Is there a perfect workplace?
We get glimpses in the media of places that look like Nirvana to work at. Google maybe? Free food, ball pits, games?
But what is perfection in a workplace? That's something that management, led by the HR team perhaps, nibbles away at in a number of ways. The modern phenomenon of Employee Engagement Surveys, Net Promoter Scores (how's that for management-speak?) or the annual search for "the Best Place to Work" are typical "finding out" initiatives that most of us will be familiar with.
The quest to understand what a great place to work looks like usually focuses on the culture – the set of habits, behaviours and values that seem to characterise the organisation. Culture has become an important part of attracting and keeping good talent; people want to work for a company that has a positive, caring and supportive culture. It becomes part of the brand and reputation of the organisation.
But the culture only exists in the people in the organisation – the two are inseparable.
And the lifeblood of the culture is communications.
Sadly, for all the effort that goes into developing and improving organisational culture, we often skimp on the one thing that binds it together and keeps it vibrant – good communications.
Time and again, I've read the responses to the engagement surveys and seen a common complaint – "communications is terrible" (or non-existent). Fullstop. The major failing of most engagement surveys is that they try to draw a big picture about how employees are feeling about the place (and what could be done to make it better) but allow little scope for detail to be expressed.
It's enormously frustrating to see the results of these surveys, with comms getting a bad rap. You turn the page to dig deeper – How? Why? Where? What should we do to make it better? And there's nothing.
Worse still, with nothing concrete to act on, no action happens, comms continues to languish and when the exercise is repeated a year later, fewer employees respond – and the ones that do, vent their spleen. You've done nothing since we last told you it was bad, so why should we bother telling you again?
If you truly want to improve the culture in an organisation, start with communications ahead of more team dinners and a pool table in the café. And the best way to understand what you need to improve in employee communications is to ask for specifics.
That means an internal comms audit. Don't try to make it an omnibus, fix-all piece of research. Focus on two things: what kind of information employees want; and the channels you have in the organisation to communicate with them. Not just communicate to staff, but communicate with them – because it has to be a two-way approach.
You look at the kind of information they want in terms of three things: its importance to them, the amount they receive (if any) and the quality of the information. Relate those three parameters and you'll soon see where you should be concentrating your efforts.
In terms of the channels, you want to know which ones are preferred, and how well they're operating.
An audit is a simple process. Maybe 10-15 minutes of an employee's time. Done in Survey Monkey or similar and you can dial up the data easily – which tells you what you need to work on (along with what is working well).
And when you do get a set of findings, make it a priority to act on them – quickly. Too often the follow-up is poor, as if the feeling is that completion of the survey signals the job's been done. Fatal.
Without having done a survey, though, I can fairly confidently predict what you'll find.
The important information will be a scarce commodity; in particular, information on how the company is doing and where it's going. Just about every employee wants to know that stuff for the simple reason their working lives are at stake. This is doubly true at times of change, disruption or challenge. If the future's looking grim, tell us and let's see how we can help avert that. Don't let us just read about it in the paper.
There will be a pass mark in the survey perhaps for some of the channels – the intranet, a newsletter, maybe the company meeting. But invariably they could all be improved.
Face-to-face communications to me is still the gold standard in internal communications, particularly at times of change or disruption. But it seems to be the discipline or system we're worst at. We get the IT right, and payroll, and health and safety…but our meetings can be very poor. Disorganised, pointless and riven with bad behaviours. It's not that hard to get a meeting right. And meetings are where the most effective two-way comms can occur – if it's allowed to happen and managed properly.
I've been in meetings where not everyone knows why they're attending, the purpose and goals are vague, the agenda is incomplete and not really followed, discussion is allowed to go way off topic, people talk across each other, talk too much, or don't say a thing (when you know they have something to say), people play with their phones or laptops, people arrive late or leave early, and the meeting ends with no real decisions or true progress. In common parlance, a bit of a cluster ****(you know the next word).
Meetings are (or should be) the lifeblood of information passing up or down the organisation. An organisation should have a robust meetings culture: some form of regular all-of-company gathering, good department and team meetings, and an accepted and adhered-to set of rules around how a meeting should be run. If a meeting is needed at all; sometimes a meeting is just a poor substitute for someone not being able to make an informed decision.
I began this piece talking about culture and workplace perfection. I doubt it exists. But getting the comms right in support of the culture will get you on the path to having a happier workforce – which should mean happier customers. And that has to be good for business.
Ron Murray is the author of Talking With Your People: A Roadmap to Achieve Better Employee Communications in the Corporate World (Murex Press 2018).