Remember the game telephone? One person whispers a message into the next person’s ear and that person whispers to the next, all the way down the line until the message no longer makes sense? That’s how communication within a large organization can feel sometimes.
An executive can make a decision, an announcement or a change that’s not communicated well. And by the time news of it reaches employees — well, let’s just say, that’s how rumors get started. It’s not only that employees may have an incorrect sense of what’s happening, they often don’t understand why it’s happening, making it understandable that some are uneasy or slow to adapt.
You can’t just pass information down the hall and expect it to reach every employee intact. Rather, you have to keep the lines of communication open from top to bottom — and every direction in between. At the Census Bureau, we work hard to build this critical feedback loop for all employees.
Here are roles that people at every level of an organization play in maintaining good communication:
Plans for change typically originate at the executive level, even when others are involved. That’s what happened with the Census Bureau’s five-year digital transformation plan. When we embarked on our changes, we knew we had to keep the rest of the agency in the loop and included in the journey. So, we followed some basic good practices to ensure open lines of communication.
- We reach out to department managers and enlist them to help relay messages to employees. (More about that below.)
- We produce an agency newsletter that circulates several times a week to announce upcoming changes and explain why they are being made.
- We frequently hold open forums, town hall meetings, and demonstration days where employees can hear about changes and new projects straight from agency leaders, and respond directly with their opinions and concerns. These typically happen at the launch of new initiatives, and as regular check-ins through the year.
- We have incentive programs to recognize and celebrate employees for their hard work and contributions to making the five-year digital transformation plan a reality.
Managers occupy the all-important middle ground. On one side are the executives conveying a message and on the other side are employees trying to understand what that message means for them. It’s a manager’s job to make sure the message gets to employees intact and answers their biggest question — how will this affect me?
At the Census Bureau, we encourage managers to
- Relay every message of change to employees regularly and answer their questions as best they can. If they don’t know an answer, we provide them with resources to get the right information on employees’ behalf.
- Keep an open-door policy so employees feel encouraged to come ask questions if something doesn’t make sense to them.
- Conduct regular, brief check-in meetings to ensure all employees are on the same page about big, and little, changes within the organization.
- Celebrate every accomplishment a team has together — we like to have pizza parties, ice-cream socials, or team lunches. Celebrations help keep everyone motivated and focused on the end goal of not just the team, but of the organization as a whole.
The Census Bureau has more than 13,000 employees across the country, and every day they’re getting busier. Among all the messages employees get from executives and managers, sometimes it’s hard for them to know what’s most important and how things will affect them. Often, they don’t know who to turn to with questions or concerns. Or they feel that even if they do give their opinions, higher ups won’t listen.
That’s why the feedback loop is so crucial. When the executive level makes an announcement, and the managers relay those details, employees should feel comfortable and encouraged to respond, regardless of what the response is. Change affects everyone, and it’s up to everyone to get involved. But people have to feel invited to do so.
To get Census Bureau employees to communicate with their managers and executives, we encourage them to
- Ask questions of their managers or the management chain, if there is anything that does not seem clear.
- Submit their ideas on how to make the Census Bureau more efficient and productive.
- Participate in incentivized activities and company gatherings to show solidarity with the office and the mission.
Keeping employees well informed will keep your agency on task and ready to take on changes together. Join me next week, as I write about the project management approach that undergirds the Census Bureau’s internal communications efforts.
Stephen L. Buckner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.