Let me tell you a story – a story about why communication is crucial when it comes to human resources.
A long time ago in an office park far, far away, I was young, fresh-faced new hire for a moderately-sized firm. I was busy navigating the vicissitudes of my new career — an exciting and frightening time, to be sure — and it wasn’t long before I was given my first real task.
Sadly, it was to inform someone that they’d been made redundant.
Obviously, this wasn’t something that I was prepared to do just yet; I had barely two weeks’ worth of experience and could hardly be considered an “HR professional” at this point. This should have raised a red flag to me about the company culture of the firm, as looking back at this moment it’s clear that asking someone as young and inexperienced as I was to handle such a delicate task is a sure sign of questionable management. But I was nothing if not eager to please, so I swallowed my anxiety and told my supervisor that I’d take on this responsibility.
“Good,” he told me. “In that case, make sure Dave gets fired by the end of the day.” That was, unfortunately, the sum total of detail that was provided to me in order to get the job done.
I had a hard time with the task. I liked Dave. Dave was fun. Dave worked hard, and he always laughed at my jokes. But Dave had to go, so I had no choice but to do it. Dutifully, I went about the business of informing poor Dave that we didn’t need his services any longer. I asked him to join me in private, discussed the matter with him, and processed his departure.
I was quite proud, as I felt that I had handled the situation with as much empathy and professionalism as I could muster. While Dave was obviously less than pleased, he took it well enough.
Later that day, my supervisor came round to ask me how I had done. When he asked me to evaluate my own performance in sacking Dave, I told him that while it was certainly challenging, I believed the matter had been resolved satisfactorily.
At that point, he asked me why Dave was still at his desk and performing his regular duties. In all honesty, I gaped like a codfish at my supervisor’s question, not entirely sure what he meant. After a moment, it became quite clear the error I had made: there was more than one Dave working for the firm. I had binned the wrong bloke. Dave didn’t laugh at my jokes all that much after that.
Mistakes Were Made
The story’s true, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent and maligned. It’s a true record of one of the most magnificent cock-ups of my career, but the mistakes that were made that day weren’t all mine.
Yes, the lion’s share of the blame does lie on my shoulders. I was so eager to prove that I could be professional enough to handle firing someone that I didn’t stop to ensure I had all the necessary information. I didn’t take the requisite time out to confirm all the aspects of my task — something I should have done, considering the grave consequences of informing someone their services were no longer needed.
By the same token, however, much of the blame also needs to lie on the shoulders of my supervisor at the time. Choosing to assign a delicate task to a bare rookie like he did demonstrate a fault in his reasoning; likewise does not providing sufficient information to me to ensure that I would not make a right Helen Hunt of it. Why my supervisor decided to have me handle such an important task when he could have chosen someone much more experienced — or even done the deed himself — has always mystified me.
On a related note, the firm I was working for didn’t last much longer. Internal issues, many of which were unrelated to the human resources department, resulted in the entire company being shuttered before long. However, that first mortifying experience made it clear to me that I might not have been a good fit for that particular firm; I’m happy to report that, a few months after the incident, I had accepted a role at a different company that had a much more proactive human resources department.
Increasing Communication in the Modern Workplace
This little story took place a long time ago, back in the days that “interoffice communication” meant pieces of A4 stuck to the front of a CRT monitor with a bit of Sellotape because someone had stolen the adhesive notepad for the umpteenth time. Thankfully, today’s methods for communicating tasks and relaying messages in an HR department are handled much more efficiently, making it much more difficult for the kind of mistakes that were made in my youth.
Mobile connectivity is driving much of the innovation in this sector, as there are myriad of ways to ensure a message gets conveyed, whether through a physical phone call, an interoffice email, an SMS, or through a mobile messaging app. In the specific world of human relations, communication goals are much more widespread – in addition to ensuring that all the HR professionals of a specific company are fully informed as to what tasks they need to complete on a daily basis, clear, informative, and easily-understood communication between HR and the rest of the company must also take place.
How HR Communications Have Evolved
HR communication strategies have come a long way since I ruined poor Dave’s day. Today, there are many more facets to what were once seen as simple, straightforward tasks. One of the most telling changes that I’ve seen the industry undergo is how communication has evolved over generational cycles.
As an (unwillingly) aging member of Generation X, I began my career by working in offices where members of the Baby Boomer generation were in supervisory positions. Team leaders, managers, business owners and so on were all likely a generation behind, and the longevity of the Boomer generation has seen their supremacy continue even as more Gen X’ers joined the workforce.
However, today the number of Boomers in employment has begun to diminish as these diehard workers age out and ease into their pensions. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that around 10,000 Boomers reach retirement age every day. Even so, a good number of late Boomers and early Gen X’ers are still holding the reins of power in the workforce, and this has led to generational differences with Millenials that have aged into the workforce in droves.
Communication in the New Millenium
I’ve nothing bad to say about Millenials – they’re going to be the driving force of the future global economy. In fact, the number of Millenials in the workforce has already surpassed Gen X’ers as the largest labour force in many countries. However, their cultural and philosophical views are radically different than those of Boomers. Likewise, the methods they use in order to process and retain new knowledge and then interact with others based on that knowledge – the basis of communication – are vastly different than the methods used by Boomers.
There are numerous examples of this phenomenon. Whereas a Boomer would be used to finding a note or a memo on their desk providing them important information, communicating through hard copy to a Millenial may not be as effective. Likewise, while Millennial coworkers will feel at home with using a mobile app to collaborate on and facilitate team projects, all but the most tech-savvy Boomers are likely to experience frustration using these same digital systems. Meanwhile, poor Gen X’ers like myself are stuck in the middle, as the Rolodex is within living memory for us but we much prefer our digital address books.
The problem we face today, therefore, is implementing communication systems that can be flexible enough to be effective in multigenerational work environments. Until the last of our venerable Baby Boomer workers retire for greener pastures, that means communication tools and strategies will need to be versatile enough to deliver the same information in a multitude of ways.
The Growing Flexible Working Trend
As the overall culture and philosophies of generations in the workforce changes, so do methods of working. Whereas in the past it was de rigueur for workers to report to work promptly every morning at the same time and leave after the day’s tasks were done, many modern office environments have evolved past this highly regimented (yet organised) method of doing work. Instead, flexible working environments, which involve providing staff the opportunity to work around schedules that are more amenable to them, provide higher levels of work/life balance and may even increase productivity in the long run.
Flexible working as a growing trend is irrefutable. In fact, research has found that more than half of UK organisations were expected to implement flexible working by last year. While an office that permits or embraces flexible working may reap the benefits of workers that are less stressed and more motivated, such an office does raise additional challenges in keeping lines of communications open. It’s much harder to track down workers that need to sign specific HR paperwork, for example, if there’s no set schedule for when they’ll be in the office; such situations call for much higher and more robust communication strategies to ensure flexible workers are still kept informed with important company messaging.
Strategies for keeping the lines of communication open are widely varied. Some offices that encourage flexible working arrangements often have a requirement of workers spending certain “anchor” days in office while others still rely heavily on digital communication tools such as mobile messaging apps, work email, or even the humble telephone call. Other options, such as proprietary web browser plug-ins that deliver key information directly to a worker’s business laptop, are also often utilized in flexible working situations.
The Human Element
There’s no arguing that as time progresses, the number of different tools that HR professionals have at their disposal continues to grow. The advent of the internet and wireless mobile hotspots has seen to that in all but the most remote of locations worldwide. However, even in the face of this burgeoning connectivity, the most important tool for interoffice communication isn’t one that exists on your laptop or your mobile; it’s the person looking back at you in the mirror.
The information that HR professionals disseminate isn’t destined to exist in a vacuum. It needs to be not just received by its intended readers but also understood by them. Comprehension and understanding are our ultimate goals; everything else that we do and all the different strategies and tactics we employ are all just extensions of our responsibility to ensure that a company’s workers understand key knowledge of their position within that company, whether it be their rights, their benefits, or their responsibilities.
To that end, the human element of office communication simply can’t be ignored. For all the highly advanced mobile apps and messaging strategies that we HR boffins think up, the core of a human resources professional’s job still boils down to one-on-one conversations in the workplace, either face-to-face or at opposite ends of a mobile handset. This particular career is never going to undergo such a fundamental change that interpersonal communication will no longer be the primary driver, and it’s our primary responsibility to ensure that our messages are delivered clearly and correctly and that the recipients understand those messages.
Author: Benjamin Shepardson is the founder of NoStop Content, a Key West-based content agency specializing in delivering personalized experiences. With a remote staff of eight, Ben is well-versed in the complexities of managing a diverse team. With an extensive digital career dating back to before social media and WordPress, Ben personally works with clients to craft a content strategy that will scale and grow their business.