Business Essentials: A little more conversation and a little less cyber messaging

An online media agency wants to improve staff input and morale by going back to face-to-face communication, says Kate Hilpern
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Communication is the key at Unique Digital, an online agency that carries out media planning and buying for clients, as well as marketing campaigns. But communication is also an issue between management and front-line staff. Over the past couple of years, the company has tried everything from away days to newsletters, and it is even considering banning Instant Messenger to get people actually to talk to each other.

"We launched in 1999 as part of a larger group and became independent in 2001," says managing partner Andy Stevens. "Since then we've grown rapidly and now have 30 staff across two separate office spaces. Our concern is not that we don't communicate, but that we could make the communication more effective."

Externally, the agency talks a good game, he says. "We meet regularly with our clients face-to-face and hold team meetings that are highly effective. But for our internal information sharing, this isn't always the case."

It's no co-incidence, he says, that this is a company specialising in technology through the internet. "Internally, the first port of call for communication is email. It's what we're good at, so I guess it's only natural. But face-to-face communication also has a big role and we need to capitalise on that."

The problem is not a lack of team spirit, Mr Stevens insists. "We're a very sociable company, not least because the average age is relatively young. In fact, some of the best suggestions and intuitive thoughts come from casual conversations in relaxed environments like the pub. We want to know how we can factor that kind of communication into our daily routine as well."

Among the efforts already made by Unique Digital are fortnightly update meetings. "We've treated staff gatherings as we would treat client meetings, providing comforts such as sandwiches. But the pressures of day-to-day work always take priority and everyone winds up hurrying. I don't think the meetings are viewed as important."

Next on his list is to try banning the use of Instant Messenger on Fridays. "It's very impersonal and more time consuming than email or face-to-face conversations. But it's easier to send one of these than actually to talk.

"I'm concerned that actually enforcing something like that would be too grave a step, however," adds Mr Stevens.

Unique Digital is also considering relaunching the staff manual in a new format. "When we devised the handbook, which includes sections on everything from house style to how to answer the phone, we produced it digitally and it is held on the server for staff to access. I have my doubts that it is even read."

Effective communication is critical for several reasons, believes Mr Stevens. In a creative industry, free speaking is far more productive than hiding behind technology, he says. In addition, it improves morale. "And because me and my co-managing partner, Simon Ander- son, have different management styles, it's particularly important that these are un- derstood - which is far less likely through the written word. You could, for example, wind up with a misunderstanding of an expectation."


Angela Baron, organisation and resourcing adviser, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

"Communication is more about environment, both physical and cultural, than technology. It is interesting that most of the best communication takes place down the pub, or at least off-site. This would seem to indicate that individuals find it difficult to get together in an informal way on the premises, either because there is nowhere to meet or because such ad hoc brainstorming is somehow seen as 'not part of the work process'.

"Unique Digital needs to address two issues. This first is making sure there are areas - around the coffee machine is usually a good place - where people can meet and chat informally. Then the company needs to ensure it is fostering a culture which emphasises that this form of communication is an important part of the job.

"It won't achieve this by banning Instant Messenger or introducing more meetings, but rather by allowing time for people to talk and building a culture based on trust and teamworking."

Gill Bond, chartered occupational psychologist and chairman of the West Midlands Women in Business Association

"Unique Digital, a fast-paced global business, has developed a number of internal communication mechanisms, but face-to-face dialogue is not valued.

"Raising the stature of internal communications means fostering a culture in which the bottom line increases, the customer base is developed and employees can be heard.

"Team meetings need formal structures and agendas. Allocate time for day-to-day issues, business strategy, customer or project information, new ideas and employee feedback.

"The written word can be misinterpreted. Managers must work together demonstrating the same message. Bring everyone together to share company information.

"Business communication is a skill and can be learnt by training. Knowing what to say, how to say it and what mechanism to use can be taught. Reduce emails by giving examples of what should or should not be communicated."

Nick Isles, associate director, The Work Foundation

"Mr Stevens needs to be clear about his reason for wanting more communication. It seems as though he believes - and quite rightly - that better day-to-day 'chat' will help with a range of functions including improving innovation within Unique Digital and being more responsive to customer demand.

"What he really needs to do, therefore, is embed a knowledge-management system within the workforce. This covers everything from the informal things he's already tried, to providing staff with incentives to share information and communicate more freely face-to-face through the performance- management system.

"Link 'chat' to performance-related pay and other benefits and he will see faster change embedded more quickly throughout the organisation.

"But integral to everything he does is the example he sets. He needs to stop using electronic means of talking and make a priority of face-to-face communication with all his staff. This will be tough, but with the example he sets, others will follow."