In the first two parts of this series, we looked at external communication and meetings. In this final article, we’ll focus on reducing the cost of internal communication. Using personal conversations, telephone calls, e-mails, memos and newsletters efficiently can enhance productivity, reduce cost and improve your bottom line.
Select a sample of employees in support staff, job site and management positions, and have them track their internal communication activities for a few days. Provide a simple tally sheet with columns for time spent on making or receiving phone calls; writing or reading memos; initiating or receiving face-to-face visits; and sending, reading and responding to e-mail. Ask them to mark the time spent on communications they judged to be unclear or unnecessary to their job performance.
Calculate the total cost of the time spent on all these communications and the percentage spent on those deemed unclear or unnecessary. For example, a support staff person who costs your company $20 per hour (including benefits) spends three hours per day and judges one-third of that time to be unnecessary or unproductive, costing you $100 per week—$5,200 per year.
For managers, the problem usually is more severe. You could easily be paying $300 per week—$15,600 per year—for unproductive activity. Factoring in opportunity cost (the work not performed with that time) and reduced productivity can double or triple the original cost. Make employees aware of the impact a few wasted minutes per day has on your costs for an entire year. Ask them which kinds of communication are least necessary and how they would streamline the rest. Then, use the following to improve efficiency.
Use memos for changes in policies, notices of meetings or events, or information that must be accessible in case your electronic system fails. Memos should convey information in two or three paragraphs and use journalistic style. In other words, the first sentence of the memo delivers the main message, and the first sentence of each paragraph summarizes the information in that section. Using different colored paper for particular memos (e.g., green for events, blue for policy information) enables the reader to visually track and file the paperwork.
Employees who build relationships by talking in person may seem more productive, but the unexpected appearance of a colleague causes work flow interruption and frustration. Employees should avoid unnecessary drop-ins, unless there is a crisis, and your employees should be allowed to block unwanted visitors by using a “no interruptions” signal or sign at their work station.
The telephone should be used for quick confirmations or times when information is needed immediately. Calls should be brief and infrequent. If voice mail is the normal communication channel, it is clear that employees do not want the interruption of a ringing phone. A simple and sensible way to reduce waste is to have employees return all calls at specific times each day, so they can be batched, minimizing work flow interruptions.
E-mail has become the default channel for most companies because it allows the receiver to control the timing of reading and replying to messages. E-mail “usability” is a concept that refers to how efficiently the receiver can deal with his or her inbox. For example, the message line should clearly indicate what is inside. Instead of “meeting location change,” use “location of Monday 9 a.m. meeting changed to conference room.” Add a symbol to indicate that the reader doesn’t need to open the message.
For longer messages, avoid fancy backgrounds, graphics or fonts that make messages hard to read and slow to load. The first sentence should summarize the message or your request for action, and the remainder should be conveyed in short sentences or bullet points. Use automatic settings to confirm receipt or indicate out-of-office status, and don’t send blanket messages to everyone in your address book or reply to everyone who received the original message. Forward messages by cutting and pasting the appropriate section, instead of tacking your message onto a previously forwarded e-mail.
Train employees in key stroking if they are still at the hunt-and-peck typing level. Also, provide training to improve their writing, and make sure they are careful about reviewing messages before sending them. E-mail never dies once it is sent.
If you really need a newsletter, publish one only when necessary. Make sure the information is timely, clearly written and interesting. Use graphics and photos to break up sections of type; write journalistically (see the memo section above); and use columns, headings and white space to make the material easy to scan.
As technology, job complexity and protective record keeping have generated an increasing pile of information to be communicated, every employee must become an effective screener, scanner and summarizer. The old adage about handling paperwork extends to all communication types—Handle it once. Decide to act, file or discard, and you can stay on top of the pile.
NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.