When my company had 20 people, communicating was easy. We were all crammed into a couple rooms at our office. If we needed to share news, we just leaned over to the person next to us or stood up and made an announcement. When there was a major sale or a big win, a slow clap would steadily build until people were all cheering together (incidentally, a practice that survives to this day).
But as Hootsuite got bigger, growing to hundreds of people, then to nearly 1,000 employees in offices around the world, things got more complicated. What I realized is that when you reach a certain size, communication doesn’t just “happen” by itself any longer, reports Entrepreneur.
As CEO, I was in contact with a core group of people on a daily basis—but others I’d rarely see even in the hallway. Across the company, the same thing was happening. Departments began to get siloed. Swamped by emails and announcements, employees started to tune out. Actually connecting—even on fundamentals like yearly targets and company values—became a real challenge.
We weren’t alone, of course. Large, global companies lose an average of $62.4 million per year due to poor communication. Even smaller ones squander an estimated $5,246 each year per employee. Lack of direction from management and poor communication are cited as a primary reason people quit their jobs. Communication gaps breed uncertainty, kill productivity, lead to churn and ultimately sabotage customer service.
The fix? Well, there’s no magic bullet. But I think the solution starts with setting the right tone from the top. As a leader, if you’re truly accessible and communicative, the rest of the company learns from that example. Then, it’s a matter of being deliberate—of realizing that good communication isn’t an accident and needs to be helped along, in big and small ways.
Here are five battle-tested approaches I’ve used to open the lines of communication inside Hootsuite, in an effort to ensure everyone is kept in the loop, has a chance to connect and also has a channel for feedback.Weekly video selfies. This sounds so simple, but it’s been a lifesaver. Each week for the past two years, I’ve recorded a quick five- to ten-minute video on my iPhone and shared it with the entire company via Facebook Workplace (a closed network just for employees). I’ll talk about big company news, relay challenges and goals and offer congratulations on team wins. It’s nothing fancy (and the production value is super low), but it allows the entire company to get aligned on top priorities and hear what’s important, straight from me. In turn, these videos get dozens, sometimes hundreds, of comments in response, as employees add information, clarify and ask questions. #RandomCoffee. Nothing revolutionary about this approach either, but it works. For the past year or so, people across my company have registered to be paired up—blind-date style—for a quick cup of coffee. We started off making these matches by hand—ensuring that employees were connected with people from different departments. But we’ve since gone high-tech and now have a website where anyone (even folks at other companies who want to give this a shot with their colleagues) can be paired up automatically. The result has been assisted serendipity in action: ideas for future collaborations and projects have taken root and new light shed on nagging problems. (I even got the idea for the video updates from one of my #RandomCoffee matches.) Social media (for the c-suite). It’s hard to find somebody who’s not on Facebook these days—unless that somebody is a CEO. A full 61% of Fortune 500 CEOs still have no social media presence whatsoever. To me, this is a huge missed opportunity from a communications perspective. (In fact, I wrote a best-selling book about it.) If there’s a channel where almost all of your employees (not to mention your customers and competitors) are already spending their time—exchanging ideas and offering opinions—shouldn’t you as a leader be there, too, listening and engaging? I’ve been active on social media from the start and seen how it can compress hierarchies inside companies, enable two-way communications and surface underlying problems. It’s also a way to share a stance and set a tone, in real-time—whether that’s on net neutrality or the company holiday party. Virtual town halls and kickoffs. Company-wide kickoffs and town-hall meetings are nothing new—they’re a time-tested way to get everyone aligned at the start of a new year or quarter. But, to be honest, they’re expensive and a logistical nightmare. Bringing hundreds or thousands of employees together for the day means renting a venue, flying in out-of-towners, arranging catering, etc. It can end up being one of the biggest line-item expenses of the year. That’s why we started to do things differently. We livestream our quarterly town hall meetings, so people can watch and interact around the world. And this year we’ve gone virtual for our kickoff using a tool called 6connex, with a mix of premade digital presentations and livestreamed Q&As with me and the leadership team. Going virtual means being able to meet more often with more people, and good communication starts with frequency of contact. Casual company “socials.” But there’s still no substitute for actual facetime. That’s why once a week or so at 4 p.m. we turn off the laptops and encourage everyone to, you know, actually talk to each other. Over drinks (including non-alcoholic ones) employees from across the company connect in the kitchen. (We traditionally held these on Fridays but are moving to other days to accommodate busy folks with weekend plans.) Work stops—and that’s the point. This is a chance for people to get to know each other as human beings, not as specialists, managers or directors. Often, we’ll throw in a round of Lightning Talks: informal, 5-minute presentations from employees on a random topic, from “how to draw” to “Rubik’s Cube art.” People stay for a few minutes or a few hours. It’s casual and unstructured. But I know for a fact that employees connect who otherwise would never cross paths—opening up new lines of communication and bringing the team closer.
Some of these approaches leverage new technology; others are proudly old-school and analog. But I think the one common denominator with all of these techniques is that they’re not rocket science and they don’t cost much—in terms of time, money or personnel—to implement. From experience, I know how easy it is to overlook good communication as a startup grows. The good news is that it’s never too late to open up channels to connect. And it can start with something as easy as a coffee or a selfie.