How to communicate with frontline staff

As an internal communicator, there are many different types of audience you have to bear in mind. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach to internal communication – your communication plans should always acknowledge the groups within your staff body and use the golden thread of messaging to link everything together, whilst making the most of tailored approaches. Today I am going to focus on some ideas for communicating with your frontline staff.

So who do I mean by frontline staff? These are the people who have the most direct contact with your beneficiaries, patients, students or customers, if you have them. They have a hands-on role in delivering your mission and making the difference you want to see in the world. (Note: I am not saying that their role is more important than others, I believe that all organisations need a whole range of roles to work together and be successful.) Very often they are working in a non-office environment, such as a hospice ward, a family support centre, a classroom or on the road. Geography and environment can make them feel far removed from, and misunderstood by, ‘HQ’ or ‘the centre’.

First step
The first thing to do is develop an understanding of their priorities and motivations. Why do they do the jobs they do? What is important to them about working directly with beneficiaries or students? What is the reality of their daily working lives? The best way to get this kind of insight is to get out and about, meet your frontline staff and spend time with them, observing what they do day-to-day. If time and budgets make this difficult, then at the very least you should be arranging to speak to them on the phone and listen to what they tell you life is like for them.

Better not to communicate
Secondly, give some thought to how their role fits with the overall vision and mission of your organisation. Everyone has a part to play and how they fit in will vary. However, when you have a clearer view of the connection, it is easier to see how effective communication with them will help them to do their jobs and make their contribution.

Sometimes this will actually mean not communicating with them at a certain point or in a particular way. For example, a few years ago I worked with The Children’s Society on their Make Runaways Safe campaign. We identified actions that all staff could take to support the campaign, such as signing petitions and spreading the word on social media. However, as part of the communications plan we identified that support workers who were engaging directly with young runaways were supporting young people more effectively by finding them safe places to sleep, counselling them and so on. Communication with them therefore had to be much more about sharing that the charity was campaigning on this issue and trying to bring about change for the young people they knew, rather than asking them to stop and do something different.

Different types of communication
Thirdly, identify the different types of communication you need, such as information-provision, engagement, behaviour change. Whilst these categories exist will exist across all your audience groups, the way they are executed will vary. For example, statutory or safety-related information is non-negotiable and has to be received and understood by frontline staff. Using direct channels, such as team meetings and information points (online or offline), and engaging them with the importance of these channels is key. For other, more cultural aspects of communication, you will probably need to build in extra time to engage these staff and support them in exploring what works for them and why it is important.

Listen
Finally, your frontline staff will have a wealth of ideas about how to improve matters for your beneficiaries, based on their experience and daily direct contact with them. So remember to listen to what they have to say. Mutual respect and trust is at the heart of any successful organisation and listening is a key step towards that.

Until next time
Sarah

This post was first published on Sarah’s blog here