2019: The year of really listening to your employees

It’s not so long ago that most large companies had a mailroom. Not just to process external mail, but internal mail as well. And throughout the day, a trolley would clack around the office with a real, live human collecting and delivering written correspondence between colleagues. Of course, there was always the phone, but that was obviously for verbal communications. Anything in writing went via the trolley.

Email changed everything. Suddenly, written communication could be sent and received instantly. For a while these emails remained locked inside the desktop computer, but a few years later, smartphones changed that too and threw sms and a myriad of chat apps into the mix as well. Somewhere in this mix, social media was born, creating pathways to unfettered and even unbridled communication.

Our path to adopting these technologies has been fast. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 50 million users. It took Facebook four years to do the same. WeChat? Just one year. Maybe that’s why technology that once felt exciting and easy is now starting to fatigue us. Who among us doesn’t sometimes feel the weight of having to keep up with so many channels of communication that never stop, even when we sleep. A 2017 survey by Deloitte, found that more than a third of people worldwide check their phones within five minutes of waking up. Then there’s the seemingly perverse outcomes of our hyper-connected lives, with recent studies investigating the link between how we use social media and increased loneliness (particularly among young people).

If all this typing and texting is supposed to foster communication, then what’s going wrong? The answer is deceptively simple: volume and context. We’ve lost control over the volume of communication and we’ve deleted the context.

The battle lines: context and volume

Which would be most memorable to you: a presentation about poverty statistics in socio-economic sub-groups, or pictures of starving children living in squalor? Communication is a multi-sensory exchange that involves our eyes, ears, sometimes our mouths and always our brains. And within those brains, we interpret meaning on multiple levels to glean unspoken facts and feelings from the context of the communication, including the setting, tone, body language. Our memories are selective and we remember more when there is context for cross-referencing the information.

Now think about all the forms of communication coming to you on a daily basis and how you view them. Fair chance it’s mostly text (full sentences are not even a given) and it’s mostly on a screen. And it’s probably coming at you not only via email and text, but through WeChat, Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Slack. The volume of text demanding our time has reached the point where many of us have little time to interact in person with our loved ones.

Because of this, more communication does not mean more connection or more understanding. Conversely, it means less. As we rely more and more heavily on electronic communication over interpersonal exchanges, we sacrifice context and diminish our own bandwidth for accurately processing these communications. As a result, the odds of misunderstanding increase and the depth of connection between individuals decreases.

Five ways to bring back the balance

In the workplace, these miscommunications can mean slower turnaround and more rework (at best) and increased conflict and turnover (at worst). But there are ways to help clear up the communications channels:

  • Face time: Not on a screen, but real face-to-face communication. Speaking in person provides the maximum context in the least amount of time.
  • Providing context: Don’t just tell people that something is important, tell them why.
  • Telling stories: Stories connect people in ways that facts and figures rarely do. Find examples that will hit home and connect them to your business priorities.
  • Reduce your communication channels: Where possible, consolidate your communication apps and social media down to the ones where you are most likely to connect with the people you need.
  • Take control: If you don’t control your technology, it will control you, so set (and enforce) some boundaries around your usage and designate times to disconnect.
Of course the other crucial part of communicating is listening. Giving your employees the opportunity to tell you how they’re experiencing the workplace through engagement surveys and regularly checking in through pulse surveys can help spot communication breakdowns.

To learn more about the power of listening to your employees, read our report on The Case for Motivation.