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Digital communication has been around for a few decades, but our understanding of how to use it has been lagging behind the actual technology.
There are a lot of opportunities for digital communication to really empower a company, but most companies have not thought deeply enough about how to do it properly.
Jonathan Davies is the Global Communication Manager at Happeo and is just as much of a communications geek as we are.
Why managers are ready to quit
A recent Happeo report says that 43% of managers are planning to leave compared with 14% of employees. Jonathan said one of the biggest reason for the discrepancy is that managers are sandwiched between layers of the organization and bear the brunt of difficult communication.
They interact daily with team members who are struggling with remote work, mental health, or a host of other issues and they try to communicate these things up. At the same time, leadership of the organization is constantly changing their strategy and forcing the managers to make sure that gets communicated.
Most managers were never trained on effective digital communication, so this gives them a huge burden.
Core issues in digital communications
Jonathan touched on all the main digital communication challenges facing teams and companies.
The fidelity of the conversation is very important. Video channels give people a lot more signals to pick up extra meaning from. Adding more signals is always good (even if it’s an emoji), but they also require more effort to arrange and interpret.
Custom response times to different forms of communication need to be established on teams so that everyone knows what to expect.
Important information needs to be moved out of chat channels and into more durable formats where they can be accessed later.
Notifications need to be completely customized for individual and people should be trained on how to deal with the barrage of messages they might get.
Happeo (check out their research!)
Jonathan on LinkedIn
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today, our guest is Jonathan Davies. He’s the global communications manager at Happeo. Hey, Jonathan. How’s it going today?
Hi, Neil. I’m doing great. Thank you. And thanks for having me.
Yeah, we’re very excited to have you on. Your company is very, very interesting. We’re going to get into it, and especially the research you guys put out. The product you have is key to understanding what best practices are in a digital workplace. So that’s going to be great. But let’s start off with our check in round question. So this is how you prove your humanity to us. Your question is, which superhuman power is overrated?
Well, okay, so if we’re going to talk about humanity and superpowers, I’m going to say invisibility because I don’t think it’s ever good to not be seen.
Yeah, I just like the idea of being sneaky.
You’re always on video guy every time you get on a chat?
No, it’s not necessarily all about video. It’s just about everybody in a company, at least if we’re talking in the context of companies, has presence, adds value, you’re there for a reason. So make sure that that is seen, heard, talked about anything. Communications isn’t just visual. It can also be only written or anything along those lines. So definitely be seen, even if that’s digital these days.
Yeah. Interesting. I would never have guessed someone would say invisibility. It’s always like one of those like, maybe I want that one. Maybe not. But I’m trying to think what would be an overrated superpower. I don’t even have a good answer for that one. I think about these questions. I don’t actually answer them myself. But yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t rank invisibility as the top one. But flying…
Flying seems great. And also, I mean, I guess the one thing, I used to love comic books when I grew up, and X-men was my favorite. And there’s this guy, Cyclops, who shoots laser beams from his eyes. But as a result of that, he always has to wear sunglasses. That’s a pretty overrated power to me.
That’s true. That would be a little awkward. Cool. All right. Let’s jump into this. Jonathan, tell us about Happeo. What kind of company is it? What do you do there?
Cool. So Happeo is the employee driven communications platform. Basically, we create, you can call it an intranet or social intranet or collaboration platform or an entire digital workplace, pick what suits you best. But really, what we’re there to do is to make sure that companies communicate and collaborate much more efficiently than ever before. The ways that we do that, well, we bring together those traditional intranet capabilities, but make them much more user friendly. So we really put the power of content creation in the hands of the people who are most important, which is the users of the platform. And then we bring that together with channels. So that’s our social aspect. So people can really collaborate asynchronously. And then we integrate seamlessly with Google Workspace so that, for example, we’re not just talking about press release within the marketing team, but we can actually work on the press release while we’re talking about it in channels.
So just zoom out for a second here. What do you feel like has changed the most about or how has digital changed collaboration the most in your viewpoint? Compared to the age that we’re living in now, the type of tools that Happeo and other things can provide versus what communication collaboration was like, let’s say in 1970s, or 80s? What are the most foundational shifts you’ve seen?
I’d say two things. And one doesn’t necessarily come from digitalization, but more from globalization. So companies are increasingly expanding their presence worldwide, new markets open up become more favorable for companies to invest in. And that also usually means that new offices open up in countries where you weren’t before. That means that you need to communicate from office to office. And obviously, digital is the best way to do that. We’re not just talking about phone lines anymore. So I’d say that’s one. The second one, most importantly, right now is a massive, massive push towards a user first design approach within everything that’s made. So for example, back when I started doing internal comms, I had to work with a really clunky SharePoint platform. And I absolutely hated it. If I needed to make new pages, I needed to talk to IT. They needed to code it. We had several instances of it running. It was just a nightmare. Those things need to be left in the past where they belong.
Yeah, I was just thinking about this recently, when I was using this thing about the proliferation of text messaging as compared to what people used beforehand that there wasn’t really a good way to send an asynchronous text based message to somebody that they could read on their own time. Just that idea seems like, wow, that’s a great advance. And in general, we have so many more options today than we used to have. If you were stuck with the decision, you didn’t know what to do next, most of the time, you just called a meeting, try to get everyone together in the same room. But now we have so many options. Like you said, we can do channels, we can do direct messages, we can do a phone call, we can do a video call. There’s endless numbers, which contributes to our problem as well trying to figure out which one to use in different places. But that’s a big change.
I think so, but to your point, for example, about trying to figure out a problem and calling everybody into a meeting to do that, what you’re effectively doing, when you have an issue that you can’t solve and you need other people’s help, and you’re saying, okay, we’re now going to meet about this, what you’re effectively doing is you’re saying my time is more important than yours. And that’s not healthy. Asynchronous communication is a much healthier way to communicate. It’s a little less intuitive to us. We need to use devices and machines to communicate. I can’t just walk up to Neil and say, hey, how are you doing, use my body language, use my tone of voice. Within all of those different communication means that we have, we have different challenges. So for example, sending you an email, to name an example, outside of the fact that I’m siloing that information into your inbox, I’m also using a text only approach. So I cannot use my tone of voice. So you can’t hear if I’m being serious or if I’m maybe joking around a little bit. There are even those very small intuitive issues that us humans all feel because communication is something that’s a basic part of our evolution and skillset, those are handled very differently across different platforms.
Yeah, we talked about the fidelity of the conversation. If it’s a lofi conversation, just purely text based, hifi is in person, you’re getting all those signals that are there. And with digital tools, we have now the full spectrum all the way up and down. You can choose exactly how much, and like emoji itself, that has a certain level of fidelity to it. It adds some context to the conversation that we didn’t have before. So it’s a fascinating world.
Absolutely. Actually, I remember, I think it was 2014 or 2016. Colgate won, Colgate as in the toothpaste brand, they won an award at the Cannes Golden Lions Festival for best copy. And it was literally just everything is better with a smile. And then version two was everything is better with a smile and a smiling emoji. And the difference was astounding. And that’s just the power of one emoji. So yeah, I totally see what you mean.
You guys put out a lot of cool stuff. There’s actually one, you do a lot of different research. So tell us a little bit about some of the research you’ve done and your favorite stat from that?
Sure. So the research that we recently started doing was really around the theme of connection within companies. And connection doesn’t just mean, do I have a Cat 6 cable connected to my computer so that I have stable internet. No, connection means how much do I feel connected to the direction my company’s going in? How much do I feel connected to my colleagues? Do I understand my place within the company? Do I feel like I own a part of a company, etc, etc. And when we started to ask these questions, it very quickly became apparent that you can look at connection from a holistic, general point of view, or what to us felt more useful, is to divide that into what an organization really is made of.
So it’s a little bit black and white. But basically, we said, an organization is made roughly of three layers. So you’ve got top level leadership. So that would be your C-suite executives, and maybe your directors, depending on your company structure. Then you’ve got your mid-management level, which is mid-management. And then you’ve got basically the bottom line, the boots on the ground, the employees who are getting done what you need to do in order to advance as a company. And across those three layers, we found a lot of really interesting connection gaps that stem from communication issues. And well, really, that was what we started looking at, then we started looking at, okay, great, how are we going to solve this? So we brought in a couple of experts to bring in their opinion on it. And that’s something that will be upcoming. Probably by the time that this podcast comes out, we’ll have a recording of that webinar live on our site.
Nice. So what’s your favorite stat from that? What still sticks with you from doing that research?
Oh, well, the first thing that I saw, going through rough research results and figuring out what am I going to highlight? What will we narrate? And to me, the most shocking stat is 43% of managers are considering to leave the company within six months to see if the grass is greener on the other side, when only 14% of employees feel the same. And that just shows you that managers are under massive, massive pressure now with these crazy remote times, lockdowns going on, all of those things.
Yeah, let’s talk about why managers feel that more than other people. I think we can see they’re sandwiched between the different levels, like you talked about, at an organization, they’re being required to do so much more in terms of take care of people. It’s not just about project management anymore, or making sure people get their work done, you got to be looking after them, making sure they’re equipped well, that their mental health is going well. And then you have all these communication channels that are now new and open, and they’re not used to. How much do you feel like all this, though, are they just feeling overwhelmed, and that’s why they’re looking for something different?
I think it’s a matter of feeling overwhelmed from just everything that’s happening with them, and not having enough support from companies to do something about it. So for example, a lot of managers don’t become a manager because they’re born into being a manager. They were good at a job, and they got promoted as a result of it. And that doesn’t mean that you’re instantly an amazing communicator, and you’re great with people and anything and all along those lines. You’re also suddenly stuck in a different layer of hierarchy within a company. So you have a direct line of communication to top level leadership, the feedback that’s going on is a lot more direct, and you have more responsibility to the people that are under you, or in your team, let’s say. So when you have that, you’re really, exactly as you said, Neil, you’re basically the meat in the middle of the sandwich. You’re feeling the crunch from both sides. On one side, employees are coming to you and are saying, hey, I find it really tough to work remotely and my productivity is less. What can we do about this? I want your help, which is definitely a very current issue for management. And on the other hand, top of leadership will be coming to you and saying, well, listen, our strategy has changed for the 30th time in six months again, and we need you to communicate this accurately.
Yeah, that’s a difficult place to be. There’s one point you made earlier about, when you’re talking about your connection into Google Workspace, about having conversations be closer to the work and actually talking about it. I think that’s an important point that I want to spend a little time on. Because too often your communication system is separate from the rest of the work. And I guess, in a lot of ways, Google and when they came up with G Suite at first was the first time when there’s a little bit of this integration in terms of, okay, there’s documents that we’re working on. And we can talk about those inside of email. But what’s a much more refined and elegant way to build communication and the actual work together?
Well, when you think about work, what is work? It’s getting something done. And it’s talking about getting something done, pulling in the right people to get something done. So there’s an organization aspect, there’s the actual put your head down and work aspect, and then there’s the we need to communicate about this aspect. And I think that when it came to putting your head down and doing the work aspect, Google Workspace has always been incredibly strong, the artist formerly known as G Suite. But when it came to communication, it was a bit lacking. So for example, companies that switched from Microsoft, or didn’t have any solution yet and went into Google Workspace, when you needed something like a proper internal communication capability, there really wasn’t that much. And everything is a little bit disjointed from each other. And they’ve certainly made strides in improving that. But that overarching layer of where does it all come together, that’s not really present.
And that’s actually how Happeo in a way was born. But then we started looking at where do the actual issues lie. And what we started to see is that companies would approach us because they really wanted that intranet, that knowledge archive, knowledge base capability. But they stayed with us and they became super happy and enthusiastic about us because of our social capabilities. Because they realized that it’s a stronger way to organize your asynchronous communication when you have the capabilities of, how we divide it is static, dynamic, and rapid communication, where starting is slow and doesn’t require updating very often. Dynamic is that medium speed communication, has a little bit more thought behind it, but is intrinsically more transparent than let’s say something like email. And then rapid communication is that very quick one-on-one or one to a small team communication, just get something done. For example, Slack fits beautifully within that space.
And I think that companies started to increasingly see that when you bring that kind of static communication and your dynamic communication together into one product, and that’s basically what Happeo does, then whatever rapid communication tool you prefer, you can also bring into that. So for example, Slack has this great option of copying a link to a conversation. Now imagine that you then paste that into your dynamic communication channels so that it’s much more asynchronously available to people in a different timezone or with different working hours than you.
Yeah, and this is one of my favorite topics to talk about. Because if you just unleashed digital tools on people just say, hey, here’s your Slack. Here’s your channels to talk about. Here’s Dropbox to store all sorts of other stuff. Then what happens? Pretty much everyone just sticks with the rapid communication model. And every conversation happens in Slack. And Slack becomes, whether it’s Slack or Teams or whatever else you’re using, that that rapid focus, because it becomes the default, because it’s the easiest, it’s the fastest way to get in touch with somebody, we start keeping everything in there. And this is what happened to email too, right? We started just keeping folders and email became like a database. And it became a to-do list because everything was in there. Everything would just got stuck in there. And if you ever said, hey, we’re going to move from Slack to something else, people will freak out, because like, hey, all my stuff’s in there. How am I supposed to find things?
But to your point, that’s a terrible way to organize your digital communication, to have everything in that rapid line, that those things should be able to be expunged every day and have a new thing and keep things in other places. But that takes a long time to develop, right? What are some of the ways that you’re trying to get companies to think in those terms?
Oh, sorry. Yeah. So one of the ways that we really try to help our clients with is understanding how asynchronous communication works, and which mediums are best suited for which type of messages. One of the things I always advocate is to create a communication policy around that. So not one of those policies that’s like, you need to do this, you need to do that. It shouldn’t be restricting. It should be empowering. We need to realize that we have people from all generations working in a company, when you provide clarity, that level of uncertainty that some people will have in adopting a new communication tool, that really gets taken away. So for example, one of the rules that I live by is email, we don’t use it at all for internal purposes. But you should have a reply limit of, let’s say, two or three days on it. When it comes to our Happeo channels, check it every day, reply and make sure that the most important notifications aren’t missed. When it comes to things like Slack or Google Chat, in our case, make sure that you’re there, let’s say on it, and you check it every four-ish hours. If you can’t be available for that, then make it known that you’re not available to those pieces of communication.
So when you outline a simple policy like that very clearly, then it becomes really easy to understand what type of communication goes where. And it’s a lot less intimidating for people to adopt new communication technologies. So that’s one. And then the second part is trying to integrate it all and bringing it into one cohesive umbrella. So to my point earlier of Happeo really provides that static and dynamic capability but we also integrate with Slack. So we really want to bring the conversation to a place where people want to talk about it. If something just happened, and everybody really wants to talk about it right now, it’s a great idea to also push that message into a relevant Slack channel, just so that people can instantly start talking about it. But if you really want that conversation to live on and have some longevity, that’s when you would switch to primarily using Happeo’s channels, for example.
Yeah, and when you talk about developing a communication plan, I feel like a lot of people will hear that and they’ll be like, man, that seems so overly rigorous. There’s just too much work. It seems restrictive. I’ll never get everyone to do the same thing. It’s going to be difficult to make sure everyone follows these rules. But I don’t know. I just haven’t seen another option out there in terms of we just have to get better at these things just becoming second hand, that we know what they’re going to be ahead of time and that they become natural for us. Otherwise, just communication becomes a mess.
Yeah, but then also, if people really do just see it as a set of rules, then you didn’t do a great job. It should not be perceived like that. It should be a tool that helps people. It should not be something that they need to abide by. It should be something that makes their life easier. Because even though it may sound restrictive, when I say put this type of communication in that type of tool, it’s actually really liberating because, first off, I don’t have to wonder if this is appropriate. And second, I can pick and choose the tool that I feel belongs best to this topic, which means I have a little bit more control. And I don’t need to approach, let’s say, my internal communications person to ask what’s going on. And that’s, let’s be honest, when you post something in, I don’t know, let’s say your Happeo channel, congratulations, you’re an internal content creator, you’re an internal communicator. That means you have a certain amount of responsibility over it. But you are essentially that person, whether or not you have that discipline within your company, that doesn’t matter. The person who’s there, the actual internal communications person in charge of it, there to facilitate yourself, but the people, they are the communicators themselves.
Make sense. Let’s spend some time talking about notifications. Notifications are great and horrible, because they keep us informed about what’s there in our life. But so many of us have become either addicted to them or overwhelmed by them. Especially when we’re talking about these rapid communication channels, it’s like the phones are buzzing and binging all over the place. And it’s just tough to focus. And really a healthy digital life would, I would think, would have very few notifications. And so we’re able to protect our attention, which is one of the greatest assets that we still have left. So what are your thoughts on notifications with communication and in the digital world?
Yeah. So first off, I’ll start by recognizing that I understand that this is a big challenge for companies everywhere. It’s great that I’m here and I get to air my opinion about it. But it’s not like I have the one click solution to this, because that doesn’t exist. And that’s actually my main point, there is no one size fits all solution to notifications. It will very, very heavily depend on the type of company that you are. If you’re, for example, internal communications tool to quickly communicate among colleagues, then it’s imperative that you are getting out there and that they aren’t muted, because that’s how people will cooperate. So that’s one example. On the other hand, is it imperative that Joan the accountant in the office also gets those same notifications? No, probably not. And that’s why people, in my opinion, need to have the power to customize it. So there needs to be a really good kind of middle ground between what a company wants people to see and which notifications are attached to that ethos, and what people want to receive themselves and when do they feel that it adds value to them to have notifications versus when it’s actually disrupting.
Our most clicked section with the product, notifications, and we also see that people change the way the notifications work. They don’t just change once and then forget it. They actually experiment what works best for them across all levels and layers within an organization. And that, I think, is a very healthy approach. So maybe sometimes you have too many notifications, and then you take it back a few steps too far. Maybe that ended up being a little bit too much and now you’re missing out on new, so okay, then we’ll find a middle ground. That, I think, would be a healthy way of handling it. So give people the power, do make sure that your important messages aren’t being missed, so that you can cut through the noise. So for example, if you have a company general news channel, that’s the one thing that you probably want to enforce notifications on. Because that’s not the place where general banter would happen anyway. And for all other things, let people control it themselves.
If I have a channel in Happeo and I’m a sales guy, and I’m super, super active when it comes to that channel, and I want to share my knowledge about it. And it’s really important to me, I’m essentially an engagement driver, right? I will want to put my notifications on high. I will want to be alerted of when something happens within that channel because that’s really important to me, and to my job, and to my team success. But if I’m just the guy who’s trying to get something done, but still learn from others, I don’t need that same level of notifications. I can take it down a notch to maybe only get alerts for when you’re mentioned, which is what I do in most of my channels.
Yeah, that’s such a fine line to figure out in terms of telling people you’re responsible for staying informed about what’s going on here and what’s going on in your team. And to also give them the agency to say, and you get whatever options you need in order to do that. And then that’s one thing that new tools out there, like Happeo and other ones, should be providing that flexibility to say, this channel, I want to hear everything. This channel, I only want to hear a few things or only when somebody really needs something from me, and this channel is just muted, and I’ll take it on myself to check in once a day or once a week to make sure that I know what’s there. But I mean, it’s another example of just giving that responsibility over to people assuming that they’re going to take the responsibility well and adjust it as they need to, like you said.
Man, these are like, I feel like, the core issues of communication. The last issue I want to ask you about is really just, in some ways, we have this conversation about culture, whether or not you can actually change culture or not, or whether culture is just a symptom of what else is going on. Do you feel like there’s some overlap there as well with communication? That’s if things are struggling at your company, it’s easy to point to say, hey, it’s because of communication. We’re not communicating enough. But is there often something deeper that’s there that communication is a symptom of? Do you see that in any of the teams you work with?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that, yes, I hear that frequently, oh, we’re not communicating enough about this. And we’re not doing this enough. And that’s causing those and those problems. But my number one question to that is then, okay, so what is your proof? And that usually comes down to, well, this is how I feel. And while that is certainly a very valid datapoint to have, a much more valid datapoint would be ask your people if they’re actually experiencing the same thing. One of the biggest problems, obviously, with communications internally within companies is measurability. And there’s a high degree of measurability that you can do passively, so from platform analytics, and that type of stuff, but there are also a lot of things that you can passively measure, e.g., how happy are these people still within my company? Or do they understand the strategy better now because we started communicating more about it. That’s not stuff that you can test passively.
So I’m a big fan of serving people to a degree that it doesn’t become obscene. So a lot of large companies will employ, for example, Gallup Q12, which is a 12-question survey for employee engagement. But it’s massive, and it gets sent way too infrequently. And it’s just all open answers. And it doesn’t work. I’m a much more bigger fan of post questions. So just asking somebody a small question, rate this 1 out of 10, and then give an explanation if you want to one at a time at the right time.
Yeah, that makes sense. I think there’s no perfect communication plan out there. Or a perfect metric even. Sometimes we think about is there a metric you should look for with communication. And there’s really not one that’s going to be true for every team that’s out there.
I think there’s three actually. So for me, the main metrics that you should look at within communications, and what you can affect with better communication, is the productivity within your company, the retention rate of your employees, and what you would call net activated value, which is something that Mike West, Google’s former senior people analyst wrote about in his book. If you start looking at those, then you’re looking at, well, okay, we did a communications campaign. And let’s say we can passively measure if the communications was reacted to, then we’re going to actively measure by serving people, if that level of communications lead to, for example, an increased level of alignment, meaning I understand the business goals better, and the direction that’s going and my place in it, then we can start to check, okay, cool. Do people now feel more productive at the end of a campaign than they did at the start of the campaign? If the answer to that is yes, fantastic. You probably did a great job and your communications contributed to it. If the answer is no, but your level of alignment, for example, is still high, then your issue was not necessarily communications. It could have been, well, our people are working from home, and they don’t have an ergonomic setup. And they can’t work for long times at the desk because of that. So while it’s not perfect, it at least gives you a better impression of what’s going on and where.
Yeah, yeah. And I think my point is that you can’t isolate the communication, like one metric within a communication, like the number of chat messages you send, or the open rate necessarily of the email that you went out there. It will affect things and you can affect the secondary effect of was productivity impacted, was alignment impacted, but you can’t really isolate only the communication say, hey, because this one thing did something that it impacted that. Do you agree with that or do you disagree?
Jonathan, can you start that answer again? Sorry, I’m getting a little jumpy.
My connection is on red for some strange reason. Is it okay now?
Yeah, that’s good now.
Okay. Yeah. So I think that my main issue with looking at things like open rates or reads or likes or anything along those lines, while it’s important, because it shows you directly is that one piece of communication effective, its output. It’s not outcome. It’s not adding value to the company. You’re not really showing the company what you did and how that helped the company forward.
Yeah, totally agree. Jonathan, this has been fun. I feel like we can go for a long time on this topic. It’s been great. But tell us a little bit about where to find more information about you and the research you put out.
Sure, so you can find out more about the stuff that I write about or podcast about on happeo.com/blog and happeo.com/podcast. Research is also available on happeo.com. If you’re interested in that, I can send you a copy and you’re free to connect with me on LinkedIn, which is the channel that I’m most active externally. So just go on LinkedIn and look for Jonathan Davies. And I’m more than happy to have a chat about anything and everything.
Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being on the show. We appreciate it and we look forward to connecting with you again soon.
Really appreciate this, Neil. Thank you. It was a lot of fun.
Jonathan Davies is Happeo’s Internal Communication Journalist. He has a rich background in content and communications management, with a focus on Internal Communications and HR tech. He leads Happeo’s editorial content and is the co-author of Mike Klein’s research series on The Present and Future of Internal Communications. His goal? To kickstart a revolution in Internal Communication, fueled by a deep understanding of strategy, modern-market dynamics, and technology.