Connecting with employees

Low-tech ideas to keep communication channels flowing

STAMPING Journal July 2007
July 10, 2007
By: Mark Harbeke

Quickly growing companies find that keeping communication channels functioning and creating new ones are critical to sustaining the culture that made them good workplaces when they were small.

Editor's Note: This column was prepared by the staff of Winning Workplaces, a not-for-profit organization that helps small and midsized businesses create better work environments.

We've all heard the expression "communication is a two-way street."

The best way to connect with employees is to listen to their ideas, understand their work progress, and find out how they feel about their workplace. The benefits are twofold: Employees are more committed to their work and the organization, and the company has access to the best perspectives on how to grow and improve the enterprise.

Technology has changed how people communicate. Employees in organizations large and small spend more time on their computer than in any other activity. E-mail and instant messaging supplement and, in some cases, replace postal mail and phone calls. Electronic files also are replacing paper for storing data and tracking activity.

Tried-and-True Low-tech Solutions

Even in today's high-tech environment, people still seek personal contact. They want to know how their work fits into the organization, how to add value to the company, and grow professionally. Many of our Best Bosses and some of our current Top Small Workplaces applicants adhere to the managing by walking around (MBWA) principle, believing that potential problems can be quickly solved by talking directly to the individuals involved. These small-business owners and leaders believe this also is a great way to keep their finger on the pulse of their organizations' work cultures.

While MBWA is as low-tech as management can get, it may be more effective than higher-tech communication methods, such as e-mail. In a forthcoming Academy of Management Review journal article, Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, finds that seemingly straightforward e-mail messages can have a vastly different impact than what the sender intends (based on both the sender's and the recipient's emotions). The lack of nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, combined with delayed feedback compounds this problem.

This is one of the reasons that Michael Mulqueen, a Winning Workplaces board member who led the Greater Chicago Food Depository from 1991 until this past summer, chose to eliminate internal e-mails. "It got so that people were trying to solve problems by e-mailing a person two desks away, and at that point they should be talking directly to one another," he said. "It's a better way of getting things done."

Quickly growing companies find that keeping communication channels functioning and creating new ones are critical to sustaining the culture that made them good workplaces when they were small.

Waiting for Her Call

2005 Best Boss Diane Hessan, president and CEO of Massachusetts-based Communispace Corporation, found that employees wanted her to inform them of the latest business developments. As a result, every weekend she records a personalized voice mail message that she leaves on her staff's phone system. Her messages vary from organizational updates to client feedback to market trends. When her staff arrives on Monday morning, they are eager to check their messages to see what their boss has to say.

"Hypercommunication has a high payoff," Hessan said. In the case of her firm, which enables businesses to hear requests and feedback from consumers, this meant reaching profitability after the dot-com bust. When a client's departure left Communispace with the possibility of laying off 10 people, Hessan brought everyone together to brainstorm ways to cut costs to avoid the layoffs. In 24 hours her staff had generated more than 30 ideas. Those ideas kept the company afloat and on path to achieve profitability again in 2004. By 2005 it had increased revenues by more than 65 percent and was listed in the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing small firms.

Staying connected can take many forms. Many small organizations have found that a short daily "huddle" provides a means to keep a team informed and focused on priorities. Regular team or staff meetings provide a forum to discuss challenges and make plans. Periodic one-on-one meetings between supervisors and subordinates create an opportunity to discuss how things are going. Staff retreats are an ideal forum for stepping back and looking at big-picture issues.

Open communication is key to creating a sustainable workplace culture, and it is one of the most difficult qualities to master. An organization achieves shared trust and the focus on achievement that results only when communication remains a central tenet of its culture.

Winning Workplaces, 1603 Orrington Ave., Suite 1880, Evanston, IL 60201, 847-328-9798,, Winning Workplaces' inaugural Top Small Workplaces Conference for exceptional small organizations will be held Oct. 4, 2007 Chicago. For more information, visit

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STAMPING Journal is the only industrial publication dedicated solely to serving the needs of the metal stamping market. In 1987 the American Metal Stamping Association broadened its horizons and renamed itself and its publication, known then as Metal Stamping.

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