Employee communications and staff satisfaction

Everyone has an idea on how to fix employee communications. Way too many ideas involve putting out a newsletter. Or a bigger newsletter. Or a bigger newsletter produced more often (now weekly, daily, hourly!). And along with pumping out newsletters, more town hall meetings with bigger PowerPoint presentations.

For what it’s worth, here’s 13 years worth of internal communications experience and battle scars condensed to 5 bullet points:

Confidence in the future + pride = employee engagement

I worked at a company that did a quarterly employee survey for 10 years. That’s a lot of surveying. And the results were always the same. The employees who said they were highly engaged also reported they were very confident in the future of the company and they were very proud to work for the company (the firm that administered the survey and crunched the numbers called these the key drivers of employee engagement).

So all internal communications, from senior leadership presentations to the employee newsletter, hammered home key messages that were forever reinforcing these two drivers. The future looks good. And here’s all the ways that we’re giving back to make our community an even greater place to work, live and raise a family. As the CEO said, everyone wants to be part of a winning team. So give them a reason to cheer.

Immediate supervisors are your key communicators and opinion leaders

According to the good folks at the International Association of Business Communicators, loads of research shows that frontline employees prefer informal, 2-way communication with their immediate supervisor ahead of all other forms of communication. They won’t care, and likely won’t even notice, if you stop publishing a newsletter, blog, podcast, v-cast or The Very Important Message From The President. But they’ll care and notice if they’re stuck working for a manager who seems clueless and disconnected from the powers that be. They’ll also notice if their boss knows what’s going on, can get questions answered and has the ear of senior leadership types.

To be a key communicator, immediate supervisors need permission to communicate and to do so without fear of reprisals. They also need the time to communicate. And if communications is a priority, include it in performance reviews and in decisions on who moves up the org chart (someone who excels at managing things may not be so great at leading people).

Always communicate with supervisors first, allow for "soak time" and only roll out corporate communications that reinforce what supervisors have already told their direct reports. One-page, B.S.-free briefing notes are always a good idea. If employees are getting breaking news about major organizational changes from a broadcast email, town-hall meeting, PowerPoint or newsletter, than something is seriously wrong with your internal communications. Managers are getting cut off at the knees. And these key communicators won’t have nice things to say about you.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

According to the annual 50 Best Employers in Canada survey, the #1 opportunity for improvement among every one of the 50 top companies is increased recognition. Employees want to feel valued and appreciated. Just as everyone wants to be on a winning team, everyone comes to work wanting to make a difference and do work that matters. Celebrate and recognize employees who do great work and you’ll reinforce desired behaviours at the same time.

If you do have an employee newsletter, load it up with recognition. Instead of having the President pontificate about strategic priorities and core values, showcase frontline staff and managers who are living those values and making those priorities a reality. Just be sure to pick folks who are respected on the front lines.


Why should I care? That’s all employees really want to know. Another way to put the question. Employees want to know:

  • What do you want me to start doing?
  • What do you want me to stop doing?
  • What do you want me to keep doing?

Which is why the immediate supervisor is the key communicator and opinion leader. They’re in the enviable (?) position of knowing how to translate somewhat blurry strategic priorities and corporate speak into day-to-day operational realities. It’s not what you say as the leader that fires up the troops. It’s what your supervisors do.

Listen up

Folks don’t care what you know until they know that you care. And you show that you care by listening. Really listening. And sometimes acting on what you hear. So make sure your communication is flowing up and not just down. Instead of more "cascading hierarchical communications", you may be better off going with less.

Hands down the best internal communications tactic I’ve ever done (and shamelessly stole from another organization) was an informal president’s breakfast where the CEO and 10 immediate supervisors sat around a table for an hour talking about what’s happening, what’s about to happen and what needs to happen. No PowerPoints. No handouts. Just an unscripted conversation where the supervisors did most of the talking. And you can be sure the supervisors went back to their departments and told everyone about their meeting. Invited 10 different supervisors to 2 meetings a month.

And one bonus bullet: We did a readership survey one time, asking employees what they read, didn’t read, liked and didn’t like, about their newsletter. A surprising number of folks didn’t know how often the newsletter came out (and we mailed it to their homes). A surprising number of folks couldn’t name three stories that they’d read in the latest issue. A not-so-surprising number of folks didn’t read the President’s Message that took about 2 weeks and 20 drafts to carefully craft (and the number of folks was zero). Yet everyone read the announcements page where we listed obits, retirements, births, marriages, anniversaries and thank-you notes. This strategic-direction free page worked magic in terms of reinforcing a sense of community. Which may well be your best bet for boosting employee engagement and discretionary effort.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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