Some time in the mid-late 1990’s electronic mail (email) became the widely used and preferred mode of business communication. Announcements that had in the past been shared internally by paper memo were soon disseminated electronically via email. Soon after, some companies decided to go “paperless” and ceased publication of their internal company newsletter—much to the dismay of workers who enjoyed reading about a coworker’s wedding or latest hunting prize. I say this jokingly, but it’s true, and there is something to be said for feeling a closeness with your fellow coworkers, even if seeing the 12-point buck picture your cube-mate snagged last month is a bit much.
The challenge for internal communicators has always been in reaching those who are “front-line” or who don’t sit at a desk all day. When I worked in the corporate communications department for an energy company, about 70 percent of the workforce was in what we considered “the field.” They were lineman, maintenance workers, tree cutters, meter readers and others. Unlike corporate staff, they were out and about all day or running equipment in a power station. If they saw email, it was perhaps at the very end of their shift and often times, they felt out of the loop on company happenings.
Today, the challenge is still there but electronic devices such as smart phones have made communicating with field employees a bit easier. Ragan, the leading source of information for PR and corporate communications, published an article about the growing trend of using digital signs in the workplace. Companies like Auto Trader Group, based in Atlanta, are using digital signs to recruit employees to volunteer in the community as well as to welcome new sales representatives to headquarters for training. While I think it’s a solid strategy for communicating with employees in the places they are in the building (near elevators, on factory floors, etc.) nothing beats person to person communication.
Digital tools—signs, mobile phones, kiosks–are just that, tools. In fact, everything we use to communicate is a tool and the great thing today is that we have more to use than ever before. The risk, however, is in relying too heavily on the tool instead of the message. Nationally, employee engagement is low—only 13 percent according to a recent Gallup poll, State of the American Workplace are actively engaged and committed to their jobs. This means that the majority of employees today are not happy, lack motivation and in the worst cases, spread their dissatisfaction throughout the workplace or in public. It would behoove employers to invest in communicating honest and compelling messages to their employees before they spend thousands on high-tech equipment (tools) to share their message.
It seems so basic and logical, but because messaging can be complicated or uncomfortable and since many leaders are so busy just trying to keep things afloat and make a profit, it may appear more doable to purchase a tool to share a message because then the impact is immediate. “Wow, look at that cool new digital sign in our lobby. It makes us look so high-tech and cutting edge.” Sure, it might, but what do your employees think? Are they reading the messages on it, or are they silently cursing leadership for spending money on unnecessary equipment when all they are interested in is whether or not they are doing a good job for the company and if they’ll be compensated for it with a bonus.
While the latest bells and whistles for sharing messages with employees seem way cool, I would caution companies considering implementing them. Before such an investment, it’s best to have a solid communications plan in place with real and authentic messages that will actually resonate with employees and move the needle on engagement.
Communicate to the middle
In companies with several layers between field employees and top executives, the most effective communication often occurs between manager or supervisor and employer. This is because they have more direct contact with each other on a daily basis. A bunch of messages from the CEO on digital signs will do nothing to engage employees, but meaningful conversations and an open line of communication between leadership and employee will.
Focusing your efforts to the middle and teaching those leaders the best way to communicate with employees is a much more strategic and meaningful investment. Remember, if nothing else, it is the message, not the tool that is most important. Beware of what we call at WordWrite, “the shiny object syndrome.” Don’t be compelled to invest in the latest or coolest tool, like a digital sign, if you haven’t first put together a comprehensive strategy for what you plan to share with employees and how you plan to measure it.