Employee Communications: 7 Lessons Learned by Cutting Out the Middleman

By cutting out the middleman, you can learn a lot about what your employees really need to collaborate.

(This article by Talk Social to Me CEO Carrie Basham Young originally appeared Aug. 31, 2017 in CMSWire.)

What if you could obtain real, raw, unfiltered information from your employees about how your collaboration program is actually working today? What if you had the chance to put yourself in the shoes of line workers, field sales reps, headquarters teams, new hires and senior engineers alike?

You’d quickly learn that regardless of however many collaboration tools or employee communication programs you put in place, real work is getting done through informal social networks — the relationships between employees that weave a web of friendships, trust, alliances, social power and ultimately, information exchange.

This organic collaboration has a tremendous impact on the way your company handles employee communication. But you can’t control it, you can only try to strengthen it.

Unexpected Collaboration and Communication Findings

Recently, Talk Social to Me uncovered a variety of interesting lessons from employees while conducting collaboration audits and discovery interviews for our clients. Seven of these lessons rang true for nearly every organization, from pharma to retail, from technology to utilities and banking.

And, nearly all of them came as a surprise to the CIO and Head of Communications.

How did we uncover these unexpected findings? Simple: by cutting out the leadership middlemen and asking employees what was important for them to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with their networks.

When Senior Leadership Is the Middleman

CIOs and internal communications leaders must understand this: the era of broadcasting heavily massaged and sanitized information to employees is over.

Modern collaboration tools have democratized the exchange of information by cutting out the middleman, a.k.a. you. While traditional methods of employee communication, like the company newsletter, intranet and annual all-hands meeting, depend on the company hierarchy to push information down to employees in a managed way, social collaboration tools break the hierarchy by allowing any employee to connect to another regardless of his or her formal position.

And with smartphones in the hands of 77 percent of the American population, and 2 billion people active monthly on Facebook, our digitally networked employees are able to share information through their own organic web of relationships, which doesn’t have company HQ in the center — and may not include it at all.

What We’ve Learned in the Trenches

Our seven key learnings about communication and collaboration practices were generated from countless employee interviews with corporate IT teams to sales engineers to factory workers and traditional desk-based knowledge workers.

They also include learnings from the C-Suite. Their perspectives often set the tone for what we attempted to learn from employees.

By bringing together all interviews and uncovering key themes (and often times, sharp discrepancies in two different areas), we’ve curated the seven most common, yet unexpected, lessons about how work is really getting done at companies.

1. The C-Suite Lives in a Bubble

Given their social position at the company, the deference of their subordinates and their executive assistants who clean up inboxes and find information on-demand, most senior leaders have no idea what it’s like to be an everyday employee.

We often hear that email “is just how we get things done here” and “it’s the only place where I can reach everybody.” Executives are coddled and highly protected from the collaboration overload that impacts the majority of their knowledge workforce. This leads to the next problem, which is ….

2. Executives Exacerbate the Email Problem

As teams attempt to shift work into more collaborative, open realms like Slack and Workplace by Facebook, senior leaders still rely on emails to announce and assign.

When a message from a C-level starts in email, the entire conversation lives there, in perpetuity. Until leaders change their own behaviors and stop using email as a catch-all because it’s convenient for them, teams will have to frequently switch contexts and use their personal networks to extrapolate email information into more workable plans.

3. Corporate Communications Is NOT the Most Trusted Source of Information

As the communications manager is putting finishing touches on the monthly corporate newsletter, employees are preparing to ignore it.

In manufacturing and utility environments, field and line-based employees are looking to their union leaders for the hyper-local “real scoop,” coming from people “like us.” Retail employees don’t believe headquarters understands customer or hourly associates, therefore, stores use free backchannels like WeChat, Instagram and the like to exchange “real” information from the ground.

Store managers and district leaders are the most trusted sources of data, serving as strong nodes in the informal network. In large corporate environments, all-company emails are openly ignored and seen as over-polished propaganda.

This begs the question — how can internal communications professionals start listening and stop broadcasting?

4. Local Culture Trumps ‘Company Culture’

For organizations that have grown by acquisition, where there are field offices around the globe, and where most employees never visit the corporate mothership, local culture is infinitely more important than official company values.

Local offices, stores and plants establish their own social hierarchy and sometimes pit themselves against HQ to build team morale. While these networks are small but strong, they aren’t conducive for successful collaboration with outside teams and divisions, resulting in information silos and duplication of work.

“Drive-by-meetings” (visiting someone’s cube to get a verbal answer on-demand) might suffice for small offices, but they ultimately create too much dependence on a few key players for timely information flow. Companies need to respect the informal networks of local, disparate teams while also building a collaboration program that helps them integrate their work into the broader information ecosystem.

5. Some Teams Don’t Actually Want Dialogue

Some companies aspire to launch an employee community or internal social network to generate two-way dialogue, but the desire for conversation isn’t shared by employees or even the internal communications team.

When companies have relied on bulletin boards or manager-led meetings, and when staff can be seasonal (retail) or measured by strict KPIs (call center operators), more dialogue is seen as more unnecessary overhead to manage. This is why discovery interviews are so critical — they help companies find out where dialogue will be productive as well as uncover pockets of employees who prefer a different type of company communication.

6. Employees Are Desperate for Collaboration Direction

Employees want to be consulted on which tools will be rolled out. At the same time, a majority of interviewed employees express a willingness to at least try nearly any well-built, job-appropriate company collaboration tool offered to them.

Surprisingly, this seems to indicate that the pendulum of shadow-IT is swinging back in the other direction. In many organizations, an overwhelming combination of rogue collaboration tools plus formally sanctioned tools has created an appetite for a streamlined approach.

Employees are ready to accept a collaboration strategy that reduces cognitive overhead and gives them freedom to work within an approved, user-friendly environment.

7. Nobody Can Find Anything

Document storage and collaboration silos have created considerable barriers to effective information exchange across teams. Sometimes official information is stored in Box, and other times email, maybe in G-suite, and occasionally on the company’s enterprise social network.

Employees are relying on their personal networks to find information that might be hidden in somebody else’s storage system (often because integrated search doesn’t exist across all systems). Frustration due to the silo problem is immense, but employees have described it as par for the course. The result is a deeper reliance on local teams and networks to find expertise and documents.

Leverage the Network to Build Your Channel Strategy

To leverage informal employee networks and make good decisions about communication and collaboration programs, organizations must have a genuine willingness to listen to employees. What tools are they using, even if they aren’t sanctioned, and why? Who do employees trust for accurate information? Where do they find the resources to do their job? What are the company’s strengths and weaknesses?

Your interviews will likely mirror some of what we’ve found, and they’ll also provide unique insight into your culture. From there, companies can build a Communication and Collaboration Channel Strategy: a holistic ecosystem for managing tacit and explicit knowledge, supporting team-based collaboration, water-cooler socialization, time-bound collaborative events such as hackathons and ideation campaigns, and expertise location.

It’s crucial to include employees in building this strategy. According to a Salesforce survey of more than 1,400 employees, 90 percent of employees believe leaders should consult with others before making an important decision, but 40 percent also reported leaders “consistently failed” to do so.

Your Channel Strategy is a perfect opportunity to lead with transparency and demonstrate how a collaborative organization can work. Listening to what employees have to say about their informal network’s needs will help build a solution stack that is inclusive and effective — and one that balances the top-down communication needs of the company with the organic collaboration needs of teams and groups.

The learnings about toolsets will be hard: there is no easy single collaboration solution. And, you will uncover critical cultural considerations that must be addressed as part of your strategy. Consider this an added bonus of your collaboration audit.

The important element of this exercise is that companies can, for the first time, facilitate conversation and work outside of your company hierarchy. Your employees — and executives — will thank you.

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