Communication Fuels Employee Morale

August 20, 2004
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A periodic town meeting where you can ask the boss anything you want. Regular e-mails from senior managers. Employee satisfaction surveys. Lunch with the CEO.

These are just some of the methods leading employers in the Holland-Zeeland area use to maintain open lines of communication with employees and maintain morale and productivity, according to a recent paper published by a coalition of employers.

The report from the organization West Michigan Works emphasizes the need for employers to have some form of concerted communications initiative that’s designed to keep employees informed of what’s occurring at the company and allows them to offer their views and ideas.

While such efforts do require a long-term commitment and time and resources to implement and manage, there is a payoff, West Michigan Works Executive Director Randy Boileau said.

And from the opposite perspective, he added, not doing it “can be a costly mistake.”

Employee morale, productivity and participation in resolving problems are all affected by how well a company communicates internally, Boileau said.

“You’ve got to give people a chance to get together and talk about things. You might learn things you might not learn in any other way, and these things may help you to improve your productivity, improve your quality and reduce your costs.”

About a dozen employers offered their ideas for best management practices in employee communications for the West Michigan Works paper, which was published on the organization’s Web site earlier this summer at www.westmichiganworks.org

Trends that emerged from the paper are use of face-to-face communications between employees and company leaders and open forums where employees can ask questions and air concerns; the need for employees to commit to sustaining communications in everyday processes and avoid “flavor of the month thinking;” and that “informed employees are more productive employees,” the report states.

By having an effective employee communication plan, employers can avoid rumors and speculation “that can be true productivity killers,” the reports states, and can foster better cooperation and participation by engaging employees in honest, open dialog.

“When people on both sides enter into the communication process in the spirit of goodwill, good things are going to happen,” Boileau said. “Employees are able to feel more a part of the company and they feel it’s something they have an ownership stake in — and in order to feel that way that can’t be on the outside.”

Methods of communication vary from firm to firm.

At Perrigo Co., informal town meetings with employee groups that were initiated two years ago and are run by employees have led to “a more open environment,” according to Vice President of Human Resources Michael Stewart.

In the West Michigan Works paper, Stewart is quoted as saying the benefits of the initiative are hard to quantify, although Perrigo management believes the effort is “making a tremendous impact that’s well worth the effort.”

At Fleetwood Group, a maker of school furniture and electronics, CEO Doug Ruch invites a number of employees to lunch each month to talk. The lunch includes a short employee survey that gauges job satisfaction, how they feel about the company’s future and the top three things they would improve.

The comments from employees help management determine what’s going well and what needs work, Ruch said in the West Michigan Works report. “Not only can we discover new ideas and issues, but we can often uncover misunderstandings and work to correct them,” he said.

In addition to some best practices, West Michigan Works found as a common thread among respondents a high interest among area employees for open dialog and communications in the workplace. Some kind of initiative that engages employees is an expectation among a large part of the work force in the Holland-Zeeland area, Boileau said.

That expectation, he said, is more of a cultural issue that’s indicative of West Michigan, rather than unique to any individual employer.

“You don’t have a lot of people who are happy just toiling around in the workplace. They want to know what’s going on,” Boileau said. “They want a chance to sit down and have a chat and to look in the eyes of someone they trust and have them explain what’s going on.”

Employers putting together a communications strategy need to identify methods that will work best for them and be careful not to overreach at the onset and launch something that’s unsustainable, Boileau said. The key is to make a long-term commitment to an initiative and have a willingness to change what’s not working until management and employees find something that does, he said.

For many employers, the hardest part of an effective communications strategy has been making a long-term commitment to the process, he said.

“Build the discussion and the processes and stick with it month after month and year after year,” Boileau said.    

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