Effective communication during tough times

May 1, 2002


Good communication is the foundation of a successful company. Effective communication becomes even more critical during tough times, such as we're experiencing now in the telecommunications industry.

Management is ultimately responsible for internal communications. It must communicate the vision and complex goals in a way that every employee can understand. Human resources (HR) must take the lead to facilitate the flow of communication between management and all of the employees throughout the organization.

Over the past 12 months, companies in the telecom sector have eliminated more than 450,000 jobs. Naturally, that has an effect on those who lose jobs; however, there is also a strong effect on the remaining employees. Some of the negative emotions that can develop include confusion, anxiety, stress, victimization, grief, mistrust, apathy, and hostility. The resulting negative outlook that develops following downsizing includes employees believing their jobs are not secure, the company has lost its direction and vision, or the organization does not care about its employees. Obviously, that creates a major challenge for corporate management and HR.

Employers need to be direct, brief, and prompt in training managers to listen to surviving employees, acknowledge their feelings of loss and anxiety, and help them figure out how to cope with the changed workplace. The best way to correct negative beliefs resulting from downsizing is to provide employees with frequent, truthful, and direct communication.

Before a corporate downsizing, communication within an organization is usually secretive, restrictive, and minimal. The resulting secretive communication leads to employees developing beliefs that are mistrustful of future communications. Therefore, after downsizing occurs, company communication should become more frequent and direct to help employees recover from their lack of trust. If future layoffs may occur, it's best to be honest and tell the employees about it directly versus through the rumor mill.

Regular communication
All the new means of communication brought by modern technology is great; however, nothing replaces face-to-face communication. As a group, that can be accomplished with an all-hands company meeting. The purpose of these meetings is to brief all the employees on the company's status. Roadmap, budgets, and goals are some of the general items that should be reviewed among all employees on a regular basis.

In recent years, several new tools for communication have evolved. The company newsletter has given way to the intranet. A company intranet can be an excellent way to disseminate information to employees as well as foster the sharing of important data between departments. If you rely on an intranet, make sure employees at remote locations have easy access to your internal site. Use various tools to deliver information. Not everyone checks the intranet daily. The old-fashioned bulletin board is still a great way to disseminate company updates.

Delivering news-good and bad
In addition to layoffs, many companies have to discontinue programs and perks that were abundant a few years ago. When it comes to bad news, no one likes to be the messenger. But the longer you wait increases the opportunity for rumors to brew. It is essential to convey the information in a prompt manner with a brief and direct message.

Don't forget to share the good news. Disseminating even a small bit of positive information can have a noticeable effect on staff. For example, at Terawave Communications, one engineer noted how more people came in to work on a Saturday after a favorable internal announcement was made the previous day. Monday is also a great day to distribute good news-it starts the week out on a positive note.

For employees to feel like "we're in this together," it is critical to provide an opportunity for feedback. Employees are great at "thinking out of the box" and coming up with budget-saving ideas and new ways to do things more efficiently.

Several companies are experiencing great success with online employee surveys. Using either e-mail or the company intranet, these tend to generate a larger response than paper surveys. There are several free Websites that will help you create surveys and gather data (e.g., www.addaform.com, www.freeonlinesurveys.com, and www.surveymonkey.com). Of course, there's always the good old wooden box with a slot for anonymous comments.

Walk around
This is not a time for management to hide in their offices. The president and staff need to be visible. Encourage your top-level folks to walk around the building on a regular basis. Another way to build rapport between staff and management is to host periodical "roundtables" by inviting a small, yet diverse, group of employees to have coffee and donuts with the president and/or top executives.

As most HR professionals know, information conversations in the hallway can be very productive. Some companies even hang whiteboards in the lunchroom to promote such discussions. After a significant workforce reduction, restructuring the physical environment by grouping the remaining employees in the same area is a good way to promote interaction. It also reduces the emotional impact because the empty offices are occupied again.

To conclude with the words of Daniel W. Davenport, "The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished." Management and HR must remember that internal communication is a continuous process that must be periodically evaluated and revised in these difficult times.

Elfega Larsen manages the human resources department at Terawave Communications (Hayward, CA). She can be reached at [email protected].

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