In the 21st century workplace, efficiency and speed are demanded, change is the norm, time is at a premium, and stress levels are high. Management has big expectations for what employee communication can accomplish in support of its goals, believing it can play a significant role in solving problems, achieving employee engagement, and building momentum for change and growth.
Building an effective employee communication department that can rise to meet expectations and deliver results is no easy task. How are employee communication leaders structuring their organizations for impact?
I spoke with several highly experienced employee communication leaders to find out.
Starting out: Don’t restructure in a vacuum
Never plan an employee communication restructuring in a vacuum. Take the time to do it right by getting input from as many varied sources as you can before you construct your organizational chart. Learn how work really gets done in your organization, how people and departments interrelate, what drives performance and how communication can make the greatest impact.
“We completed about eight months of prep work before implementing our new focus and organization,” said Rosemary Swantek, ABC, manager of global employee and management communications for Dow Corning, a global specialty chemicals company. “We used the Six Sigma fact-finding approach to guide us and we conducted two communication surveys as part of the process. Six Sigma is an ingrained business practice our leadership understands and values. When I presented our communication research findings, I was speaking their language and process, and that helped immensely with getting buy-in for our focus and related organizational structure.”
Angela Ginty, director of employee communications at U.S. grocery giant Kroger, says that she’s worked hard to understand how the company functions and serves customers. “I visited stores in various markets to see how communication really happens at the operational level,” says Ginty. “I talked to corporate department heads. All this research really paid off because it gave me a clear sense of direction and confidence about how to build my organization and apply resources.”
Organizing to deliver corporate information and client service
Once you have completed your initial research, you may find that typical staffing resources in employee communication organizations focus on two main areas of work: “informational communication” and “client communication.” Informational communication includes the traditional corporate-directed media like employee publications, intranets and e-mail messages. Client communication is cut in multiple ways. “Clients” can be functional departments, major operational business units or focused audiences, like managers.
Dow Corning’s structure includes a core corporate staff of five. One person manages electronic communication and AV resources, while another manages global news delivery via the company’s intranet and publications. Two team members are deployed on management communication, alignment with corporate strategy and measurement. Swantek provides the strategic direction for the team and handles special initiatives work; and each of the five staff members also assists functional clients, like HR. “Applying two people to manager communication is probably unusual, but our research told us this was the area where we could add greatest value,” says Swantek.
Swantek’s department structure also reflects Dow Corning’s international focus. “China is a big, growing market for us and important to our future,” she said. “We made a strategic decision to locate one full-time internal communicator in the heart of this important market, along with three communicators who split their time between internal and external duties in other key regions worldwide. Again, it’s a matter of deciding where employee communication adds greatest value in support of company goals.”
At Kroger, Ginty’s department consists of five communication professionals, each supporting corporate client departments like retail operations and HR, as well as specific operating divisions. Their duties include a combination of field support and corporate-directed responsibilities. One manager may provide strategic support for HR while also managing the company’s monthly newsletter. “This structure gives us flexibility,” she added. “For example, if one person is overloaded with client work and a special project, we can temporarily shift corporate duties to someone else.”
The flexible, adaptable department structure
Flexibility was top-of-mind with all the employee communication leaders I spoke with and it’s reflected in their organizational structures. They expect their department members to move with speed and agility, and apply multiple communication skills to their daily work. Their staff may manage a publication, provide employee communication support to the IT organization, help out with special projects or run a pulse survey.
Departments also need to be flexible and open to restructuring and change. Natalie Gillespie, manager of corporate communications for Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of aluminum products, says her company conducts an annual employee communication survey, which has contributed to a periodic reshaping of employee communication job structure and responsibilities.
Today’s employee communication departments need to be organized for flexibility, focus, and connectivity to people and business goals. Here are some steps to structuring an effective department.
- Don’t get hung up on reporting relationships.
Where does employee communication best “fit” in an organization—public relations, corporate communications, HR? In reality, employee communication reports to all these functions and more, with both good and bad results.
- Gather input.
Conduct formal and informal research to fully understand the needs and challenges in your organization and how employee communication can make the greatest impact. Pose a standard set of fact-finding questions to as many business leaders in as many departments as you can.
- Align your resources to organizational priorities.
Your organization is not about some pet intranet or publication project of special interest to you, but about how your team can best serve the organization as a whole. Resources should be focused on serving key organizational objectives and needs.
- Carefully prepare job descriptions.
Think through each task your employees will perform. In your mind, play through a typical workday for an employee in that job. Ginty said it was very helpful to read IABC job postings to view a range of titles and responsibilities associated with employee communication jobs.
- Publicize your new department.
Let key people throughout the organization know what your team members do so they can save time by knowing whom to contact for various needs. When leaders see your resources are focused on the right priorities, it builds credibility.
- Going forward: Be flexible and measure regularly.
Business needs change, and your organization structure may need to change with them. Be alert to changing organizational goals and needs. Conduct periodic surveys to assess if your organizational approach is satisfying employee and client needs.
Ginty sums it all up: “Every one of us who manages an employee communication organization has to ask ourselves: How can we best step up to facilitate and lead change in our organizations? It’s all about helping our businesses be the best they can be and using communication to help them reach their goals.”