What to Do When Employees Aren’t Reading Our Communications

One of the downsides to the recent recession is that a lot of excellent employee communications have gone unread.

After rounds of layoffs, with fewer people left to do more work, companies have been pushing employees to greater and greater levels of what economic whizzes call “productivity.” A good number of corporate communications departments did the right thing, developing stories to help employees make sense of the tough new business environment and the leaner, more efficient ways in which we were all working.

No surprise, then, that it pains communicators when readership flattens on the corporate intranet or the company e-newsletter remains unopened in employee Inboxes or no one comments on a story that took a week to report, write, edit, run through approvals, and design as a photo essay.

How do you communicate when employees aren’t even on your communications channels?

We all know of employees who are working 17-hour days and barely have time to eat lunch or take bathroom breaks. When a colleague tells you he missed his daughter’s 4th birthday party because he spent Saturday at the office dealing with the latest fire drill, you can be sure he didn’t sneak a few minutes to read an intranet news story.

So, this post isn’t about how a catchy headline or a video interview is going to bring that employee back into the fold. It’s about using our skills as communicators to reach employees where they’re engaged in the essential work of the company and help them achieve business goals.

Here are three suggestions:

Take the Focus off Management Communication Skill-building
Not altogether, of course. Helping managers communicate is critical. But, it’s also important to help employees build these skills. We can improve efficiency in our organizations by teaching employees how to use new tools – like internal wikis and instant messaging – or by supporting an employee who’s a pro at these things, but has been too shy to tell anyone about it. You’d be surprised – sometimes all it takes is a little coaching, encouraging the employee to outline the skills he or she wants to teach, and letting them practice with you.

Improve Communications at the Workgroup Level
There’s a huge emphasis on cross-functional collaboration in companies these days and a lot of confusion about what that actually means and how to achieve it. Getting two functions to work together as a team demands highly effective communications. When you start talking to team members from different functional groups, you often find baffling divisions between work vocabulary and work styles.

There are many tools out there that support greater connection across teams, from a simple wiki (“when the brand says line break, we mean our new designs for spring are out in stores, but when IT says line break, it means somewhere a fiber-optic cable has snapped, which is why your email isn’t working this morning”) to shared team sites to micro-blogs. It also never hurts to encourage efficiency in team communications: help the team move toward common practices, so everyone knows what to expect when working together: when someone sends an email, the response needs to come back using an email; a voicemail begets a return phone call; if someone needs a report that’s gathering dust on a credenza and isn’t in electronic form, scan it in for the entire team to utilize.

Work with HR to Identify Rewards
Ideally, this generates new rewards programs that tie directly to the newer aspects of work or more recent corporate objectives. Employees have been working lean-and-mean for a long time now, bonuses have slimmed or disappeared, flex-time options can’t be utilized because of longer hours on the job, the old perks have been taken away or just don’t hold as much meaning. This isn’t about large sums of money or handing an associate free passes to a movie for staying late to ship out an RFP, but about identifying excellence and innovation tied to objectives – reward it and share the ideas across the company, and you’ll find employees are happier about working there.

Do It as a Strikeforce Scenario
Corporate communicators have a lot on their plates these days, too, so I’m not suggesting these ideas become an entire FTE’s responsibility. Identify where communications skills are most needed, jump in and move on. If what you bring to the team is about helping the team (and you’ve resisted the temptation to include a little pitch about the company’s email newsletter), they’ll remember who to call if they have questions or need another workshop and they might even start reading your stories on the intranet now that you’ve made a personal connection.

Listen for Opportunities
Working with employees on effective communications, whether the support is focused on skills or tools, will inevitably reveal opportunities where company communications can fit in. Perhaps it starts with sharing the duties of blog-posting occasionally, maybe you use your micro-blog post one week to explain why Corp Comms provides company news and information, and in return possibly a news gadget streaming company news updates earns a small chunk of real estate on a workgroup site – even better if it becomes the next must-have app and interest in it grows organically. And, then, you have reached your audience where they’re working while adding value.

It’s my personal belief about the profession – and your mileage may vary – that we excel at communications when we help employees do their jobs more effectively. That includes creating communications that focus on the company and its business objectives, but it also means supporting employee-originated communication where they eat, breathe and sweat, and that’s doing their jobs.

So, if you’re feeling down because employees aren’t acknowledging your hard work, applying your skills and expertise in a new way can be incredibly rewarding – for you, for employees, and the company.