Leaders: This is exactly what ‘more communication’ should look like

By Dustin York

 
February 13, 2022
 
Leaders: This is exactly what ‘more communication’ should look like

We’ve all seen the many articles during the past two years: “Internal communication is now more important than ever,” and “Leaders need to communicate with employees more than ever before.” These statements are true, but like many people, you may have found yourselves wondering, “Yeah, but what exactly does that mean? What does more communication look like, exactly? How do we go about it?” These are important questions because I’m sure many people have also had the misfortune of feeling pressured or forced into seemingly communicative activities that felt counterproductive, stressful, or like a waste of time.

Clearly, it isn’t enough to just repeat “more communication, more communication” like a mantra because then you have organizations trying out practices that employees don’t want or even passionately hate (looking at you, Zoom happy hours). After two years, people should not have to still be confused about this. So for the sake of better clarity, let’s address this question of what it actually means to “communicate more” and how to specifically go about it.

More transparency needed

The first thing to keep in mind is that a shotgun approach isn’t effective, and employees don’t want just more communication willy-nilly. It has to be directed with a specific purpose, and that purpose should be transparency. Transparency is going to have to be the defining theme for communication throughout the rest of the pandemic and beyond, and I need to stress the word “beyond” because I assure you, we are never ever going back to the way things used to be in the workplace pre-pandemic with regards to leadership and communication.

What do employees want transparency about, exactly? Anything going on that affects them such as where they’re going to work, how they’re going to work, what they’re going to be working on, and so on. Even when clear decisions haven’t been reached about these things, be transparent about where you’re at with the deliberation process. For example, when news of the omicron variant was first being circulated, you can bet that employees were feeling anxious about what was going to happen. Many of them had just come back to the office, to their great relief. Are they going to have to go remote again? The uncertainty causes anxiety, and even if you don’t know the answers yet, keeping them in the loop of your decision-making process is reassuring in itself.

Granted, being this transparent amounts to a lot of information, especially during this pandemic since company policies and guidelines have had to frequently pivot in response to whatever was going on at the time. A high volume of information requires frequent and constant communication, but the good thing is that this is what most employees want. One study found that 90% of employees wanted communication from their organization’s leadership at least once a week. This kind of frequent internal communication keeps employees motivated, maintains their buy-in for the company’s goals and objectives, and boosts retention.

Three keys of good internal communication

Next, there are three keys to keep in mind with transparent communication: make it asynchronous, scheduled, and multimodal.

Synchronous communications can force employees to waste their most productive hours in Zoom meetings and are what often lead them to make grumbled comments like, “This could have been an email.” It’s not because they don’t want to know the contents of the communication; it’s because they want to be able to get to it according to their own rhythm. So make it asynchronous.

 

While frequent communication should be asynchronous, this doesn’t mean it can just happen randomly at any time. It also needs to be scheduled and consistent. So many companies now have social media calendars for external communications and yet have no calendar for internal communication. You need one for the latter as well. Your internal communication team needs to preplan, strategize, and pinpoint what’s going to be communicated on a consistent basis each week (or possibly even each day). 

The other problem with synchronous communication is that it tends to be limited to one format, but employees have their own preferences for how they best process information. That could mean a video for some, an audio recording or company podcast for others, and, yes, an email for perhaps others. Therefore, make sure to not only make communications asynchronous and scheduled but to deliver the same information in multiple formats at the same time. The good news is that it’s usually easy to repurpose the same piece of content for multiple formats. You can take a video and turn it into an audio-only format, for example, and then have it transcribed and use that as an email or internal blog post.  

Employees also need more feedback than ever

Let’s take a moment now to talk about something else that employees need a lot of, and often: feedback.

Just like transparency, feedback has always been an important part of organizational communication but it’s now more important than ever and needs to be given much more frequently. People have a natural desire to want to know how they’re doing if what they’re doing is meeting the company’s expectations, and whether they’re on the right track or not for achieving their goals. If they’re not on the right track, then they also want to know what they can do to course-correct. And once again, just like transparency, frequent and effective feedback boosts motivation and retention.

Something we can all learn from is video game design. Why are games so addictive and engaging? In her book Reality is Broken, author and game designer Jane McGonigal uses brain science to explain that it’s because of the constant feedback that games use to let players know how they’re doing in relation to achieving their in-game goals, providing both a satisfying sense of progress as well as practical information about improvements that need to be made. Moreover, it does so in real time through an entire range of feedback mechanisms: points, levels, analytics, badges, and unlocked achievements as well as satisfying sensory input (sounds, visual stimuli, controller vibrations, etc.). As you can see, some of the same themes from transparency apply here as well. Feedback needs to be frequent, regularly scheduled, and ideally multimodal if possible. In other words, ditch the boring annual performance review or, at the very least, don’t keep feedback limited to it.   

There’s no doubt that all this extra communication amounts to a significant amount of work and investment. But far worse than the work and investment required would be the consequences of ignoring these needs. While insufficient communication is by no means the only reason for the Great Resignation, for instance, it’s definitely one of the major ones. Employees have been having to adapt and evolve in numerous ways that will likely remain permanent, and it is only fair that companies and their leaders do the same. You now know exactly what “more communication” means. It’s time to go do it.  

Dustin York, PhD is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University.

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