why knowing your people pays off

Continuing our spotlight on internal communications, one senior communications professional shares six key tips aimed at better knowing your colleagues...

by Emma Rodgers

The tide is turning and communicating with employees is now being placed more front and centre than ever before. And while in my view, we’re still not able to shed that perception of internal communications as the Cinderella service, the case continues to be proven for why it’s critical that everyone who works in your organisation is clear on how they contribute (see here and here).

As comms2point recently launched their dedicated internal comms resource, I thought it would be timely to contribute some thoughts, particularly on one of the areas which I think can so often be underrated, yet can prove so important for successful internal communications.

Much is said about the value of good research and insight and understanding who your audience is – what they do, what motivates them, and how they prefer to be communicated with. Often it seems this is something that communications and marketing specialists automatically do when it comes to external communications. Sadly, I don’t think the same can always be said for communicating with people inside organisations. Generalisations can be made, we don’t know enough about who are workforce are and regular and effective evaluation can be limited.

While more organisations are readily recognising the social and organisational benefits of having a motivated workforce, the chance to really understand who our internal workers are is often overlooked.

And at a time when local government is being faced with massive cuts and there is even more requirement to make sure you are getting best value for every pound of public money, it’s seems daft to me not to better understand who our employees are.

So I’ve put together six tips on making sure you do all you can to know the people in your organisation and how this can help make for better communications.  

  1. Don’t think of employees as ‘just employees’. Their job is only one part of who they are. In Stoke-on-Trent city council, 80% of our employees live in the city. That means it’s even more important that we communicate in a way that they can see where they fit in. It also means that if mobilised in the right way, staff can act as those all- important advocates for your organisation. Employees are your greatest storytellers. So find out more about who your staff are – where they work, what they do, where they live, their communications preferences, even age and gender and how long they’ve worked there. By delving into what makes them tick and communicating to them in a way that responds to this, you can start to build a truly genuine relationship . It can just be simple things like keeping people informed about roadworks that could affect their journey to work, not communicating important stuff on a Friday when they’ve asked you not to. Recognising they are human beings first and foremost will help you to better connect and build trust in your communications and the outcomes they bring.
  2. Seek to understand. It seems really obvious but always seek to understand where and how people want to find out news about your organisation. Ask the question, listen to what they say and don’t assume that one size fits all. While in previous organisations I have worked, managers were always the preferred source of communications for colleagues, when we tested this where I am now, email came out on top. It made us check some of assumptions we had and tailor our approach accordingly. It’s also made us revisit some of what we know about those staff who are off-line and not so easily able to access information. In turn, we’re now seeking to develop a new way for how we communicate with these teams moving forward, informed by what they’ve said, like developing  tailored ‘sound bite’ posters, that are made to measure exactly for their needs.
  3. Regularly check what you think you know. Communications, in my view, is wasted unless you can measure its impact and use it to improve what you do. But you don’t always have to do this in high cost ways or the most scientifically robust ways ever. You can temperature check how staff are feeling in really simple ways - through focus groups, via staff champions, sample groups, compliments or complaints, on-line polls, surveys, event evaluation or just by getting out there and listening. The list goes on for how you can do this relatively easily and you’ll soon find what works best in your organisation. Even if what you find isn’t something you wanted to hear, by being more informed, regularly checking, and adjusting your communications accordingly, you can make sure you’re making a real difference with your communications. 
  4. Involve people in what you’re doing. I believe the more you ask employees to get involved, the more ownership you’ll see. So think about how you can get involve them in what you’re doing at every step. Whether it’s to test communications, act as a conduit for feedback from colleagues or to give ideas or thoughts for how you can improve, make sure you look to involve employees whenever you can. Like many others, we’re going through major transformation at the moment and we’re testing our communications and support information with our management team and staff. The comments that are coming back are so useful and mean that people are more likely to own and buy into the rationale for those changes. It’s also a really good way to spot when you need to adapt what you’re doing. One really simple change that we introduced was a banned words list where we avoided using words that while in regular use, when we tested understanding, we found they didn’t actually didn’t mean anything to anyone. Sounds daft to have to do that but it’s amazing what basics can sometimes be overlooked.
  5. Collaborate and share. We’re living in an exciting time where so many of the best initiatives come from relationship building, nurturing and sharing skills away from traditional hierarchies. We can do more of this. So many of our employees have talents and skills that could help solve some of the trickiest of challenges but we don’t know about them. Challenge yourself and your organisation to think about how you can better facilitate collaboration, embrace ideas and share. Blogs, forums, comments, whatever works best, aim to embrace sharing so that you can be your organisation’s gate opener and not the guarded gate keeper.
  6. Be clear about what you want employees to do. Finally, and this one to me is the most important of all, never forget to use the insight you have to be really clear about what it is that you want employees to do.  Communicating the right message to the right employee at the right time in the right way makes it more likely to be acted on. But get it wrong and you’ll soon know. It could patronise, switch employees off or even worse lead to them feeling even more disengaged than when you started. This leads us back to the beginning of this blog where I said don’t underestimate the value of getting to know who your employees are and what makes your organisation tick.  And if you do get it wrong, as we will do, then make sure you learn from it. People are generally much more forgiving if you hold your hands up and show that you’re trying your best to improve what you do.

So those are my thoughts. They’re not rocket science and I may have told you nothing new. It may even be that you don’t think there is a place for this type of approach when communications teams are already struggling with the huge expectations on them. Either way, whether it’s a challenge, a hell yeah or a specific example you want to share, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or tweet me @EmmaRodgers

Emma Rodgers is Strategic Manager (Communications and Marketing) at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. She is also vice chair of Local Government Communications.