Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board

Better Communication Tools Can Radically Improve Workplaces—If Managers Can Convince Workers to Speak Up

June 8, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
Business People Meeting Growth Success Target Economic Concept
Workplace culture and communication often go hand in hand, and managers must encourage workers to use the tools available to improve the company.
Rawpixel Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it comes to communication between front-line workers and their headquarters and managers, there seems to be a misunderstanding.

A recent Workplace by Facebook survey found that, while 90% of managers say their frontline workers feel empowered to share ideas with them, just 45% of those employees echoed that sentiment. And while 83% of managers are confident that they give employees a voice within their business, more than half of their reports (54%) say they feel voiceless.

Finding ways to connect these goals and facilitate better communication has benefits for each segment, as well as the company as a whole.

The cost of disconnection

Frontline workers can often provide a wealth of information about operations, efficiency, customer feedback, and other critical metrics, says Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace by Facebook, a collaboration tool created by the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant. The failure to establish communication channels that deliver such valuable data to leadership means that the company loses ideas, improvements, and feedback that could streamline operations and possibly save money or direct investments.

The costs could also come in the form of turnover—a key concern in today’s tight labor market. Codorniou says frontline workers want to better understand the company as well as its goals, values and priorities, while feeling that their work is meaningful. The Workplace survey found that 21% of them will consider quitting of no one is listening to them.

Codorniou adds that the disconnect shown in the survey may be, in part, because managers are overly optimistic about whether their teams are communicating regularly. He sees more managers understanding that good ideas and talent can come from anywhere.

Opening the communication lines

DaVita, a Denver-based dialysis and renal care company with roughly 57,000 employees across almost 3,000 locations in 10 countries, recognized how critical feedback from its disparate workers was roughly 20 years ago. The company was struggling and, as part of its turnaround efforts, then-CEO Kent Thiry, who retired in April 2019, knew he was going to have to harness the input of all employees—something that would be tough to do with traditional management methods, says DaVita’s chief people officer Eric Severson.

In fact, the solution to better communication across companies is a mix of culture, engagement, and technology. Employees need to feel psychologically safe to share information—and feel empowered and engaged enough to do so, says organizational expert and consultant Karen Jaw-Madson, author of Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences at Work. “If they’re in an environment that discourages being able to share, then there’s a ticking time clock,” she says. Employees will leave a job if their input isn’t valued.

Amelia Dunlop, Deloitte Digital’s Boston-based U.S. head of customer strategy and applied design, agrees. Employees can tell when senior leaders want their input or not. Inauthentic efforts and lip service to valuing employees isn’t going to work. Senior leaders need to make collecting frontline feedback a priority and then act on the information, when warranted. “Employees can tell when their communications are authentic or not,” she says.

Tech that can help

In addition to culture, fostering communication is also an information technology (IT) challenge. Tools like Workplace, Slack, and Asana let companies create targeted or company-wide communication channels, share information and feedback, take polls, and engage in other communication formats. Codorniou says one of his clients saw a 6% boost in retention after deploying Workplace, which was attributed to improved engagement.

For DaVita, the solution started with letting employees know that their feedback was important, then implementing a series of in-person and technology tools. Some of the tools are common: Every six to eight weeks, DaVita holds a “Voice of the Village” conference call for all teammates, where executives use a “town hall” format to share updates, answer questions, and tell patient and teammate stories. Each quarter, employees answer an electronic survey that allows them to provide candid, anonymous feedback about everything from the benefits that are important to them to overall cultural issues. And each year, roughly 4,000 employees attend an annual meeting.

Other solutions are a little more experimental. Idea Hub is an online platform where employees can suggest changes or improvements. Tools like WorkJam let frontline employees and leaders communicate directly. Anyone with the app on their phone gets notifications and information shows up in a feed through the app. Talk to Spot is an artificial intelligence-powered tool that lets employees report violations of company policy inappropriate behavior, or other infractions.

The results of these tools have been remarkable, Severson says. Feedback from Idea Hub has led to changes in location design and improvements that have resulted in more efficient workplaces and energy savings at DaVita. Survey results have led to changes in DaVita’s benefits, such as a 401(k) match and enhanced childcare benefits. The company has seen the number of cases with which employee re-engage rise 60% since integrating Talk to Spot versus its hotline. That increase in follow-up leads to more employees feeling heard and feeling like their concerns were addressed, adds Severson.

Managing all of this technology can be time-consuming for team members, Severson admits. And Jaw-Madson says that implementing the right technology that addresses key concerns and doesn’t exacerbate them is also important. Further, anonymous reporting platforms like Whisper and Blind can create an environment that publicizes what’s wrong in the workplace, while their anonymity makes issues difficult to confirm and address. Those factors can make a bad situation worse, she adds.

But when a company is serious about empowering its workforce and helping employees connect with others in the workplace, the tools they need often become clear and play a supporting role, Dunlop says. “Finding the tools that actually are useful and additive to your practice can be helpful, but the tool is not a solution,” says Dunlop. “It has to be the engagement of the leaders and willingness to use the outcomes of the tools.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How this NYU grad landed an entry-level job at Google

—How an entry-level UX designer at Amazon got her foot in the door

—What it’s like to work an entry-level job at Madewell Corporate

Why companies are hiring more part-time professionals

—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily

Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.