Communication is the key to a successful relationship, and relationships are fundamental to a strong company culture
This sentiment was at the heart of the discussion at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Saint Louis’ Lunch and Learn on October 18, 2017. Bonfyre Director of Employee Experience Rob Seay led the conversation with his presentation Changing Times: Connecting Your Diverse Workforce, which explored the ways company culture, human relationships at work, and enterprise internal communications, all intersect.
Why is culture so important? According to Seay, culture is a unifying force, connecting employees to each other, and the company’s mission and vision. Culture also determines how organizations navigate times of change.
“Think about everything we talk about when we talk about organizational change: reorganization and restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and downsizing. The culture side of organizational change is often overlooked,” Seay said.
As a consequence, Seay noted, companies take for granted the impact this has on employees. Leaders assume employees will automatically take up more responsibility in the wake of change, but it doesn’t happen by default. Seay said making culture your primary focus lets employees know and feel that they are cared for, and that feeling is what helps create stronger relationships at work. And in times of change, relationships and culture are what help organizations survive. He pointed to two prominent examples as proof of this.
The first involved Barry-Wehmiller, which in the wake of the Great Recession put every employee on a temporary, mandatory furlough to avoid layoffs. Employees responded in kind by volunteering to take more time off for their colleagues who couldn’t. The second involved Southwest Airlines, which immediately following 9/11 was the only airline to remain profitable because leadership and employees made sacrifices for the good of the company and each other. Both situations are case studies of how the culture and relationships formed across these organizations allowed them to persevere under dire circumstances (you can read more about both here).
But the lynchpin of all of this is how an organization communicates internally. “Communications is instrumental to an organization’s success,” Seay said. In day to day operations, and especially in times of change, the concerns of employees bubble up and filter to internal communications, and it’s up to communicators to address those concerns.
Keeping employees informed is critical, no matter the state of the organization, Seay noted, pointing to the following quote from Steve Soltis, Group Director of Executive and Employee Communications for the Coca Cola Company. “A business cannot generate sustainable value and growth without employees understanding where it’s headed, why, what it’s going to take to get there, and why each employee matters.”
“Communications guides the direction of the organization,” Seay said, but the reality is that the communications field itself has dramatically changed in the recent years. Remote workers barely existed 15 years ago but are now on the rise, technology has opened up new channels but deskless populations are still hard to reach, and communicators have more on their plate now that mergers and acquisitions are at an all-time high. “Companies are now re-evaluating their approach,” Seay said, because defaulting to email, or putting posters in the breakroom for deskless workers isn’t as effective anymore.
These communications changes and challenges have a direct impact on the bottom line. “With smaller organizations, miscommunication impacts revenue by as much as $420,000 per year,” Seay said, citing a recent SHRM survey. “For larger organizations with more than 100,000 employees, those costs can have an impact of over $60 million on an annual basis.”
According to Seay, there are four major areas to address regarding these internal communications issues:
How well communicators are connecting with their workforce, and finding a way to reach the people you’re missing. “We still have a huge population of employees who still don’t have a desk or a laptop or even a corporate email address,” Seay said. “How are you ensuring the information you’re sharing with the rest of the organization is reaching that population as well?”
With so many new and different channels at communicators’ disposal, there’s no longer a one-size-fits-all solution. “Too many channels creates too much noise,” Seay said. “It’s creating this issue where it’s overwhelming employees.” And the sense that we get with the increase in channels, he added, is that employees are saying “I just want to know what’s relevant to me.”
Communicators are struggling to determine if their communications resonating with employees. Is it the right information they’re looking for? “It’s a difficult question because you’re working with a diverse population,” Seay said. “Salaried workers, remote workers, hourly workers, workers across different geographies, all of those circumstances play into your effectiveness.”
Metrics and Measurement
The issue of measuring how employees are interacting with your communications channels and consuming content. Seay said measurement is necessary for determining if communications goals are being accomplished. “You need to find the right metrics you can trust,” he said. “How many times have you heard, ‘Oh, we have 10,000 people visiting our intranet site.’ Are they really? How are you pulling that and what exactly does that mean?”
Seay closed his presentation emphasizing the interconnectedness of relationships, culture, and communications. “If you don’t have good communication in a relationship, you don’t really have a relationship, and relationships are fundamental to a strong culture.”