By Nancy Painter
HR is expected to do a lot – establish or change culture, manage change big and small, develop leaders, engage employees – all major contributors to an organization’s bottom line.
What was once considered a tool in HR’s strategic leadership is now almost universally recognized as a strategic necessity: effective communications.
At a time of high expectations and unprecedented changes in the workplace and workforce, communication is key to the success of all HR functions.
“A great HR person really understands the value of communication and is willing to listen to and take advice from communications colleagues,” explains Ron Shewchuk, a North Vancouver consultant who specializes in internal communications and employee engagement. “Communications understands the challenges faced by HR and helps them deal with them.”
Workforce Changes Driving Expectations
Fundamental changes in workforce composition are impacting employees’ expectations, as well as HR’s approach to communicating with its multi-generational audience.
“Each generation has a different communication style and preferences,” Shewchuk says. “We cannot take the monolithic, one-size-fits-all approach to communication. Print, audio, video – they all must combine to tell the story.”
Different generations “speak different languages in terms of expectations, what they want from work and life,” according to Tammy Tsang, principal and office godmother of My Loud Speaker Marketing and founder of the XYBoom conference and organization. She points to the Silent or Traditional Generation’s view of work being the central focus of life; Baby Boomers’ view of life with a strong work component, Generation X wanting a clear balance between work and life; and Generation Ys, who see work and personal life as a smooth integration without separation.
They can all share the same vision, Tsang explains. “A vision is what you’re working toward; how you get there differs.” For example, communication can be quite fluid for the Millennials who believe in work-life integration, while the key to reaching the Silent Generation is to appeal to their loyalty and to build relationships, preferably face to face.
Technology Changes ‘Standard’ Communications
Developing technology has changed the landscape forever for HR and communications.
“Technology is helping blow apart that traditional model of management control of all information,” Shewchuk says. “It’s really easy for employees to communicate with each other. HR and Communications are evolving into the role of facilitating the gaining and sharing of information – it’s a big change.”
“Everyone is a communicator,” he continues. “There is so much technology and so many tools in the hands of employees that if we don’t find ways to add value, we risk becoming marginalized even further.”
In the world of Twitter and Facebook, information sharing is instantaneous. “Communication has permeated organizations much more deeply now,” says Dr. Eliza Chavez, a change and transition professional, formerly principal of Cambiar Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness, now leading clinical and systems transformation in Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the Provincial Health Services Authority.
“Everyone has a role to play,” she continues. “Information is in our face so much more. People are working in informal networks. Those in HR who are working in tandem with Communications and leaders of the organizations will be the most successful.”
HR is using other technologies for recruitment, including SnapChat and LinkedIn, Tsang points out. And different generations prefer different technologies for communication. “I’m a Millennial; on a regular basis I’m on my phone using Instant Messaging and apps, so I have a natural tendency to prefer that.”
Leverage Mediums to Reach Further, Deeper
“We can leverage technology “to improve communication in ways we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago,” Shewchuk says. “We need to create opportunities for positive shared experiences, to keep people informed, to recognize accomplishments and to engage employees. Social and digital media have huge power to create those experiences and help bind organizations together.”
“Video and audio are hugely powerful tools to get meaningful and useful information to the workforce. And we can now search videos for words or groups of words through meta-tagging,” he explains. “We can cover distances in a geographically spread workforce, sharing video and audio through broadband. We can reach everyone at once. Mobile is super important; people in the field often have no access to computers.”
Mike Desjardins agrees about the power of video. He’s the co-founder and current CEO and driver of VIRTUS, an organizational and leadership development firm based in Vancouver. He recalls a hotel business that was launching new core values, which it had determined by interviewing people within the company and creating videos of employees telling stories. “I watched one video, about how managers came together during a strike to work as a team, and I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was watching a corporate video.” The key was honest, heartfelt stories, told directly by employees.
Informal videos are the most powerful, Desjardins adds. “Fireside chats with small groups and a leader, lunch and learns, online conversations, virtual town hall meetings – they’re all examples.”
Moreover, Shewchuk says, “Studies have shown that the quality of communication in the workplace has a direct and measurable influence on performance and profitability and efficiency.”
Team Up to Support Organizational Goals
Communications and HR both need to support their organization’s business goals. They are even more powerful when working together to do it, and when they set measurable objectives that can demonstrate the difference they are making to the bottom line—whether through lowered recruitment costs, less turnover, more efficient work or helping reach other organizational strategic goals.
One way they can do that is in facilitating change. “Communication is the number one way that change happens,” according to Dr. Chavez. “And not just from a corporate communications standpoint, but in all the ways that people communicate.”
Change communication includes leadership laying out what is going to change and what isn’t, but also includes the conversations that happen when employees go to their direct managers with concerns and questions.
“They won’t say ‘I’m afraid’ or ‘I’m anxious’, but they are, and that requires solid communication between the person experiencing the change and their manager,” she explains. “Communication is the conduit by which change happens, whether individual, team or organizational communications. In every way and at every step of change, there has to be two-way communication.”
Affect Change with Effective Communications
Organizations that do a good job of blending change strategy with communication and sponsorship strategies “are going to be infinitely more successful than those who don’t think of communication and sponsorship as part of change,” Dr. Chavez adds.
Successful change contributes to organizational success. “If we’re changing anyway, we can make the process less painful. Perhaps it will go quicker, we won’t lose valuable people along the way, which saves both the hard dollar cost and the knowledge cost. We can keep on time and on budget. Resistance will always be there, but we need to deal with it through big and small communications,” she says. “Seventy per cent of organization change projects fail. That’s billions and billions of dollars gone out the door—that’s a lot of money.”
Change requires some specific messages, she adds. “These are the basics I sing from the mountaintops.”
- Why are we doing this, and what are we getting out of it?
- What do we know, what do we not know and when will we know it?
- What is changing and what is not changing?
Honesty and Transparency are Essential
The last thing an organization wants is for its employees to hear about change from outside sources before they hear it from the company.
“Our first urge is not to communicate until a problem is completely solved. That’s the wrong kind of thinking – the rumour mill will fill in any gaps,” explains Shewchuk. “Give people updates. If you let people in on your struggle, they’re more likely to be sympathetic. You lose trust and credibility if you only report on it after the problem is solved.”
Honesty and transparency are the building blocks of good communication. “Employees absolutely see through communication that isn’t honest and transparent. Ask yourself, what damage can we cause by not being transparent?” asks Dr. Chavez.
Honesty also builds trust, she says. “It lets us hold our employees able to be in this conversation with us.”
“The fear that often holds people back is that there will be difficult conversations as a result of being open. There will be, and that’s okay. Decisions have to stand up to scrutiny. It’s only by walking through the difficult conversations that we can come out on the other side, a changed organization,” Chavez explains.
While the traditional HR function has been about controlling information and maintaining privacy, Shewchuk adds, HR pros need to work at being open and transparent while respecting needs for individual confidentiality.
Culture is a Constant Communicator
Culture contributes to successful change, too. “I fundamentally believe leaders shape culture,” Chavez says. “How communication works in an organization is typically a reflection of the culture we have or the culture we are trying to create.”
Communicating a strong culture externally through marketing can save a business big bucks in recruiting, according to Tammy Tsang—and for the younger generations in the workplace, culture is often a deciding factor. “
Youth are looking for more meaning behind what they do and in the jobs they’re looking for. They’re seeking organizations that have strong cultures, ones that align with their values and will move them to contribute to the culture,” says Tsang.
Having to sell the company and culture to every candidate complicates recruitment, taking more time and money. A strong culture will attract strong candidates who already know about the company. “Especially for recruitment and retention, it’s important for a company and its employees to have that visible pride in the company.” Marketing the company’s culture as its brand pays off in recruiting —Tsang points to Google, Electronic Arts, TOMS shoes and the Great Little Box Company as examples.
Reach and Grow Tomorrow’s Leaders
Younger employees have been taught to critique the status quo, she adds, to build their own philosophies within a generation of growth. They have a strong desire to impress and improve, and to make things better together.
“There’s a fine line between respecting the experience of your elders and helping fuel innovation,” Tsang says. “They can step on toes in the beginning.”
However, she maintains organizations must give younger generations the chance they need to get started. “Ten to 15 years down the road, you’re going to need them and they’re not ready yet. There’s been a real loss in mentorship. It’s time to take a closer look at how we pass on knowledge and communicate what we’ve learned, and give that generation a chance to get on their feet.”
Desjardins excels at leadership development, specifically growing leaders internally. “It’s very hard to hire leaders off the street. We have to get leaders excited about career development, and help them create and implement a development plan that fits their strategic goals,” he says. “We need leaders and they’re not ready. There’s a gap between Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y, a real vacuum there with quite a difference in experience just because of the age difference.”
Open Channels to Develop Leaders Within
Once a leadership development plan that supports an organization’s goals is in place, communication is necessary both to those involved in the program and those who are not, according to Desjardins. “We need to share wins, keep people abreast of changes and keep the momentum going. And individually, we need to let people know if they’re not ready yet and what they need to do differently to get ready, or what their responsibilities are as part of the program if they are ready.”
In large organizations, communication lets employees know what courses are available to them, and how the different options can be blended together to create the program that’s right for each individual.
“At the end of the day, communication is the only thing that connects us as human beings,” Desjardins says. Change, in culture or other areas, “happens when leaders model the behaviour they want to see in the organization, and when we tell our stories to each other.”
While the style of communication can be different for different generations, he adds, we need to connect with all of them. Just as teachers use audio, visual, feeling and kinesics methods to reach more learners, HR and communications need to use all applications to connect with all their audiences.
Don’t Stop Asking Questions
The first thing Shewchuk does when hired by a company to improve its internal communication is to evaluate what’s in use already. That includes meeting with leaders and front-line employees.
“Those on the front line often have great ideas and excellent observations. They can share their frustrations with the current state as well as telling us what works best,” says Shewchuk. “We get a real sense of where the strengths are and where the gaps are. Communication is much more complex than it used to be. We find out how employees communicate with each other, and what mechanisms are in place for feedback up the organization.”
He advises HR professionals to think about communication is three areas:
- How information is organized – how easy is it for employees to find and share information?
- Storytelling – putting a human face the organization and telling compelling stories of change through the people living it on the front line
- Strengthening the community at work and the social work space – facilitating the sharing of information, helping collaborators get together in communities of practice and interest; finding new ways to work together successfully.
Effective Communications Generate Results
Great communication is about driving business results, Shewchuk adds, whether that be improving safety, reducing costs or increasing productivity. By using the tools available in an integrated way, content will be consistent and complement other sources across the spectrum.
Objectives can be as simple as getting employees to buy into their benefits program. Desjardins recalls a client whose employees hated their benefits plan, even though it was one of the best in their industry. Research showed that a full 30 per cent of the benefits were unknown to employees; once a new program was implemented to explain the plan, people felt listened to and loved it.
“Programs don’t fail because they’re bad initiatives, they fail because of poor communication,” Desjardins says. “Communication has to be planned from an organizational perspective, outside of individual departmental silos.”
From understanding benefits to sweeping change, communications and HR are inextricably linked in successful organizations, he adds.
“There’s no way to separate the two. HR without communication is like waving to a person in the dark. I know what I’m doing but they have no idea.”
Nancy Painter is a freelance business writer and a member of the the International Association of Business Communicators.
(PeopleTalk Summer 2014)