Last month, one of my business owner groups (The Alternative Board®) examined the issue of communicating company news to employees. Among those participating they had collectively tried personal emails, an e-newsletter, a paper newsletter, a company Facebook page, discussion groups on the company intranet, mass texting, flat screen monitors at gathering places in the office, and screen savers that popped up on idle computers with company announcements.
One CEO is currently using all of the above technologies, yet employees continue to say, “I didn’t know that” or “No one told me.”
Charles Handy is an Irish “Business Philosopher.” He writes brilliantly on Organizational Behavior, and developed the theory of the Shamrock Organization, where quasi-independent employees shift assignments and responsibilities unfettered by geography and linked by modern communication. Even though a proponent of virtual organizations, he has also become an outspoken advocate for the importance of face-to-face communication.
In the mid 1990s, Handy was part of a team writing a new book on corporate behavior. The other authors were from the USA, UK, Europe and Australia. They worked via email, but upon completion decided to have a wrap party in London to celebrate.
Within a few hours of gathering, they called the publisher to put a hold on the book. Meeting face-to-face had started conversations that gave each of them new perspectives and new ideas. That event made Handy realize that humans are social animals, and need to be in each other’s presence to fully communicate.
Behaviorists say that as much as 85% of what takes place in face-to-face conversations is non-verbal. Posture, eye contact and facial expression lend nuance to the words. We’ve tried to compensate in text for the lack of contact with emoticons, but we all know that they are a poor substitute at best.
For those readers who can remember the distant days before email; a question. Did you ever receive a letter from an employee, co-worker or boss? It wasn’t good news, was it?
Regardless of how many methods of electronic communication we utilize, it is all being crammed into that 15% effectiveness band. No amount of redundancy can compensate for the missing 85%.
“But our Millennial Generation employees want electronic communication. I see them texting each other when they are in the same room!” True enough, but perhaps, just perhaps, what you have to say can’t be delivered effectively in 140 characters. More importantly, younger folks may think that they communicate effectively with electronic media, but there is no indication that the technological advances of the last 20 years erased a million years of social evolution.
There is good news for small business owners. We have the ability to see and be seen by our employees. Our supervisors and managers can be trained to actually talk to their subordinates. Most of us still function as the face of our companies, and that face can be used to deliver important messages.
When I ran a larger small company (100+ employees vs. the five I have now), I used the concept of concentric circles for important communication. I’d begin with the key employees. Usually that was the executive team, but often it included others who were directly influenced by a decision or announcement. I met with them in person, and discussed the news for as long as it took to make sure they understood and were all on board.
The second circle consisted of direct supervisors and leaders on the staff. Again, we met in person, usually with at least a few of the “first circle” in attendance. They could ask questions until everyone was comfortable that they understood and could explain the decision to others.
Finally, an announcement was made to the entire staff (who were spread over 6 locations). Our preparation ensured that every employee could have an immediate face-to-face conversation with someone who was fully informed.
There were two material benefits to the approach. First, no employee was left with “I don’t know, let me find out about that.” as an answer to a concern. Second, each circle felt that their importance to the company was recognized, even when they only received the message a few hours before the others.
Charles Handy writes that face-to-face communication is the foundation of trust in the workplace. Fortunately, that is one competitive advantage we still hold as small business owners. We shouldn’t waste it for the sake of a few moments’ convenience.