Communication is at the core of every human function. Without it, workers can’t know what’s expected of them, how to achieve their goals, or where to find support. A crucial part of effective communication is reciprocity — when communication becomes a two-way street, it allows each individual to participate freely and meaningfully.
“Nobody likes working at a company that doesn’t take their viewpoint into account, that doesn’t recognise the value of their voice,” said Julia Markish, director of advisory services at Lattice. “The act of asking, listening, and acting on employee voices will naturally help have an engaged workforce.”
Building a two-way communication strategy can leverage the otherwise untapped insights of employees, and help them feel more connected to each other, to leaders and to the company as a whole.
What is Two-Way Communication?
Two-way communication is an intentional style of interaction between two or more parties, where all participants are encouraged to share information and ideas, and especially to listen to what each other has contributed.
“There is always the risk of your message not landing with your audience,” Markish said. “Unless you engage in active listening back, you’ll never actually know whether the message that landed was the message that you intended.”
Why it matters: Expecting and receiving timely communication builds trust, accountability, and respect among employees and managers. Two-way communication helps employees know they can count on meaningful responses, their ideas are being taken seriously, and they’re genuinely part of the team — instead of a cog in the corporate machine.
Benefits of Two-Way Communication
Two-way communication is critical to the success of each and every business strategy, and largely benefits employees at all levels.
- Improved performance. The better a company communicates, the easier it is to reach objectives and key results. While poor communication causes teams to guess the next step, great communication ensures everyone is on the same page, even as conditions and priorities shift. This helps everyone perform better at a quicker pace, increasing the productivity and performance of an organisation as a whole.
- Stronger teams. Developing authentic, meaningful relationships with colleagues can help them feel more connected and accountable to each other and to their shared goals. When employees feel comfortable and encouraged to have ongoing communication with their leaders and each other, it’s easier for them to ask for help and solve problems together.
- Better ideas. When employees are encouraged to collaborate instead of working in silos, their shared brainstorms can increase the quality of innovative ideas, and reduce the chance of redundancy. Individual efforts are often not enough to keep up with today’s complex business landscape. Bouncing ideas off colleagues is one of the best ways to innovate and share perspectives.
Ultimately, two-way communication creates an environment where employees feel confident to bring ideas to the table, ask questions, and identify areas for improvement without fear of retribution.
Organisational cultures built on reciprocity and engagement are more likely to retain employees, because they’ll build a sense of purpose and belonging when connecting with colleagues. Some companies take things even further by making self-peer-manager feedback as part of their approach to performance. Even if your company isn’t ready for that, two-way communication at the cultural level is still a must.
10 Simple Strategies for Encouraging Two-Way Communication
1. Invest in tools that make communication easy.
Employees should have equal and direct access to communicating with each other synchronously and asynchronously. While some employees might have an easy time sharing their ideas and opinions in a public forum, other introverted workers might not have the same confidence.
“Engagement surveys are going to be your best bet,” Markish said. But to work effectively, surveys should function as part of your larger communication approach, not a standalone tactic, she added.“If your only vehicle for soliciting concerns from employees is five minutes at the end of an All-Hands where you read through a sanitised list of questions, then that’s not two-way communication. That’s performative. Look around at your systems and processes to identify whether they all have a component of that two way communication.”
Inter-office communication — like instant messaging or employee feedback tools that let workers and managers share feedback easily — make it easier to share information in hybrid workplaces where employees have to communicate remotely or across time zones. The simpler it is for employees to share their opinions, the more often they’ll let their thoughts be known.
2. Have company executives lead by example.
When individual contributors see that leaders have bought into and spent time engaging with feedback from employees, they may feel more inclined to participate than if the guidance came solely from Human Resources management. Markish emphasised that HR teams need support and alignment from executives to make two-way communication an ingrained part of company culture.
“HR teams need to take the role of loudspeaker, not content creator,” Markish said. “Communication expectations are operational. They need to be coming directly from leaders or chiefs of staff.”
One way to bring leaders into the fold is through focus groups or training sessions. Training leaders to model and endorse the values of two-way communication will help employees across the organisation see it, value it, and understand how to implement it themselves.
3. Use meetings effectively, not redundantly.
Recurring meetings, forgotten agendas, and missing stakeholders create a recipe for hybrid disaster. When employees have to attend meetings just for the sake of it, they become disengaged and resentful of collaboration.
Sustainable manufacturing company Trane Technologies found a way to reduce meaningless meetings with a strategy of cutting right to the chase. They implemented check-ins called “What Matters Most?” between managers and employees, which involved “having one on one conversations, really getting to know your team, and understanding what they value,” said Teodora Vassileva, a regional learning and development leader at the company.
Vassileva’s team created an automated survey where employees identify three things that matter most, and send responses to their manager. Managers are then required to meet with the employee within 30 days to discuss employees’ responses.
“When managers see the [employee’s response], they might assume ‘she really wants work life balance — she must not be getting it’,” Vassileva explained. “But really she means that it’s great. Like, ‘I get to work from home and you allow me to do that. That’s very, very important to me right now’.”
Following a survey with a meeting for listening is just one example of effectively closing the loop. Managers can also support effective communication by using one-to-ones to review feedback instead of running through tasks, or encouraging employees to meet with colleagues on other teams.
4. Recognise and reward employee contributions.
Feeling overworked and underappreciated was the leading pain point when we surveyed UK employees in 2021 — 44% of them said it was the top reason they considered switching jobs. But in that same survey, only 19% of HR leaders thought it was a reason employees were quitting. This disconnect between both groups could be more deeply understood with effective communication.
“Uplifting our people, culture, and communities” is one of the values that drives Vassileva’s team. “Absolutely everything we do is tied to that,” she added, and encouraged People teams and managers to think about what that looks like at a macro and micro level.
HR teams, executives, and managers can all pitch in for employee recognition. Make positive feedback celebratory by publicly sharing wins during meetings, on instant messaging, or through department-wide emails. Offering praise regularly helps employees know they’re doing a good job individually, and that they’re on the right track to make an impact for the team.
5. Make your office space more accessible.
In hybrid environments, it’s crucial to ensure remote employees have the same access to meetings and collaboration as everyone else. That means making video or phone conferencing available to every meeting attendee, regardless of their location, so they can participate in group conversations synchronously.
For meetings delivered over video or audio, enabling captions, transcripts and recordings can help employees see, hear and process the communication in the way that is most accessible to their needs, and be able to reference information later if they’re unable to take notes.
For companies returning to in-person workplaces, leaders should think about the design of the physical spaces so employees can interact and connect with each other easily, while still having space and time to focus on their work.
Keeping office doors open or having virtual office hours held regularly makes leaders more accessible to individuals who want direct access to share their thoughts and ideas.
6. Launch a mentorship program.
Support employee development with the resources you already have by pairing new and seasoned employees together to foster mentorships within the workplace. When employees are encouraged to connect with colleagues outside of their functional teams, they share institutional knowledge they might never have accessed otherwise.
HR teams can provide guidance for mentors and mentees to contribute to the relationship, such as setting a cadence for meetings and structuring feedback to promote exchange of ideas.
Employees can use what they learn from each other to work on their professional growth and solve departmental challenges, both of which benefit development, performance and learning across the organisation. Managers can even have employees include insights from their mentors in developmental reviews or conversations about career tracks.
7. Establish communication norms in your onboarding process.
Employees spend the first few weeks of a new role trying to absorb a fountain of company information, yet it can feel more like trying to drink water from a firehose. Clearly explaining communication norms from the onset of their employee experience can help workers understand what to expect from their new company culture.
“The way we communicate has to be born of your operating rhythm, style, and team,” Markish said. “It probably will fall flat otherwise.”
If your company has specific communication norms — such as a day of the reserved for no meetings, or a time frame for expecting responses to instant messages — make it clear that everyone is expected to observe them. Don’t forget to document your norms in a central, accessible place that employees can regularly reference, such as a company-wide intranet or your HRIS.
8. Schedule team-building events regularly.
When employees feel connected to the rest of their team, they’ll be more comfortable sharing their ideas candidly. Having dedicated time for building relationships at work can help employees become more connected to, accountable to, and supportive of each other.
Scheduling events once a quarter (or even more frequently) will give employees a chance to mingle with colleagues in a more casual setting.
Team-building doesn’t have to be team-specific, though. Especially in remote environments, not everyone regularly interacts with individuals who work in different departments. Regularly making time for lunch, coffee chats, or other short meetings can improve cross-functional collaboration, connectivity, and feedback.
9. Look for dips in employee feedback.
When tracking employee satisfaction and experience through engagement surveys, Vassileva said signs of disengagement can be found in the volume of responses — not just the contents of responses themselves.
“When we don’t get a lot of feedback or reception, that’s a very big indicator that engagement isn’t happening,” she said.
If participation or adoption rates fall unexpectedly, that’s a form of communication in itself. Taking time to speak with employees — such as the “What Matters Most?” conversations or focus groups — can help managers keep a pulse on why employees attitudes are changing. Perhaps they don’t have time to participate in engagement surveys, which is an indicator of being overworked. Or they don’t believe the survey results will lead to productive changes, which means they’re sceptical of HR and leadership. Either way, it’s worth finding out what’s underneath the lack of responses.
10. Align feedback methods with employee needs.
Make sure the efforts put in to employee feedback and recognition are aligned with the way employees want to be praised — otherwise, recognition programs become a misguided effort.
In a 2022 survey of 3000 workers by Blackhawk Network, 75% of respondents whose employers deliver recognition and rewards programmes said they don’t actually recognise people the way they’d prefer. Over half of respondents wanted to be publicly recognised alongside colleagues, while 48% wanted to be privately recognised by their manager. Ultimately, 83% of respondents said receiving recognition would increase their productivity and loyalty to their company.
It’s easy to look at other companies making headlines for innovative people strategies, but external benchmarking can be distracting and irrelevant to what your company can reasonably and effectively achieve. Conducting a survey about current communication norms and needs is the perfect place to start.
“You can gather inspiration externally, but the people that you are accountable to are your employees, not anybody outside of the organisation,” Markish said. “If you’re able to hold up a mirror and really get specific, that can help your company get aligned on a lot of processes.”
Lattice helps businesses reshape their people management strategies to make work more meaningful. To learn more about making the most out of employee engagement, download our eBook, How to Use Real-Time Engagement to Build a Winning Culture.