or non-existent information and mixed messages. Breakdowns cause people and processes to under perform. A good internal communications team can help to identify and eliminate the root cause of communications breakdowns.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:Engaging. Use engaging employee communications channels. Overt tools such as Desktop Alerts can be used to achieve maximum cut through for important and/or urgent messages and updates. Digital Signage on screensavers provides a more passive and visual way to raise awareness of key themes. Web 2.0 channels allow you to quickly and easily set up secure online blogs, discussion forums and interactive helpdesks with little budget or IT resource.Measurable. Ensure the channels you use provide full reporting on message cut-though and readership. This can be particularly important for HR communications during uncertain times.Track performance. Use staff surveys and polls as a way to assess what’s working, measure attitudes and levels of understanding as well as tracking trends.Targeted. Use channels that allows messages to be customized and targeted to specific staff groups.Repetition. Use a range of different ways to communicate and repeat key themes so that messages do not become ‘wall paper’.Reduce information overload. Use a staff Emag to aggregate ‘news and admin’ updates in order to reduce email overload and the impact it has on productivity.Drive performance. Use staff quizzes to gather cost savings or efficiency initiatives, reinforce messages and new behaviors.Build community. Use staff electronic magazines to allow staff to tell their own stories in their own words. Social media channels should be authenticated to employees computers to allow staff to securely participate in online discussion forums and blogs.Be visible, honest and open “By stepping up and communicating more with their employees, company leaders will enhance their company’s standing, consolidate their position of trust in challenging times and head off any inaccurate rumors or fears.” Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick Be willing to communicate before you have all the answers. Employees need communication ‘right now’ to remove uncertainty that may be hindering their productivity. Not communicating with employees does not mean that they are not communicating. It means that you have lost control over any positive messaging and the chances are excellent that your employees are painting a far worse picture than is actually occurring. Tell employees what you know, what you don’t know, and when you will provide further information. Explain the steps the organization is taking to identify issues and resolve problems. Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep. Be open and transparent with performance data. Candor helps gain public support for necessary actions that may follow. Employees rarely feel worse after having positive contact with a genuine, candid leader. A CEO / senior managers blog can act as an ongoing ‘town hall meeting’ that makes senior managers more accessible to staff. Staff can ask questions and seek clarification in a format that is similar to open dialogue.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:An RSVP Desktop Alert is an ideal channel for maximising employee attendance of face to face briefing sessions. Such desktop alerts can provide available date, time and venues options and automatically populate the employee’s outlook calendar with the selected appointment. Reporting tools make it easy to see which staff are attending which sessions. You can plan room sizes, catering etc and close off specific date/time options as rooms become filled. Video: Credibility, conviction and passion are best conveyed by visual cues. When face to face is not possible, staff can benefit from seeing engaged and informed senior leaders through video. Consider delivering video messages with a pop up alert notification. Recurrence and/or click through options can be specified to ensure maximum visibility and ROI for video messages. Use Web 2.0 channels that have been specifically built for internal employee communications. Ensure they are easy to use meaning and little IT resource, training or budget is required to implement them.Be timely Coordinate your internal and external messages and be timely. Employees should hear company news from the company first. Nothing is worse to an employee’s moral than hearing about changes to their organization from media sources or family and friends before they have been informed by their employer. Keep track of when employees last heard from you and schedule when you’ll send updates, regardless of developments.Internal Communications Channels – Tips: Pre-schedule messages: Pre-schedule messages to coincide with market or media releases. Formats like desktop alerts and scrolling news feeds achieve high message cut-through. Scrolling news feeds: If you use RSS feeds in your press releases/newsroom or website, set up an employee scrolling news ticker so staff automatically receive the news releases the second they become public. This is especially important for publicly listed companies as this can be a good way to make sure you keep employees in the loop as much as possible. Use a channel that that doesn’t require staff to take the time to opt in to important RSS feeds. Alternatively, if you want to personalize announcements to staff, you can also easily create an internal news ticker and schedule it to appear at an appropriate time.Manage Rumors Manage rumors. Get information out early and explain that you will provide regular updates, rather than letting rumors proliferate whilst you wait. In the absence of alternative information, staff may accept available rumors as “the truth” (if the rumors weren’t true they would have said so) causing you to lose your best people first. Some organizations set up an online discussion forum specifically as a ‘rumor mill’ where staff can anonymously post anything they have heard. Executives may not want to sanction a rumor mill. However, rumors exist regardless of the channel and a discussion forum provides an opportunity to correct them quickly. Limit potential damage from managers’ informal conversations that are overheard and serve only to undermine other communications efforts or create rumors. Use secure channels for electronic ‘manager only’ communications. “Today, whatever you say inside of a company will end up on a blog, So you have a choice as a company – you can either be proactive and take the offensive and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’ or you can let someone else write the story for you.” Rusty Rueff, a former HR executive at PepsiCo.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:Web 2.0 channels: set up secure online forums that are authenticated to individual employee’s computers. Ensure that the level of access, moderation and anonymity can be easily specified for each forum and/or specific staff groups. Set up automated desktop alerts to notify specified moderators that new posts require moderation or an answer which can help ensure responsiveness.Involve managers in delivering messages Employees prefer communicating with their immediate manager than with any other level of management. This is especially relevant during times of uncertainty. So use your team. Make sure they know how and what to communicate, and that no one is a bystander. It is also helpful to get a wider communications support team in place – not just the core communications or management team, but a wider network of champions, supporters and coordinators. What will the company look like if it’s successful? This vision needs to be expressed at a high level and then translated down to individual departments and staff in terms of what it means to them. Line managers and supervisors are a great resource for providing this context. Measure and manage the effectiveness of line manager communication with employees. What gets measured gets done.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:Staff surveys and employee polls can help you measure the effectiveness of managers as communicators. A short poll to assess how well each employee understands key messages can be related back to individual managers to provide a measure of the manager’s communications effectiveness. What gets measured usually gets focus and priority. Blogs: Get with it and get key managers to blog about the current economic situation and related initiatives. Encourage staff to ask questions and seek clarification. Staff blogs will help staff realize that managers are human too and they are doing all they can to minimize the impact upon the organization. Interactive secure helpdesks. Set up secure web 2.0 channels as staff helpdesks. Managers can meet online to discuss strategies, share ideas and to plan. This is especially useful when managers are in different locations. Schedule and target messages so that, when appropriate, mangers can be targeted with updates, via a desktop alert or scrolling news ticker ahead of their teams. This allows them plan how they will react and provide further context when their team are subsequently updated, and to prepare answers to possible questions from staff.Provide 2 way communications channels Provide opportunities for two-way communication. Invite employees’ questions, concerns and suggestions. Welcome all kinds of feedback including negative comments…sometimes people simply need a place to vent frustrations before they emotionally move on. Acknowledge emotions and probe deeper to understand the real issues. Use face to face meetings for sensitive issues and allow plenty of time to hear responses and answer questions. Staff may think of additional questions later on, therefore channels should be in place to address these subsequent questions. Web 2.0 tools can provide an opportunity for a genuine conversation as an alternative to ongoing face to face meetings. Other alternatives such as opinion polls and suggestion boxes can also be put in place.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:Staff opinion polls allow you to ask for information on specific issues. Even though it is not face to face, they can be used effectively to keep information channels open. Online staff discussion forums can provide a virtual meeting where people can share their ideas, opinions, and if necessary, let off steam. Staff Discussion Forums allow people to post ideas anonymously. This is a good option for finding out what staff really think. In case this all sounds too risky, use a highly secure platform that provides a range of moderation options to allow you to keep a close eye on the conversations. Targeting options will also mean that you can set up specific secure forums targeted to specific groups (meaning that negative feeling doesn’t have to ‘infect’ the whole organization).Focus on outcomes and drive performanceDon’t overly focus on cost cutting and productivity messages. These messages are clearly important but it is also necessary to help staff stay positive by inspiring them, highlighting genuine good news stories and keeping focus on future opportunities rather than just the current pain. Show your strengths. Reinforce the core competencies and values that make your organization successful. Talk about how they will help the organization thrive in the future. Maintain a positive focus on achieving performance targets. Don’t let negative views of the economy be an excuse for failure to meet targets.Internal Communications Channels – Tips:Use a staff electronic magazine format that makes it easy for anyone in your organization to contribute news items. Include articles showing how employees are modeling new values or implementing new strategies Screensavers as digital signage: Use screensavers as a communications channel to paint a picture of the future, promote top performers, show visual representations of achievement against target, carry motivational images etc. Countdown clocks on screensavers can also be a great motivational tool to create a sense of urgency when the end of the financial year is in sight. Scrolling news tickers: A daily news ticker for targeted employee’s computers carrying the latest sales, production or performance figures. Staff Quizzes: Use staff quizzes to increase capability and motivate staff (injected with some humorous options and with a prize incentive). Web 2.0 channels: Provide an interactive online helpdesk to allow staff to ask questions about any aspect of the business or their role. Nominated moderators can provide support in an evolving, tag-able and searchable repository of knowledge.Engage Staff in reducing inefficienciesInvolve staff and solicit their ideas for cost reduction and efficiency campaigns. Enlisting the help of employees to cut costs lets them know that ‘we are all in this together’. Once a few success stories are found, highlight them in staff communications channels (printed magazines, newsletters, E-Mags, etc). Tell stories about what departments or individuals are doing to reduce cost or increase efficiencies. Offer rewards or a personal thank you for good ideas and initiatives.Internal Communications Channels – Tips: Staff Surveys: push staff surveys and opinion polls directly to employee computer screens. Use this format to get staff to submit cost savings and efficiency ideas. The level of persistence for uncompleted surveys can be specified thereby ensuring maximum staff participation. Often the ideas and suggestions received can have a dramatic and positive impact on the business. Online staff forums: use a platform which allow secure discussions to be set up for targeted groups of employees. Discussion forums of this nature can be an excellent way to gather business improvement ideas and suggestions Staff e-mags: Select an easy to use format that allows any member of staff to submit articles. Encourage staff to submit short updates about what they or their department are doing to reduce cost and/or inefficiencies.

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