A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 4: Listening

 
Shel Holtz's picture

 Listening

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders. In this post, we begin examining the outer ring of the model with a look at alignment

Revised Employee Communication Model

 

The series: Part 1: Introduction Part 2: Overview Part 3: Alignment

The outer ring of the model represents the work that employee communicators engage in every day; they are infused in all communications. Listening is the second outer ring segment and a critical communication activity. After all, it’s tough to communicate in any circumstance without knowing what the other participant in the conversation is saying.

 ListeningWithout listening, there is no two-way communication, no matter how much employees may be telling us. Listening—or monitoring—is a standard practice among our counterparts in public relations and marketing, which make huge investments in tools that allow them, often in near real time, to detect subtle shifts in sentiment or new topics of conversation. They are equipped to use this intelligence to communicate quickly, taking advantage of the intelligence gleaned from the monitoring to send relevant and timely messages.

Despite the importance of the internal audience, and the fact that employees use many of the same kinds of tools as external audiences—blogs, social and collaborative networks, messaging apps—similar monitoring is virtually unheard of inside the enterprise. While there aren’t a lot of internal monitoring tools that match the capabilities of Sysomos, Datasift, Meltwater, and Critical Mention (to name just a few), there are ways to extract the same kind of intelligence from internal conversations.

Note: Since measurement is a separate element of the model, I’m not including it as an element of listening, though no communicator should underestimate how important it is to measure how well your communications are meeting employees’ and leaders’ needs and expectations.

Putting your finger on the pulse

Delivering content to employees without knowing their general attitude about the company and their work can create more problems than it solves.

Sometimes you can just intuit what employees are (or will be) thinking. In my corporate days, I worked for a company that planned to open a new multi-million-dollar cafeteria that had been in the works for years and under construction for about one year. I was informed of the day the ribbon-cutting was planned. It just happened to be less than a week after a planned layoff. It didn’t take deep levels of insight to know a lot of employees would be pissed. The cafeteria included patio seating and a waterfall designed to baffle noise from a nearby freeway, but employees would undoubtedly wonder how many jobs could have been saved if we had just kept the old cafeteria (or, at least, skipped the freakin’ waterfall). I suggested we proactively communicate the difference between capital and overhead expenses so employees would understand that the cost of the cafeteria would be amortized over its lifetime; it wouldn’t have affected the financial reasons for the layoff. (Leadership rejected my plan, telling me I’d be starting a fire where none existed. The cafeteria was opened. Employees were pissed. Leadership came back to me and said, “Huh. I guess we need that communication after all.” Of course, now it was reactive instead of proactive and far less effective.)

Sometimes, though, you have to do some work to assess employees’ general mindset. Some techniques that work include the following:

Unfocus groups

Not focus groups. Unfocus groups. I tried to convene two every month in my jobs running corporate communications in two big companies. I worked with HR to invite randomly-selected employees who worked at roughly the same level (no admins and VPs in the room at the same time) representing a cross-section of departments. I tried to hold these groups in non-headquarters locations whenever I traveled, too. (In larger companies with communicators in multiple locations, you could duplicate the unfocus group model wherever you have team members.) All participants were promised confidentiality. The opening question was always, “What’s on your mind these days?”

Communication councils

I cribbed this idea from an IABC conference session decades ago. The council is comprised of one representative from every department. Representatives served three-month terms. They would query their departments for issues that were on their minds, then raise those at a council meeting, held monthly with leadership, essentially a town hall in reverse. (No leadership presentations, just employee concerns and questions.) In addition to council reps reporting back to their departments, we in the communications department took notes we used to inform our work.

Online polls

Polls on the intranet homepage can give employees an opportunity to sound off on issues. They can’t all address heavy issues. Mix up business-related questions with a bit of fun to keep employees engaged, and be sure to let them see the results. But a well-timed “How are you feeling about..?” poll can provide useful insights.

Sentiment analysis

If your budget allows, and you have internal social networks or collaboration tools, you can use the same kind of software marketing and PR uses to assess the sentiment of external audiences in social media. Several companies offer internal sentiment analysis, which can (according to a Harvard Business Review article) “promises not just to identify workplace pain-points, but anticipate them. How employees use tools like Slack, SharePoint, Yammer, email, blogs, or LinkedIn to share thoughts and coordinate actions invariably yields treasure troves of data worth mining.” While these tools are usually applied for HR purposes, it has also been used to identify issues that required communication. Intel, for example, got generally positive responses to communications about a new internal recruiting initiative, but, as The Wall Street Journal reported:

The software identified agitation among employees who responded to a post by the company announcing it would pay double the employee referral bonus if an employee referred a minority job candidate or a veteran and that person was hired. Some who posted comments wondered if this was reverse discrimination or if Intel was breaking the law…While the employees were clear in what they were saying, the company used the sentiment-analysis software to drill deeper into what other motivations might lie behind their comments. What the software revealed…was that ultimately people were expressing frustration and fear based on a misunderstanding—a wrong impression that their own jobs were at risk…What the software also showed Intel…was that the company needed to better communicate with employees going forward.

Network engagement

As employee communicators inject their content into internal social networks, they should pay attention to the comments their content gets, as well as other conversations that help put the finger on the employee population’s pulse. Communicators should share that feedback so it can be aggregated to inform future efforts. Companies like HP and Conagra Brands have communication staffers dedicated to monitoring internal social networks.

Anecdotal information—I used to ask my staff to eat lunch at tables with employees they didn’t know at least once a week to pick up what they could. As with other listening methods, we never collected names, just general impressions and observations. Hearing what employees talked about at lunch could validate what we learned through other channels or it could lead us to test whether that sentiment was more widespread.

Any which way you can

Employees are always communicating. Whether it’s the questions they raise at town hall meetings or the chatter around the coffee machine, you can always find ways to stay in tune with general employee attitudes. (Before I quit smoking, I used to pick up some of the most interesting observations outside in the smoking area, where employees from across the organization gathered in random configurations and where the conversation invariably turned to work.)

Listening to feedback

In addition to assessing the overall state of employee attitudes, it’s also important to listen to how employees react to initiatives, announcements, and other communications.

This is also a reason communications needs to be flexible and agile and not locked into a communication plan. My friend, colleague, and communication measurement expert Ryan Williams put it this way in a recent email after he participated in an FIR interview about an initiative to establish standards for measuring employee communication:

If we still view the employee communications function in terms of production and distribution with a clear call to action, we miss the dynamic need for communication to influence in two directions. Feedback and adjustment are required by all parties in the process. Innovation, learning, and adaptation are required for sustained success.

I used to send a 16-question questionnaire to a randomly-selected group of 100 employees after every communication, whether it was the monthly magazine or an all-hands meeting. The questionnaire focused on the most important message from the communication. It was based on a model created by the late, great Ed Robertson, who managed employee communication at FedEx. He identified four criteria for any communication. The questionnaire asked four questions about each criterion, mixed up so the path wasn’t obvious. We reassembled them into the hierarchical order when we got responses back so we could figure out where (if anyplace) the communication had broken down, requiring us to rethink how to get the message across.

Those four criteria are…

Logistics—Was the communication timely? Was it in the right language? Was the format compatible with the channels on which employees consumed it? Was it legible or watchable? If we fail at the logistical level, employees won’t even pay attention to the message.

Attention—Did it grab the employees’ attention? Different approaches appeal to different people. What is compelling to members of the leadership team might bore a production worker to tears.

Relevance—Once employees are compelled to pay attention, they will ask, “Does it have anything to do with me? And if I spend time with this, will it help me in some way? Will it improve my odds of getting a bonus or a promotion? Will it make life at work better? Will it reduce hassle?”

Influence—Did employees actually change anything as a result of the communication? Do they now support the initiative? Will they embrace the new process?

I know this sounds a lot like measurement, but consider that 100 responses are hardly enough for a valid metric. It can identify trends, though, similar to the response you’d get if you stopped 100 employees in the hall one at a time and asked, “What did you think of that video?”

Listening to leadership

An employee communications department is, in many respects, an intermediary between employees and leaders. Part of the job of listening is to make sure leaders are hearing what employees are saying.

Consider producing a weekly or monthly report for leaders that summarizes the results of your listening program. If something vitally important arises from your monitoring efforts, you should surface it immediately to leadership along with recommendations for how to address it.

It is equally important to listen to leaders. The executive team is one of your most important clients—maybe your only client—which requires you to go beyond the messages they instruct you to deliver.

Most important is knowing the business plan. I am routinely astounded at the number of communicators I meet who don’t know the company’s plan. If communications aren’t supporting the strategic plan, I can’t imagine why the company would want to

I once conducted an internal communications audit for a company where the communicators articulated what they believed was top-of-mind for the leadership team. Our interviews with the president and the CEO, however, uncovered a priority about which the communicators had been unaware. It took some personal time and some probing with these leaders to uncover this priority, but once we did, everyone recognized its importance and it altered the communication team’s plan (and even led to the authorization for additional staff to ensure the team had the resources to execute the strategy).

Executive interviews and interviews with business unit leaders are a routine part of my employee communication audit. Two questions we routinely ask every leader we interview:

  • Thinking back on the last year or so, what has worked well in employee communications?
    • Why do you see that as a success?
  • In the same period, what employee communications fell short of your expectations?

    • What were your expectations of the intended outcomes and results in these instances?
    • What circumstances could change to ensure success next time around?

Agile employee communications

All of the intelligence you gather from employees and leaders should feed back into your living, breathing communication plan. In the days before computers, I used to keep an overview of the plan on a dry mark erase board. The calendar dates appeared on the x-axis. Our multiple communication vehicles were listed on the y-axis. I color-coded the key elements of the business plan to ensure we addressed every element of the plan in a mix of channels every week. I also listed key events (such as the annual meeting, key customer events, and the like) to make sure we were communicating about these events before, during, and after they took place, and telling stories and delivering messages that aligned with the business plan. If something came up, I could erase and change or add items in a heartbeat.

Under this new model, I would also factor in the four core elements of employee communication, ensuring we addressed culture, engagement, the customer experience, and the employee experience as dimensions of our reporting and engagements.

Let’s talk! How are you monitoring employee sentiment, issues, and interests in your organization? How are you using that intelligence to make tweaks and adjustments to your communication?

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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