If you're really committed to improving the way you communicate with employees, don't keeping hanging around your company's headquarters. In almost every organization my firm supports, most employees work in a very different environment than a plush corporate office. Employees:

  • Toil in a hot, noisy manufacturing plant
  • Spend their day on the road in delivery trucks or repair vans
  • Serve customers in a big box or small retail store
  • Answer the phone in a call center

You get the picture: Employees' work environments--and their daily routines--are quite different than that of office knowledge workers. That means, in order to meet employees' communication needs, you have to understand how employees experience communication.

So let's say you've decided to take my advice and take a road trip, touring workplace locations. You're traveling all that way to learn how employees outside headquarters experience work:

  • What's the culture?
  • How do employees interact with leaders?
  • What obstacles exist for engaging employees?

Okay, you've packed the car and are ready to go.What should you do while you're there? Here are 11 key activities when visiting a manufacturing plant or other large self-contained site (You can adjust this approach as needed to fit the experience as other types of worksites):

  1. Don't park in the spots reserved for visitors (tempting as that might be)--drive to the regular employee lot. Notice how long it takes you to walk to the entrance.
  2. What is the entrance area like? Friendly and welcoming--or cold and imposing? Is there an electronic screen or other messaging?
  3. Observe how employees enter the building. Do they go through a gate? Show their badge to a guard? Punch a time clock?
  4. Follow a couple of employees to their destination. (You might want to introduce yourself so they're not creeped out.) Do they go right to work or stop for coffee?
  5. Speaking of coffee, where do employees find a hot beverage? Does the site have a cafeteria? Break rooms? Machines? Are posters displayed throughout the space? Does the site have electronic screens that display messages?
  6. Now that you and your new employee friends are fully caffeinated, you accompany them to their work stations. How is the work environment? Is the area well-lit? Can employees sit or stand comfortably? How is the noise level?
  7. Ask your host to tour the entire facility. Notice any differences between groups or functions.
  8. Visit the area where senior managers (at that facility) work. Does it seem like a fortress or is the area accessible to all?
  9. Enough touring; it's time to switch to the listening part of your visit. Before you arrived, you set up sessions with individuals and groups representing a cross-section of employees. Start at the top: Talk to the general manager or plant manager about his/her needs. What are some things this facility does well? What stands in the way of employee engagement, in his/her opinion?
  10. Chat with your peers in HR or communication. What is life like in this facility? What would help them accomplish their goals?
  11. Finally, conduct focus groups with employees from different demographics (job function, tenure, etc.). Ask about what works for them, what frustrates them, and what suggestions they have for improvement. When you talk to managers/supervisors, ask them what they need to communicate successfully.

Whew! By this point, you're probably exhausted. But you've just spent an extremely productive day stepping outside your comfort zone and truly getting to know your employee customers. Now it's time to put your new-found knowledge to work and determine how you can enhance your program to better meet employee needs.

Published on: Aug 15, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.