We’ve all heard the expression “communication is a two-way street.” Perhaps nowhere is this more relevant than in the business world. In everything from one-off project proposals to corporate mergers which affect operations and potentially thousands of employees and customers, the only way each side, party or stakeholder can get the desired outcome is by taking the time to specify goals, the associated objectives to meet them and any foreseeable barriers. 

This is true in a micro sense as well: The best way to connect with employees, to hear their ideas and to understand their progress in their work and how they feel about their workplace is to have a conversation. The benefits are two-fold: Employees are more committed to their work and the organization, and the organization has access to the best perspectives on ways to grow and improve the enterprise.

Technology has changed the way people in organizations communicate. Electronic tools make it possible to “meet” with participants situated across the globe. Employees in organizations large and small spend more time in front of their computer screens than in any other activity. E-mail and instant messaging supplement postal mail, phone calls and voice mails to the point that they often are deemed replacements. Electronic files are replacing paper for storing data and tracking activity.

Still, even in today’s high-tech environment, people seek personal contact – for feedback, to know where and how their work fits into the larger whole of the organization and to understand how to add value to the organization and how to grow professionally.  Many of our Best Bosses and some of our current Top Small Workplaces applicants adhere to the “MBWA” (managing by walking around) principle, believing that potential problems can be nipped in the bud more quickly by talking directly to the individuals involved. The small business owners and leaders we talk to say this is also a great way to keep their finger on the pulse of their organizations’ work cultures.

While MBWA is about as low-tech as management can get, it may prove more effective than higher-tech methods of communicating such as via e-mail. In a forthcoming Academy of Management Review journal article, Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, finds that seemingly straightforward e-mail messages can have an impact vastly different than the one the sender intends, based on both sender’s and the recipient’s emotions. Byron says the lack of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language combined with delayed feedback compounds this problem.

This is one of the reasons that Michael Mulqueen, a Winning Workplaces board member who led the Greater Chicago Food Depository from 1991 until this past summer, chose to eliminate internal e-mails. “It got so that people were trying to solve problems by e-mailing a person two desks away, and at that point they should be talking directly to one another,” he tells us. “It’s a better way of getting things done.”

Quickly growing companies find that keeping communication channels functioning and creating new ones is critical to sustaining the culture that made them good workplaces when they were small.

2005 Best Boss Diane Hessan, president and CEO of Massachusetts-based Communispace Corporation, found that employees wanted to stay connected to developments in the business and to hear from her. As a result, every weekend she records a personalized voicemail message that she leaves on her staff’s phone system. Her messages vary from organizational updates to client feedback to market trends. When her staff arrives on Monday morning, they are eager to check their messages to see what their boss has to say. The result? “We’re quite informed as to what’s going on,” says a quality assurance specialist.

“Hyper-communication really has a high payoff,” Hessan says. In the case of her firm, which enables businesses to hear requests and feedback from consumers, this meant reaching profitability after the dot-com bust hit this online-based business hard. With the possibility of laying off 10 people, Hessan brought everyone together to brainstorm ways to cut costs so no one would have to leave. In 24 hours, staff had generated more than 30 ideas. Those ideas kept the company afloat and on path to achieve profitability again in 2004. By 2005, it had increased revenues by more than 65 percent and was listed in the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing small firms.

Staying connected can take many forms. Many small organizations have found that a short daily “huddle” provides a means to keep a team informed and focused on priorities. Regular team or staff meetings provide a forum to discuss challenges and make plans. Periodic one-on-one meetings between supervisors and subordinates create an opportunity to share understanding around “how things are going.” Staff retreats are an ideal forum for stepping back and looking at big-picture issues.

Open communication is key to creating a sustainable workplace culture, and it is one of the most difficult qualities to master. An organization achieves shared trust and the focus on achievement that results only when communication remains a central tenet of its culture.