Understanding and engaging your frontline workforce

Your company’s reputation is everything.  With your frontline staff acting as the main ambassadors for the company – the people that your customers meet every day – it’s important that they uphold the values and brand of the organisation.  In facilities management, often the workforce is dispersed across many locations, do not have access to email during the working day, and may well be working for a client organisation that has its own strong identity which they expect their outsourced workforce to adopt.  The challenge is to communicate management objectives in a way that achieves buy-in, is engaging and motivating.

Liz Kentish, director of Kentish and Co and I have worked together on a range of projects, including one of the country’s largest PFI hospitals, to create a well-informed and motivated workforce through a combination of training, coaching and solid on-the-ground communications.  Here we discuss some of the issues that we regularly come across and provide practical some solutions for addressing them.

Chatter in the ivory tower

Before trying to persuade your workforce to do, feel or believe something it’s important that management understand what it takes to communicate effectively.  We often start by coaching the senior management team and as part of that help them to understand their own communication style.  Once they know their style, we help them to appreciate the differences between them and their colleagues.  With that knowledge, people can adapt to suit the person that they are trying to ‘persuade’ and communicate in a way that will bring out the most favourable response.

For simplicity sake, we break personalities down into four colour-types: red, blue, green and yellow.  Each group has its own characteristics, for example red people are generally fiery, ambitious and driven; whereas yellow people are more facilitative, happy and like to bring people together.  It’s important to understand the different personality types even when hiring your team.  We have one client that has eight red types in their management team of 11.  The result is a lot of angst, very little balance and nothing actually ever gets done.  Moreover, by identifying that your boss is a ‘red’ you will know to get straight to the point.

And it goes further.  People are also either auditory (verbal), kinaesthetic (need to feel it) or visual (like pictures and graphs).  There’s no point giving a written report to a visual person, they will respond better to a presentation.

Without an understanding of the different communication styles of your colleagues, you may at times simply be talking a different language.

When we get people understanding this and communicating better with their immediate colleagues, it’s then that we can push this down through the organisation.

Does it all sound like a lot of hard work?

Well, it’s not for the faint-hearted.  Good communications takes consistent effort but it’s worth it.  Think about every staff survey you’ve run or management away-day you’ve had.  Has the common theme been that communications needs to improve?  If not, then you’re in the lucky minority.  The need for better communications has, in our experience, been a recurring issue throughout our careers.  Whilst the introduction of a company intranet, or a staff newsletter are all worthwhile and have their place, people simply need to know how to communicate more effectively on a personal level.

A cascading approach

In larger organisations it’s often necessary to take a cascading approach when communicating with the FM team. One client recently was a little concerned that no-one would turn up to a series of ‘meet the managers’ days that has been arranged to demonstrate one of their core values: openness.  The HR team had created an A4 poster which had been placed around the various sites.  It was full of words, and only somewhere near the bottom did it mention that staff were invited to come ask any question they wanted of the most senior management in the company.

In a situation like this they needed to recognise that the majority of their workforce did not have English as a first language, probably wouldn’t read a wordy poster all the way to end, possibly wouldn’t care about meeting the most senior management, and even if they did might feel a little intimidated discussing their own specific day-to-day gripes with people at that senior level.

We recommended that they very quickly meet with their first line managers and supervisors.  Explain to them the purpose of the exercise, and ask them in their next team meeting to discuss it with their staff.  The idea was to get staff thinking about what they might say in that situation, practice discussing their issues with peers, and realising that nothing was off limits.  Once comfortable, they would be much more likely to want to attend such a session with the senior team.  Also, recognising that not everyone could attend, they could nominate a spokesperson from their group to represent them.  And the poster?  Well, a new simple poster was needed, but only as a reminder about the date and venue. 

Find your ‘big mouths’

Top down communication is good and necessary, especially if the journey is broken down by the various layers of reporting lines.  But this is only one approach that’s needed.  Staff are often mistrustful of management and will respond better if they hear or see the message from their peers.  By see, we mean people embodying the behaviour that you wish to instil.  Find the people in your organisation that attract the most attention.  We’re not necessarily talking about senior staff, but those people that are loud, outspoken, complain the most and rally the troops for drinking sessions on Friday lunchtime.  They are your natural communicators.  Set up a working group with them, explain what you’re trying to achieve and set them loose to deliver the message in their own unique way, whether it be in their behaviours or actually sticking up for certain corporate beliefs.  It has a powerful knock-on effect, almost viral.

TV chef Jamie Oliver took this approach in his Food Revolution programme where his task was to get teenagers at a high school interested in healthy eating versus their usual burger and chips.  He recruited a handful of students, worked with them, showed them the harm that their current diets were doing to their bodies and asked them to help him persuade the other students to try his healthier foods.  This was so much more impactful than he or the teachers trying to explain why they should consider making the switch.

This approach allows for two-way communication and enables you to get real feedback that you can work with.

The traditional approach

None of this replaces traditional communication channels, all of which are still needed, such as an intranet, corporate newsletter, company conference calls, and of course now social media, to formally provide information about the company direction.  But if you really want to get under the skin of your organisation you do need to add that extra layer of real, person to person communication, done in a way that is meaningful to the person you want to influence.

By Christine Jones and Liz Kentish

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