Small Business HR: How to Communicate With Employees Better
In the business world, communication is a
common problem. In a survey
by training company Fierce Inc., 86% of respondents blamed lack of
collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.
The communication problem becomes greater
as a company grows and takes on more employees, but even small businesses can
run into issues. When you just have one or two employees, you can probably just
keep things simple and informal, but as you take on more staff and start to
organize the company into groups with a management structure, you’ll need to
pay serious attention to how you communicate with your employees—and how they
communicate with you and with each other.
In this tutorial, we look at how to
communicate effectively with employees. We cover strategies for keeping
everyone informed, ways of communicating the firm’s key values, and methods of
seeking feedback and resolving conflict.
We also look at some real-world
examples of along the way to illustrate important points. By the end of the
tutorial, you’ll have some solid pointers for improving employee communication
in your small business.
This is part of our series on small business HR. Follow along for advice on hiring and retaining the best
talent, offering competitive pay and benefits, building a diverse and inclusive
company culture, and more.
1. Keeping Everyone Informed
When you’re just starting out, keeping
everyone on the same page is easy. But once you start growing and having
numerous teams, perhaps based in different locations, it becomes a real
challenge to keep all employees informed about what’s going on in other areas
of the business.
Even in small companies, departments can
solidify into “silos”, with little communication between them. This
section looks at some ways to break down the barriers and keep information
flowing around the company.
The Good Old Employee Newsletter
Probably the simplest way to keep everyone
informed is to send out email updates. It’s a popular tool—a Ragan
survey found that 60% of companies send out email newsletters at least once
a week, and 14% even send daily
The advantage is that it’s an easy and
reliable way of reaching everyone within the company, and it’s also simple to
create email lists for certain groups of employees if you want to segment
things. People constantly check their email, so it’s likely that your messages
will be read, and you can easily use software to track the levels of engagement
(open rates, click-through rates, etc.).
On the other hand, mass email is quite a
top-down method of communication that’s unlikely to foster interesting conversations
in the way that some of the other tools do. People can only reply individually
to you—or they can hit the dreaded “Reply All”, which can quickly spawn
unwieldy, inbox-clogging threads if people take it too far. That leads on to
another problem with email—the same Ragan survey found that 80% of people
complained of email overload. Using email only adds to the problem, and there’s
a chance your employees will just tune the messages out.
To use email effectively, try to make it
engaging and fun, with some clear payoff for people reading it—perhaps a
freebie, a useful resource, or information they can really use in their jobs.
Keep it visual too—consider using a professionally designed emailnewsletter template:
Company intranets have been around for
years, and unfortunately many of them become seldom-visited graveyards of
outdated policy documents and unread corporate blogs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you
design it right and make it engaging enough, an intranet can be a great way to
spark conversations. The key is to make it easy for people to post their own
comments and articles and to encourage usage at first, so that it builds
critical mass. If people see interesting conversations taking place, they’ll
make it a place they visit every day. If they see stale, top-down content,
they’ll bookmark it and rarely return.
Software firm Dex Media, for example, created
an intranet called The Buzz, on which it’s easy to comment and ask questions. Their
VP of Corporate Communications told
“Now, employees across the
business have a voice and a place where they can share their ideas and opinions…
People are setting up team and project sites, commenting on posts and asking
questions, and we are developing a more contemporary, entrepreneurial,
forward-looking business culture as a result.”
Cloud Software and Chat Technology
If you don’t want to invest in building an
intranet, you can achieve a similar effect with cloud software and chat
Here at Envato Tuts+, for example, we have a team spread all over
the world, from Florida to Thailand. We use Slack
for informal conversations grouped by topics and interests, and web-based applications like Trello and Basecamp for more formal projects and
collaboration. And people also use Google
Docs and other cloud-based offerings to share information easily.
There are plenty of other options, of
course, so it’s just a matter of finding what works for your business and
encourages communication. Check out this curated roundup for more possibilities:
Face-to-face meetings and training can also
help people stay up to date. You can schedule training sessions for an employee
from one area to brief those in another. For example, a salesperson can hold a
training session for those in a product management role, telling them about the
feedback they get from potential customers and the trends they see in the
industry. That perspective could be valuable to those with less direct customer
contact, and could contribute to more successful product development.
Having solid documentation of company
policies is another important communication tool—it can help employees know how
to get things done without having to waste time asking around. An employee
handbook is a great tool for this. We’ve got tutorials on training and on
employee handbooks elsewhere in this series:
Every successful company has its own values
and goals. Whether you’ve articulated them clearly or not, they exist—your
company exists for a particular purpose (beyond just making money!), and you
have a certain way of doing business that’s distinct from others.
It’s important for all employees to be on
the same page regarding the company’s values and mission, but this can easily
get lost in the day-to-day work life—especially when you start to grow.
If you want to communicate your values
effectively and authentically, of course you’ll first need to be clear about
them. If you need help on that, see the following tutorials:
What I like about this formulation is that
it encourages entrepreneurs to approach employee communications in the same way
that they approach external marketing. The goals, after all, are similar with
both employees and customers: to promote a positive view of the company brand
and achieve higher levels of engagement and loyalty.
Business owners often take such engagement
and loyalty for granted with their employees, or perhaps they believe that it
should come automatically in return for providing a paycheck, but that’s simply
not the case. Survey
after survey shows that large sections of the workforce are disengaged from
their jobs and planning to leave. With employees, just as with customers,
engagement and loyalty have to be earned.
The HBR article
includes some great examples of how companies have done that. They’re mostly
based on large companies, but small businesses could do similar things, so I’d
recommend reading it to get some ideas.
For example, some executives at Nike were
given the title of “Corporate Storyteller” and encouraged to tell stories that
illustrate the firm’s key value of Just Do It:
“Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman, in an effort
to build a better shoe for his team, poured rubber into the family waffle iron,
giving birth to the prototype of Nike’s famous Waffle Sole. By talking about
such inventive moves, the company hopes to keep the spirit of innovation that
characterizes its ad campaigns alive and well within the company.”
Of course, the best way to reinforce
company values is not to talk about them but to live them. The article also cites
Minnesota-based Quality Bicycle Products, which is committed to protecting the
environment. Employees who live within ten miles of the company are given a $2
daily credit for cycling, carpooling, or taking a bus to work. That’s values in
3. Seeking Feedback
Communication is a two-way street. As well
as communicating to your employees, you need to encourage them to communicate
with you, both about how they feel in their job and about important
information or ideas about the business.
Using some of the strategies we’ve just
mentioned, such as collaborative software and chat tools, will help to some
degree. But even in small companies, people can be afraid to speak their mind
on sensitive issues in public forums or in front of the boss.
Run Effective Employee Surveys
So regular employee surveys are a must.
It’s best to get an external consultant to conduct the surveys, for two
For the data to be meaningful, you have to
ask the right questions in the right ways and analyze the results properly, so
it’s good to get help from someone with experience running surveys.
The whole point is to get employees’
honest, unvarnished opinions, so it’s important to establish trust that their
responses will be anonymous.
With a small business with few employees,
you may have to go to extra lengths to ensure that people still can’t be
identified. A consultant can help with that. Also consider tying the results to
some benchmark, such as an external organization like Great Place to Work. That can help
you see where you’re doing well and where you need to work harder. Surveying
regularly and maintaining consistency in the questions asked can also help you
spot trends over time.
As a small business owner, there’s no
excuse for not meeting regularly with your employees. Even Facebook CEO Mark
meets with entry-level employees in so-called “Zuck Reviews”.
Even better than a formal review, though,
is an informal meeting. Zuckerberg is a fan of walking
meetings, along with other tech luminaries like Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey.
People can often loosen up and feel free to speak their minds when they’re
walking in the open air rather than sitting across a desk or around a
So, although you’re busy, schedule some
time with each employee as often as you can. Although we’ve talked about some
larger-scale technological solutions, a simple face-to-face chat can often be
the most effective form of communication. It may seem stilted at first, but if
you do it regularly, you’ll be able to build a level of trust that will
encourage employees to open up with you and speak freely.
4. Resolving Conflict
In a large company, an important function
of the HR department is to resolve conflicts between employees and deal with
complaints. If an employee feels unfairly treated, or if two staff members just
can’t resolve their differences, they’ll need an appropriate avenue for having
the issue resolved.
As a small business owner, those things may
well end up being your responsibility, so here’s a look at some best practices:
First, you need to have a plan. Conflict
will arise from time to time in any organization, even if the workplace culture
is generally healthy, so you need to have a method of dealing with it. If your
firm is too small to have an HR representative, then you may have to step in,
but also look around the company to identify other people who may have the
skills to act as effective mediators.
Then establish a conflict resolution
process. The following checklist
from the Human Resources department at the University of California, Berkeley,
provides an excellent starting point:
Acknowledge that a difficult situation
Let individuals express their feelings.
Define the problem.
Determine underlying needs.
Find common areas of agreement, no matter
Find solutions to satisfy needs.
Determine follow-up you will take to
Determine what you’ll do if the conflict
Try to encourage healthy communication
patterns by asking people to keep personalities and emotions out of it and try
to describe the issues and consequences objectively, without making
Conflict can be difficult to deal with,
both for those involved and for those trying to mediate. But, if unresolved, it
can lead to accumulated resentments and a poisoned work environment.
Berkeley article for more details, as well as this
post on using the oddly named but powerful “giraffe language” to defuse
conflict. If things get so bad that you feel you can’t deal with it, or if the
situation demands a level of impartiality that you can’t provide, consider
bringing in an external mediator or arbiter.
In this tutorial, you’ve learned about ways
to improve employee communication in your small business. You’ve seen some
examples from successful businesses and learned about some techniques you can
use in your business today.
Whether you end up relying on software
tools, surveys, newsletters, face-to-face meetings or a combination of all of
them, you can put your own stamp on them and create some best practices of your
own. After all, communication is best when it’s authentic, so do what feels
authentic to you.
Next up in this series
on small business HR is a look at some of the important HR requirements
for small businesses. Then we’ll look at other topics such as the worst HR
issues and the best HR software solutions. So stay tuned!