Many small business managers can remember the days when communicating with employees meant just walking over to their desks and starting to talk. After years of company growth, though, communication in the workplace deserves some rethinking. Effective communication in the workplace is a crucial management skill that can make a world of difference for employee morale and retention. Don't wait until you find yourself contacting your employment agency to replace a valued employee who has moved on.
To evaluate the quality of your workplace communication and identify areas where you could improve, ask yourself the following six questions:
1. Are you accessible to your employees?
Managers should never assume that workers will contact them to ask for advice or alert them of a problem. Nor should managers feel confident that every message they send electronically will be clearly understood by the recipient. Instituting an open-door policy — and making staff aware of it — will encourage better communication in the workplace. This doesn't mean 24/7, of course. Establish weekly "office hours" when employees can have face time with you. Your staff will appreciate your willingness to regularly set aside time for direct workplace communication.
2. How often do you meet one-on-one with your workers?
While an open-door policy will enhance workplace communication, some employees may worry that they will be bothering you with their questions or problems. Proactive outreach on your part can assure staff that you really do want to interact with them more frequently. One way to do this is, instead of holding only one performance review annually, by scheduling more informal conferences every couple of months. Employees should never be surprised by what they hear during a performance review. They will appreciate a leadership communication style that's honest, reliable and direct.
Plus, by communicating more often with employees individually, you can adapt your management style to the particular needs and personalities of each worker.
3. Do you praise employees as often as you should?
Hard-working professionals want to feel they are valued by the organization. They appreciate being recognized for a job well done. Appropriate, sincere praise for good work can make an enormous difference for staff retention efforts. Of course, recruitment or temporary staffing help from a specialized employment agency is always available to bridge the gap when a valued employee has left unexpectedly. But wouldn't you prefer not to wonder whether the employee left because the job felt unrewarding?
4. Are you providing criticism when you should be?
Inevitably, no matter how stellar an employee's performance, you'll need to deliver less-than-favorable employee feedback at one time or another. When you offer criticism, remember to keep it strictly professional. Most people know when they've made a mistake, and you don't want to lower their confidence even more.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when you deliver professional criticism:
- Know what you want to say. You may even want to write down key points so you don't forget anything or get sidetracked.
- Focus on facts, not feelings. Don't just say, "Tom, you're always late, and I'm tired of it." Say, "Tom, I'm concerned because of your tardiness lately. On the mornings of Aug. 8, 11 and 17, you were an hour late."
- Be specific. Don't say, "I need you to shape up." Instead, say, "Starting tomorrow, I must have your weekly status report on time."
- Be timely. You want to be calm when you deliver employee feedback, but you don't want to wait for so long that the person has forgotten the incident. Discuss a situation as soon as your emotions cool.
- Be direct, but tactful. Use the words you actually mean, instead of searching for a softer word that doesn't really make your point. For example, don't say, "Your lunch break is a little long" when you mean "I've noticed you're gone for three hours every afternoon." You need to make your point clear. Sugarcoating what you're trying to say may only make matters worse. But at the same time, you can use nice words — "I want to talk to you about an error on the Stanley project" versus "You totally blew the project" — to make your point.
- Give employee feedback in private. You don't need to embarrass someone with an audience. Take the person aside and speak with him or her one-on-one.
- Consider any training opportunities. Maybe Samantha missed her deadline, not because she procrastinated, but because she lacked the training to complete the project efficiently. Don't forget to consider the person's skills. Education in the form of mentoring or training could be a valuable resource for both them and the company.
- Listen to what they have to say. After you've had your say, listen to the other side of the story. You may not be aware of some circumstances. Communication skill involves keeping an open mind and listening, too.
5. Are you proactive about communicating change and quelling rumors?
The key to communicating change is simple: Announce it quickly and accurately. One of the biggest drains on employee morale can occur when staff members hear or read company news from someone outside the company before they hear the news from leadership. Therefore, small businesses should make sure communicating change to their employees is a priority. Keep in mind that employees want to know not only what's happening in the company but also why it's happening.
Whenever you're conveying bad news, you should assume that your staff may already be discussing it. Your job is to set the record straight and provide an opportunity for interaction and discussion.
The best way of communicating change, especially news of an impending crisis, is face-to-face. A companywide meeting or departmentwide session is best, if feasible. Include time for a question-and-answer session as well. If you think some employees will be afraid to speak up, announce that questions can also be submitted anonymously.
Here are some tips for keeping workforce morale in positive territory and preventing rumors from spreading:
- Provide accurate information. Set the record straight by proactively communicating to all employees. Otherwise, distorted half-truths will make the rounds — so nip these destructive office rumors in the bud.
- Share information quickly. As noted above, your employees are more likely to trust and believe you if you don't hoard information. If you take a while to convey news, people will wonder if you have a hidden agenda.
- Provide a question-and-answer session. If employees know they can ask questions, they'll be more likely to wait for an answer before spreading office rumors.
- Avoid spin. Keep your content straightforward and concise. Everyone knows when they're hearing half-truths and propaganda-like messages, and the only thing that these accomplish is decreased morale.
Whatever you do, don't ignore bad news. By not addressing tough situations, you risk exacerbating the problem. In bad times, you cannot over-communicate. If you fail to address the situation, rumors will spiral.