Those of us who communicate with employees often face this strange problem: We know too much. We usually work at headquarters, or at least close to the leaders in charge. We get invited to planning meetings, so we're clued in to what's going on way before it happens. And we have access to lots and lots of (yes, often too much) information, so we're absolutely well informed.
As a result, we tend to make the mistake of assuming that employees know more than they do. And that they're sure of where to get information they need. And that they care about the same topics that leaders do, or subject matter experts do, or even that we do.
That's why we need to study all the data we can get our hands on, so we can develop a clearer understanding of what's really going on with employees. And whenever possible, we need to conduct interviews and focus groups to ask employees for their perspectives and preferences.
But there are other ways to gain insights about employees that don't require traditional research. My colleague and co-author Jane Shannon (in her book 73 Ways to Improve Your Employee Communication Program) offers these 5 suggestions for gaining fresh perspectives:
1. Pretend this is your first day on the job. Review all the communications currently available to employees through the viewpoint of the new kid of the block. Identify what works and what doesn't. Do your company's communications assume too much? How can you add essential information for new people without slowing down those employees who are in the know? (Sidebars--or links--might be good techniques.) How does the new person ask a "stupid" question? Where does the new person find out about the company, your industry, and the resources available to help employees (and, therefore, the company) succeed?
2. Get to know your audience. "At the start of every communication project you undertake, learn as much as possible about your audience," writes Shannon. "Every newspaper, magazine or TV show knows its demographics--you need to know yours, too. Gather data about how many employees work at your organization, where they are as well as age, salary, level of education, years of service, gender." Then use this information to build your internal communication strategies.
3. Ask employees what information they need to work productively."As communicators, we may love to create something that is wonderful and cutting-edge, while what employees really want is something simple and useful," notes Shannon. Talk to employees, find out what information they want, and then make sure they get this information in the way they value most, or in several different ways.
"For example, during focus groups at a client organization," Shannon recalls, "I learned that employees desperately wanted a list of who to call for what in the home office. The list was on the intranet, but employees said they never had time to go on the intranet. My recommendation: a simple two-color, one-page sheet of who to call for what, distributed to all field offices, and then reissued as needed."
4. Find out what people are watching and reading. What TV shows do employees in your company watch, what publications do they read, what websites do they like, what apps do they use--and why? The answers are what your internal website, TV and publications are compared to. How do you stack up?
These are great questions to discuss in a focus group after you've had employees answer a short survey about their external communication preferences. When you can get employees to identify what makes a website great, and the attributes of the movies they like ("It was never predictable."), it will help you create goals, descriptors and characteristics for your next communication project.
5. Take a colleague to lunch."One of the best ways to learn about your organization is to talk with your colleagues about what's going on in their areas," Shannon advises. In some cases, these people are your internal clients; in other cases, they are simply knowledgeable people with valuable perspectives. Take advantage of being the host or hostess by learning as much as you can that will help you succeed. Plan to ask a lot of questions; talk only one-fourth of the time and listen the rest.