By Wendy Firlotte, Employee Engagement for Sustainability Specialist
How to effectively communicate with and engage frontline staff is a common concern for many organizations. It is particularly challenging to reach staff that are regularly out in the field or do not have immediate access to computers at work. Front line staff communication approaches can vary significantly within an organization, either by targeting specific locations, job types, etc.
Be Strategic – A great first step is identifying this type of communication issue in the program planning stage and building approaches into your engagement strategy. One aspect to keep in mind in terms of strategy is that as an organization it is useful to communicate our key messages to employees, but it is equally important that employees are provided with easy way to give feedback and also communicate with each other (between individuals and/or locations). This three-way flow creates useful dialogue that can produce more effective programs. More information on creating an effective strategy can be found on our previous SEND discussion post on Planning and Strategy.
Assessing Needs – So, how do we determine the avenues for this three-way flow? In the planning stages include relevant questions in your program’s needs assessment. When looking to identify the best way to communicate with employees, a tried and true technique is to just ask them. Ask front line staff what would be the most effective way to engage them; they will be able to tell you better than anyone the best way to get in touch.
When asking about the best communication avenues, you can give some suggestions, add an “other, please specify” option and also leave space for general feedback. Also, involving operation mangers, supervisors and team leaders will also assist in creating a more complete picture by determining what communications avenues already exist with more difficult to reach employees. There will likely not be one golden method of communication; it may require different approaches that will likely need to be determined by target profiles such as locations, departments, job types, etc.
Creating Communication Plans – Once you have determined some appropriate communications avenues, the next step is creating a communications plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a clear plan that covers your program’s communication goals and tasks. Include overall communication objectives for reference to keep you focused and on track while developing the plan. Create a communications framework that includes the purpose of each task, key messages you would like to convey, the target audience(s), timing and who is responsible (see example). If your organization has a communications person or team, use them as a resource to assist you in the plan creation and also work with them to implement your tasks.
A couple of tips for communicating with front line staff to ensure your messages are read and understood:
- Keep messages short, clear and concise
- Use consistent language
- Be measured with the frequency of communication
- Create clear support pathways so it easy for people to ask questions or voice concerns
We’ve discussed before the challenges of balancing both corporate and local priorities (see previous post on this issue). Communications is another topic area that can be greatly influenced by this. Creating specific plans for both corporate and local communications can be helpful. Corporate plans can be a more fixed, while providing flexibility to local plans can allow offices to adapt tools that best fit their office.
Tools – When introducing and using any tool the key is perceived benefit, convenience and integration; otherwise, your tool will go unused and viewed as something else to do that adds to everyone’s already full plate. With this in mind, when deciding what tools to use, ask yourself is there something that your organization already uses that could do the job or what tool could you choose that could fill multiple uses?
Here are some examples of useful communication tools:
Online Surveys and Polls: online survey tools can be very useful for collecting information when assessing needs, creating ongoing feedback loops and evaluating programs, particularly with larger organizations. It also creates the space for anonymity if that is something that may be of benefit in certain situations. Survey Monkey is a great resource and is free for use with up to 100 participants and is otherwise relatively inexpensive. It analyses and aggregates the data for you.
Emails/Outlook Functions: the old tried and true email is a good communication avenue although as we are all aware, many times emails go unread by the always-busy employee. Requesting read receipts may give you an idea of how many employees have read your communication. Also Outlook (if that is the program of use) has a great polling option that is convenient and in an existing communication avenue.
Social media: depending on your organization’s communication policies, this may be a good avenue for your program. Many organizations already use many of the more popular social media programs to communicate to staff and customers (such as Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc). These platforms are effective and are communication avenues that employees are already tuned into.
Intranet Pages: most organizations have some sort of internal web server for employees. This is a great place to create sustainability engagement related pages with relevant information, create event announcements, write news stories, give updates, etc. The functionality of your internal server will determine how you will be able to communicate, but it’s a great place to start.
SharePoint site: if your internal web server is limited in terms of functionality a SharePoint site can be a very useful resource. It can easily integrate with your internal web platform and be used to create team pages, blogs, wiki pages, discussion forums, document libraries, etc. Building it is achievable even if you are new to this sort of thing. A great training is available through www.lynda.com; after watching their online training you will have the skills to build your own SharePoint site in no time. Again, if you are creating a site like this it is important to integrate it with your internal program; for example, host blog contests during corporate events/activities, ask local offices to submit blog posts on interesting activities from there offices, host event pages for large corporate events, offer to collaborate on the site with other departments, committees or initiatives, etc.
Discussion Groups and One on One interviews: this is old school, but effective.
Sometimes we need to step back and remember that we should not only rely on connecting with people virtually, but also in face-to-face or phone conversations.
Bulletin boards/(real) Wall Posts: I know personally when working in an office environment, I have read every piece of paper on the walls in the break room/kitchen. While waiting to heat up lunch, brewing a pot of coffee, having a snack, everyone is guilty of reading the bulletin boards and wall posts no matter how mundane they may be (good thing sustainability is exciting). This is a great (and often underestimated) way to reach people in your office. Even printing out emails that you think may have gone unread by some in your office and posting them is useful. Get creative and fun!
Announcements at Team, Department or Operations Meetings: Reach out to your organization for communications support within its existing organizational structure. This can be especially useful for leadership to show support for the program as well as reach the traditionally difficult to reach front line staff.
Are there any tools or approaches that you have found to be useful (or not)? What do you feel influenced its success or failure? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
This was a fast and general overview of some ideas to consider when communicating with front line staff. No matter what route your program takes it is important to integrate your communications plan into the engagement program’s overall monitoring and evaluation to ensure the effectiveness of your tasks and communication avenues.
The Sustainability Engagement Network Discussion (SEND) Series is a network of Sustainability Practitioners using peer learning to accelerate employee engagement for sustainability. If you are interested in participating in our ongoing sustainability engagement discussions, please contact Kathryn at firstname.lastname@example.org.