Communicating a better balance

December 01, 1996

Business can no longer afford to ignore the society in which they do business. Of that, community affairs managers need no convincing, and most companies now run active community involvement programmes. But companies also urgently need to consider how the pressures of life outside affect the ability of staff to do their jobs effectively – and in turn how pressures at work affect family life at home. Work life like family life is changing so fast.

As part of its programme looking at communication and change, The BT Forum’s Work Talk/Home talk roadshow has travelled round the UK, discovering how current workplace culture inhibits communication. It has found an urgent need for organisations to develop new ways of working.

With downsizing and consequent insecurity, the challenge is to rebuild trust and an organisational culture that supports people and takes into account their caring responsibilities, as well as their community and personal commitments and values.

More than half of those interviewed in a new National Communication Survey, to be published in the new year, said communication is getting worse and longer working hours are partly to blame. Only a quarter of bosses regularly give staff feedback or discuss their ideas, yet two thirds of staff think these things are very important. This six point plan will help companies to communicate better.

Six point plan

1. Remove communication taboos. Does the organisation encourage people to work late or at weekends? Do employees apologise if they have to leave on time? Is it easier for an employee to call in sick than admit it is really a child or parent who is ill? By openly acknowledging that people have family, friends, social and community commitments outside work, managers can improve employees’ commitment, trust and motivation.

2. It’s good to listen. American organisations are increasingly using an imaginative range of ways to listen and respond. These include workplace focus groups where people discuss whether they would most benefit from flexible working, reducing working hours, a creche or counselling. Others use a flexible request form where employees specify whether they want to work part-time, job share, telecommute or work flexi-time and the business costs and benefits involved. Helping managers learn to manage these new ways of working is part of this process.

3. Flexible workers need flexible managers. The ‘command and control’ style manager will find it hard to come to terms with flexible working and the devolution of power that it requires. Instead managers will need to act as coaches and mentors, trust their people, and measure success by productivity not amount of time spent at work.

4. Effective management communication. One American study reported that stress related illness was reduced by half with effective management communication. This means ensuring the best channel of communication for part-time workers, teleworkers and home workers.

5. Appropriate communication. Communication must be appropriate to the individual, the situation, the time and place. Some people prefer to keep their work and home lives separate, so would rather talk to a helpline or an independent counsellor than talk about it at a workplace meeting.

6. Leading by example. A mission statement is not enough: culture change has to be lived and modelled by top management. There is still a vast gulf between the values implied in “people are our greatest asset” mission statements and practice.

So communication is a vital tool in managing the revolution that is taking place in the workplace as a result of the enormous changes in society, technology and the economy. A more holistic balance between work and life will help raise morale, productivity and levels of creativity – and ensure companies meet their responsibilities to staff and wider society.

Joanna Foster is Director of the BT Forum and a member of the Editorial Advisory Panel of Community Affairs Briefing. For five years, she chaired the Equal Opportunities Commission and was chair of the United Nations 1994 International Year of the Family in the UK.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 31 – December, 1996