12 Tips for Better Employee Communications

EPISODE 65 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix

Better employee communications take work. It’s not enough to create a PowerPoint slide or fill in a template with some text. You have to have a strategy behind your messages, or your employees will just tune out. That goes for every channel – email, digital signs, social networks, collaboration apps, etc. And the need for purposeful, well-thought-out messaging is never more important than for internal communications.

Today’s employees need transparency into your mission and the outcomes of their actions. They want a voice in your operations and how, when, where and what you communicate. If you want to drive and deliver better employee communications, we’re giving you 12 tips that you can put into action today:

  • Hear how better employee communications affect engagement and experience
  • Learn about best practices for design, content and frequency
  • Understand context, clarity and brevity all work together
  • Explore how to measure understanding and effectiveness
  • Discover how surveys can do some of the work for you

IT’S OUR TWO-YEAR ANNIVERSARY!!! Thanks to everyone who tunes in to DSDR. We hope you’ve found our episodes fun and valuable. If you have any suggestions for topics, email us at comms@visix.com.

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Take these tips with you in our infographic: 12 Employee Communications Tips


Derek DeWitt: You’ve got to take care of your workers. Nurturing the employee experience has become a very important thing for both HR and communicators in the past few years, and especially these days.

From that first job interview, all the way to the onboarding process and the retirement ceremony, employees are a valuable part of your organization, and you have to take care of them. And that means you have to communicate with them effectively. Today, we’re going to look at 12 employee communications tips with Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix (who makes digital signage software, in case you didn’t know). Hi, Debbie.

Debbie DeWitt: Hi, Derek.

Derek DeWitt: I’d like to thank Debbie for talking to me today and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

People gotta feel like they’re a part of the culture, a part of the organization, not just a cog that could be replaced by a robot someday, right? They need to feel connected, involved, valued, so that they’re happy and productive.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, the term that’s being used for this is employee experience. And like you said, it’s everything from when you first interview someone all the way until they retire or leave your organization. So those communications do need to be effective and engaging, and there are a number of things you can do to make sure that happens.

Derek DeWitt: A specific number: 12. I have 12 of them.

Debbie DeWitt: Yes! I’m a stats person. I’m a list person, you know that; I’m a list person.

Derek DeWitt: She is. I caught her once making a list of lists that she needed to make. That’s how deep into lists she is.

Debbie DeWitt: It was helpful.

Derek DeWitt: All right, ready? So I’m going to throw them at you. Number 1: build trust, credibility, and accessibility, which sounds like three things, but it’s actually really one thing.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, this is all about your tone of voice in your communications and what you choose to present. The very basic is always be truthful.

Derek DeWitt: Don’t lie. Don’t lie!

Debbie DeWitt: Right. Be honest, but also be transparent. You know, don’t withhold certain things and only tell others. I think this starts with your mission, your values, things like that.

Values are very important to employee experience because they need to know what you as a business, what you stand for. And because remember, you’re not a business, you’re a bunch of people. So what do those people believe in?

DEI (diversity, equity inclusion), these are big topics now. So, you need to share those values and it really needs to come from the top. You know, your C-suite, your managers and things like that. Your frontline employees need to see that you’re not just saying this stuff – you need to do what you say.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, people are a little more savvy, maybe, than they used to be. We can smell lip service and BS.

Debbie DeWitt: Everybody at every level needs to understand that there’s a direct correlation, a relationship between how effective your communications are, and employee engagement and what your business outcomes are.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. Okay. Number 2: back up your words with actions; walk your talk.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. So I just said this a second ago, but yeah, this is about building trust. You know, not only being transparent, but if you say, hey, we’re going to tell you everything, but then our actions don’t actually match what we told you, you’re going to lose your employees. They’re going to have no faith and they’re going to tune out and they’re not going to be engaged. So….

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, a broken promise, it would be better to have never made that promise than break it.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, I think we all saw this with greenwashing.

Derek DeWitt: Yes!

Debbie DeWitt: As soon as the environment became a topic, you had everybody putting out that their brand was sustainable or that they, you know, they believed in being part of the community and part of the world. And yet, you know, I can’t even recycle in the lunchroom. So how does that work?

Derek DeWitt: Right. And again, as I said, employees are much more savvy because they’re using all these digital communication technologies in their personal lives. So it’s a very simple matter for me as Employee X to just go, hmm, the company says that they’re focused on environmentalism. Let’s see if that’s true. Google, Google, Google. Oh, they’re not.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. And I mean, that’s a big part of it. You know, one of the worst things you can do is say, you know, we’re all in this together, and yet you don’t have any method for your employees to give you any kind of suggestions or have a voice in things. They’ll notice that.

And the fact is, you know, three strikes and you’re out. And the fact is you only get so many mistakes or untruths or just miscommunications. You know, it doesn’t have to be intentional, but you need to correct it immediately if you do miscommunicate something. Because again, it’s all about backing up words with action and building trust.

Derek DeWitt: Hmm, sure. 3: know your audience, understand them.

Debbie DeWitt: Absolutely. And we’ve got podcasts, white papers and blogs on this. It’s really about, this isn’t just going, well, I have this many employees and this is the breakdown of job titles, and these are the basic demographics. That all is important, too. But you need to know their interests, their preferences. To engage somebody, you have to get their attention and you have to give them something they care about.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Like one of the examples that I constantly think about is, you know, if it turns out that, wow, 15% of the workforce is really into NASCAR, then that’s a way that maybe I can reach out to them. That’s a way I can engage them because they’re really all, they all talk about it, they go to the pub after work and they watch the races and they, I don’t know what they do, trading cards (people don’t do trading cards anymore probably), but you know, whatever they’re doing. You know, sharing links, sharing videos, and so on, you know. Or they’re wine collectors or whatever it is. Like we do with medicine today, we don’t just treat the symptom, we treat the whole person. It’s the same thing. Communicate to the whole person that is your employee. They’re more than just a series of functions in your organization.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, because when you understand your audience, you can tailor different communications. It’s not going to be, oh, I’ve figured out this audience (which is everyone and everything) and now I’m going to dial everything to go out to everyone and be engaging. It’s not going to happen. You’re going to have different targeted messages. I mean, localization is something we talk about a lot. Something as basic as a sports pool going on, or you’re doing some campaign that you’re using, you know, sports imagery, well, be careful because, like college football fans, like they’re crazy. Like they are loyal!

Derek DeWitt: I can’t believe you put those losers up there!

Debbie DeWitt: Right! You don’t want to put like the enemy on some screen, you know. But I am from Ohio, and Ohio State has got a very loyal following. And you do not want to throw up like Michigan or somebody.

But localizing is very important. Especially with the work from home trend, localization has changed what it means. It can mean down to the desk. Now I’m not saying you’re going to personalize every message, but you do need to understand their interests.

You also need to understand how they want to get your messages. There are more digital channels that they can go to. So you need to look at which of those are preferred. And quite frankly, on this one, if you’re not sure, if you’re going great, understand my audience, what am I supposed to do, ask everybody? The answer is yes.

If you can have face-to-face conversation, you’re a small business, fantastic. If not, surveys are the best way to get this done. And it doesn’t just stop with, you know, asking them, what do you want and when do you want it, where do you want to get it? You need to follow up. And because the fact is, we all know with surveys, sometimes people answer one thing, but their actions say something else. So you do have to measure.

Derek DeWitt: And don’t ask questions, for example, that seem like they have action items on them. Like, hey, how would you prefer that we do this? And then nothing changes because then no one’s going to want to answer subsequent surveys and questions.

4: give people context. It’s no longer enough to just say, do it because I said so! People need to understand why.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you go back to the old reporting, the five W’s and an H. You know, who, what, when, where, why and how. You need to cover those things. And it turns out that for adults, what and why are the most important factors, especially for employee communications. What do you want me to do? Why am I doing this? So, I need the context. Don’t just say, we need you to sell this many things this month, or we need you to do these four tasks by this date, for this project. You need to say, because it affects things like this.

Derek DeWitt: Right. I mean, you don’t have to go too deep into it, but they do need to have some kind of a context. Stack those boxes over there! That’s just not good enough.

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly. Like, safety messaging tends to be quite short because people assume, well, everybody knows if you don’t wear your protective equipment, there could be a problem. It’s much more effective to say, this percentage of injuries are caused by not wearing PPE.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Especially I think with things like that, with safety gear and so on. I saw something recently, I can’t remember what it was, but it showed that in, say, like a warehouse, for example, when an employee first starts working there, you’ll see a high number of accidents. Then the number of accidents drops off rather dramatically because they’re following all the procedures. But then after they’d been there a couple of years, we see another spike in warehouse accidents. Because people forget. Everything just becomes rote and they just kind of forget. So, it doesn’t hurt to remind people.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. We all do this. How often do you actually follow the rule? You’re working from home now; you might even be on a laptop. How often do you follow that rule of, hey, every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds and look at something 20 feet away? I mean, we’ve all heard these, you know?

Derek DeWitt: Nobody does that.

Debbie DeWitt: Or make sure your desk is the right height, you know, set up ergonomically. You know, don’t slouch. You know, we all do this. So yeah, reminders are good.

So, it’s kind of a two-fold process. You want to give larger context, but you also want to be specific about what are the results, what are the benefits? You know, like I said, you don’t want to just say, hey, there’s a new course online. Say, like, the new time management course will save you 20 minutes a day.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So go ahead and spend 30 minutes now to participate in it, so that you can save 20 minutes a day every day for the rest of your life.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. I would say the context, you know, it may be, we need you to do this because (meaning the impetus that drove whatever this communication is), but a lot of it’s going to be outcome based, because if you do this, then this.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. 5: use multiple channels. Don’t just use email, for example. You’ve got to have some variety.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And the fact is, you know, people have more and more ways to connect with the organization and with each other. And it’s kind of like the old yarn about advertising, you know, just repetition, repetition, repetition. But it’s true. And even though you’re localizing or personalizing more than you used to, you still need to have consistency across those channels and reinforce those communications across all of those channels.

Derek DeWitt: I mean also, you said advertising, reminds me of the other old saw about advertising, which is that 50% of the money you spend on advertising is a waste of money, but I don’t know which 50%.

So, if you’re using a little bit more of a shotgun approach, at least in the early stages before you can get some kind of feedback and finetune your offering and the way that you communicate to your specific audience, it’s probably not a bad idea to try a bunch of different things. And you might be surprised. Oh, it turns out Teams really took off. Everybody loves it.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. I mean, the fact is right now, a lot of organizations are adjusting to the hybrid office, to people working from home or learning from home. So, there is a lot of experimentation going on. 2020 was big for experimentation. The biggest thing is let people know all the choices of how they can get communications. Like you said, maybe it’s a little bit of a shotgun at first, but you’re still consistent with your messaging. And then get that data, do the surveys, find out what they prefer. And whatever you land on, make sure they’re trained and comfortable with it and satisfied with it

Derek DeWitt: 6: communicate regularly. And even I might say predictability. So, for example, the common wisdom for podcasts is choose a day and a frequency and then stick to it as much as humanly possible. Don’t some weeks point out two episodes then do nothing for four weeks. You have to be regular, so that it becomes predictable or it becomes sort of standard and just part of the system.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, I would say be consistent, but be systematic. You know, you’ve got to have a plan in place, put together an editorial, communications or editorial calendar.

You know, we do something at Visix, every Wednesday there’s a “question time” on the intranet. It’s just a fun question that people can respond to trying to make sure we have a personal face. People can talk with each other. It’s something a little bit fun. It comes out every Wednesday. Every Wednesday afternoon, so people know. Because not everyone is drilling down the intranet every day, all day; they’re all busy. But people who enjoy that, they go there every Wednesday for that. That’s just an example.

But I think the biggest thing in terms of consistency and communicating regularly is finding that balance between too little and too much, and making sure you’re not overloading people. That’s huge right now. Burnout is a big, big issue with the work from home culture. So, you need to be aware of that, but also just knowing to spread it out. You have a lot you need to communicate, but you don’t need to do it in these tight bursts of a lot at once.

Derek DeWitt: 7: Be clear, be concise.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. We’ve got a couple of blogs on best design practices, and you actually wrote a couple about using language and keeping your texts tight. And that’s all this is, is a reminder. Use those best practices. Don’t use 10 words when you can use three. Don’t use a lot of jargon.

Derek DeWitt: I mean if it’s shorter, yeah. If you’re absolutely sure everybody knows what that means, then sure, go ahead and use it.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, I personally believe that you should write just like you’re talking to someone. Imagine the person sitting next to you and you need to explain this to them. You’re not going to read the text from your HR department’s policy. You’re going to explain it to them. That’s what you should do in your messaging.

Derek DeWitt: I would also say, I think a lot of people still have this idea, partly because at least my generation were certainly trained to write in a more formal style, and so we have a tendency when we’re writing something (an email, a blog, a report, and so on) to be wordier and to use a lot more jargon and a lot of unnecessary language. And yet modern digital communication methods are like, you said, much more akin to speaking with someone. And so you kind of have to make that mindset adjustment of, just because you’re typing, it doesn’t mean that it’s writing. It’s really just sort of written speech. It’s a whole different way of approaching communication.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And this is in any communications, not even just digital signage messaging, but I think in anything; email, you know, there there’s a lot that could be learned by a lot of people about brevity in email.

Derek DeWitt: Oh my god, is that the truth!

Debbie DeWitt: But I will say the biggest thing is, you know, we also said not only concise, but be clear. Because if you’re not clear, if people don’t understand, it leads to misinterpretations. And even though we might be more remote now, they can start spreading that as misinformation. And then it just turns into a cluster.

Derek DeWitt: A kluge. Number 8: make it interesting.

Debbie DeWitt: Please!

Derek DeWitt: Please. Don’t just throw out dry, boring stuff. Make it interesting.

Debbie DeWitt: This is what visual communications are all about. I mean, you have to grab attention. In theory they say you’ve got several seconds. You’ve mentioned on several things that, you know, you got to get people to look away from their phone and that means you need to put something up that they care about.

So, and whether it’s an email or a Teams message or anything else, you need to spark their interest. This goes back to knowing your audience and what interests them. And the other thing is just really, you know, use a lot of visuals. Visuals are the way to do that. I mean, unless you’ve got a clever headline or something very catchy that is going to make people tune in, I’d say, visuals are your biggest friend here.

Derek DeWitt: And visuals can also help you with that brevity as well. You know, an example I used once was you’re advertising that in the afternoon coffee’s is half price. So you have a nice picture of some coffee. You don’t need to also write the word coffee. We get it. It’s coffee. I know what coffee is. Picture of that, half price in the cafe this afternoon only. That’s it!

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Yeah. And in many cases, especially if it’s a longer subject, you don’t want to try and do that. I mean, sometimes you’re going to have to do some policy thing in an email and we understand that. But for like digital signs or Teams or some desktop app, you’re going to want to basically, use something visual, use a hook, so people are interested and then send them somewhere else for the rest of it. And I would say this is where campaigns can help a lot. Instead of trying to cram a lot into a single communications, if you can make it a campaign. We’re all used to campaigns now.

Derek DeWitt: Like a story.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: Like it’s an unfolding series of connected information bursts.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, people like narratives.

Derek DeWitt: Number 9: check for understanding. Don’t just assume because you sent it, that it was opened or looked at. And just because it was looked at, don’t assume that they understood it.

Debbie DeWitt: We have in another podcast that a lot of people are measuring reach, which means it was delivered. Maybe it was seen, maybe it was interacted with. You know, if it’s on a digital sign, they, you know, went out to the webpage that you gave them or it was an email, this many people opened it.

But you need to look at understanding. Because yeah, just the fact that it got there isn’t enough. And again, I would say if it’s misunderstood, if there’s a mistake, if it’s not clear, if it’s not concise and they walk away with the wrong idea, what happens in many cases is they’re not going to say, oh, I totally misunderstood that. Employees are going to say, wow, you did not communicate that well.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. That’s exactly right, yeah.

Debbie DeWitt: And that erodes trust, it erodes engagement. So, you need to say, did you understand that? I would suggest don’t just check after, do a little bit of work before it goes out. You know, if you’re designing some message or some campaign, have a few people look at it and say, is this clear? Does this make sense? Or you read this, what did you take away from it? And if they just say, I just got that you put this policy in place and they totally missed the fact that they’re supposed to sign up for something or enroll, then you know you have an issue. So, I’d say, you know, check for understanding with a few people before you put it out and then absolutely measure that after it’s out.

Derek DeWitt: Number 10: measure effectiveness. This is very much on the heels of what you just got done saying. Make sure that you have…and keep in mind just because there’s a measurement tool or method available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s useful for you and your specific communications and audience. How useful is it that this many people opened the email? Well, if it’s not useful, don’t measure that because it’s pointless.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. There are a lot of things called vanity metrics out there. It’s how a lot of people sell their services. You know, we delivered 500,000 emails this month. Right, how many were opened? How many actually clicked through the call to action? How many did this? Not in internal communications, but this is something that marketers use a lot.

Derek DeWitt: I think of YouTube videos like, oh, I got this many views. And then if you actually go into the insights and drill down and you’re like, hmm, YouTube is counting a ten-second viewing of my five-minute video as a view. I don’t know that that’s what I was aiming for.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. So in that case, don’t look at views, look at dwell time, look at how much of the video they’re watching.

Derek DeWitt: Or completion rate or whatever.

Debbie DeWitt: We talk a lot about you care about what you measure, so make sure you’re measuring the right things. The effectiveness of your communications, you want to look at the call to action, how many people took it? And look at the business outcome. You know, look at, did they go through with what you wanted them to do?

Every campaign should have some outcome tied to it. Even if it’s something like a lot of people think, oh, well, if it’s an event, I just put up the event. How am I supposed to measure that? Well, you can measure it. You know, put something on it that says, you know, show this QR tag when you show up to the event. And then that way, you know, this many people came to the event, you know, hopefully because they saw this.

So, there are ways. I think we’ve got another blog, which I’ll link to that, it basically tells you a bunch of different examples and how you can actually measure ROI.

Derek DeWitt: Number 11: beware of information overload. Every time you communicate with somebody, you’re kind of interrupting them. Right? Don’t do that too much.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. You know, everybody’s got work to do and you are interrupting them. And maybe they like it and maybe they don’t.

Derek DeWitt: My job is not to get your communications. I have other things to do.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. And the fact is we’re all working from home more. We all have more channels that we’re managing. Because remember not just work communications, but all the social communications, all the life communications. We’re talking to our kids’ schools, we’re on social media, you know, we’ve got all these things going on. So people are handling a lot of information, a lot of emails, a lot of different portals. So, just be very careful.

This goes back to us talking about how regularly you want to communicate, how you don’t want to do this sort of dump of a lot of information. And then you also don’t want to just go quiet for a week. So, streamline your interactions. Communicate regularly. And the other thing again, I’m going to say is survey your people. Ask them, is this too much? Is it too little? You know, are you getting overloaded? Are you feeling burned out?

Derek DeWitt: And again, make sure that you’re, if whenever possible, using a communication method that works for them. Like me, in my personal life, if somebody sends me an email and expects me to respond in a couple of hours, it’s not going to happen. I check my email once, maybe twice a day (if I remember to do that). So sending me an email is the worst way to communicate something to me if you require me to respond quickly.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, when it comes to organizational communications, hopefully you’ve got some policies in place about that kind of thing. Maybe you even have a way that people can tell you their preferences. But certainly, I think the point here of information overload is just be very aware of information burnout in addition to workload burnout, and work around that.

Derek DeWitt: Number 12, the last one: remain flexible. Agility is the watchword for all organizations in the 21st century. You heard it here first. People are going to be talking about this. At the end of the century, they’re going to go, that Derek guy, he really knew what he was talking about.

Debbie DeWitt: He was a prophet!

Derek DeWitt: He was a prophet.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Well, I would say, you know, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that things can change very quickly and they can change a lot. What’s the law or whatever, like technology advances exponentially, it doesn’t just like slowly creep. It’s…

Derek DeWitt: Right. Yeah, it’s an exponential increase. Moore’s Law, maybe.

Debbie DeWitt: We’ll look that up.

Derek DeWitt: Look it up yourself.

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly. So I mean, technology affects every facet of the workplace now. So that’s automatically going to be a reason to remain flexible. In terms of planning for your communications, I think you’re going to have overarching goals that are sort of evergreen. Things like engagement, things like wellbeing.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. We want our people to be happy all the time.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Things [like] diversity, inclusion. These are going to be overarching things that should become just part of the organic fabric. But your tactical stuff, you’re going to need to have plans, but remain flexible. And in general, you’ll certainly have a plan for the year you’re in, but there are people who are doing detailed tactical plans for like three years. And I understand that, especially at the very, very large company level, but even in those plans, they build in flexibility or I hope they build in flexibility. Because you don’t know what’s coming down the road.

I mean, obviously the marketplace could affect your company. It could affect the company size or its processes or what it does or what it concentrates on. But also your employee pool is changing. You know, each generation has different priorities. And internal communications is so tied to HR and so tied to those employees that as their preferences, and as you know your audience and those preferences change, you’re going to need to be adaptable.

Derek DeWitt: That’s very true. All right, so that is 12 tips for better employee communications, stuff that you can start doing right now. And if you’re already doing some of them, good for you.

Debbie DeWitt: It sounds a little soft maybe, but I would say it’s just like any other relationship. It needs work, it needs good communication.

Derek DeWitt: Hmm. Yeah. That’s true. And you have to keep things interesting and you also have to respect each other. I think that’s something that was certainly missing from a lot of jobs I had when I was younger. Now granted, a lot of those are retail jobs, but still…

Derek DeWitt: And you’re 100 years old.

Debbie DeWitt: And I’m 100 years old, yeah. But you know, there was very much this attitude of like, you should be thankful you have a job, shut up and do what you’re told. And those days are just, they’re just gone.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I’m thrilled. I love the new workplace. Even before hybrid and all of this hit, we were talking about the modern workforce and it’s come so far in the last decade. I mean, it started really with the tech companies way back when, changing this culture, but communications has really risen to the level that they’re being listened to more, they’re more of a priority than it ever has been before. And so I think it’s a very bright future.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Well, thank you for talking to me today, Debbie.

Debbie DeWitt: You’re welcome.

Derek DeWitt: And thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.