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The Secret to Communicating With Employees: Start a Dialogue

Image of two young businessmen using touchpad at meeting

Think about the best conversations you’ve had in your life, whether with friends, loved ones or total strangers. I’d bet you felt like people were really listening to each other, actively paying attention and there was a real give and take. You weren’t being spoken to—you were a participant whose ideas were valued.

Communicating with employees must also be give and take. Don’t think of internal communication as “I need to tell you what’s going on” or “You need to provide feedback via this survey.” If you really want to communicate with employees, it must be a dialogue.

So why should government communicators care about whether agencies create a dialogue with employees? Because you will never be fully successful communicating externally if employees are not engaged and encouraged. Clearly articulating the agency’s mission and inviting feedback from employees strengthens the entire organization and ultimately benefits your customers. (Remember, employees are customers, too!)

Of course, dialogue is only possible when employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns to management, whether in person or online, confidentially or not. And, they must have faith that their input will be taken seriously.

Effective employee feedback isn’t a “one and done” sort of thing. You can’t rely on a once-a-year survey or town hall to do the job. Workplace climate and employee morale can change, and so can the leadership of an organization and its priorities. And those changes have to be discussed, requiring communications staff to have consistent touch points with employees and to keep the feedback loop going between them and the agency’s leaders.

Here are some tips for starting an authentic dialogue with federal employees, and keeping it going:

Make good use of one-on-one time. Simple conversations are powerful. I interact with as many employees as possible every day, even if it’s just to say good morning.

Be there. Get out of your office. Talking to people where they work or in neutral locations, like the cafeteria or hallway, lowers the pressure level and makes it easier to connect. I always learn the most from people at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected locations.

Don’t duck it. You can’t always offer immediate feedback or solutions to employees, but you can give them the courtesy of a response. If a suggestion is unlikely to be implemented, I say so and do my best to recommend another solution. Or if I don’t know the answer, I say so. My hope is that even though they may not like the answer, they’ll remember that I treated them and their issue respectfully.

Give and receive information online. The Census Bureau’s internal communication hub, Future On, is a place where we inform employees about initiatives, the inner workings of our departments, and important updates. Most importantly, the content we provide is based on their feedback. We know employees feel a strong sense of pride about the Census Bureau, and they want to know what’s going on. We’ve had more than 12,000 page views this month alone, and employees spend six to seven minutes per visit, a great success by any measure.

You can make providing online feedback easy for employees, too. Short online surveys are simple to put together and can be confidential. You can also set up a dedicated email address for employee suggestions. But again, employees have to believe that you are actually reading their input and taking it seriously. So it’s important to report back on a regular basis how their suggestions are being implemented, or not.

Learn from the conversations employees are already having. As I’ve said many times, don’t make assumptions about what your customers care about, ask them. The same goes for employees. What are your colleagues talking about at the water cooler or on group messaging systems like Yammer? What are they talking about in affinity groups, if your agency has them? At the Census Bureau, we have affinity groups representing several interests and identities, and executive sponsors are paired with a group as an adviser. For example, I sponsor our NextGen group for young employees. NextGen members expressed their openness to telework and desk sharing, so we’re piloting a desk-sharing program based on their openness to exploring a more modern workplace arrangement.

Put extra effort into communicating about big changes. Sometimes, there are special situations where you have to open the lines of communication extra wide. When the Bureau of Economic Analysis joined Census at the Suitland Federal Center in Maryland, we knew the move was going to affect everyone. During the entire process, we communicated with staff in many ways, holding town halls, collecting and answering questions, polling staff members, and remaining open and transparent. We were constantly pushing information to staff and getting feedback from them. The process wouldn’t have worked if it had been a one-way conversation. This was a huge life change for thousands of employees, and we made every effort to collect and act on their feedback.

We sincerely believe in meaningful employee dialogue at the Census Bureau. So, when managers stress the value of communicating with and serving the public, our employees know we mean it.

Jeannie Shiffer is the associate director for Communications at the U.S. Census Bureau.  This blog post was originally published on GovLoop.com.