Why HR Should Make Time for Face Time

Tech tools aside, in-person communication is re-emerging as a vital asset for HR.

By Lee Michael Katz Sep 1, 2015
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9Katz.jpg0915cover.jpgIt’s a tool that enables you to give instantaneous feedback, forge meaningful human connections and, if you’re lucky, get a glimpse into what other people are thinking and feeling. It can also help HR professionals raise their profiles within organizations and build lasting trust with employees. It costs nothing but time and, if executed well, can ultimately result in improved performance.

This miracle management method is called face time—not the Apple video call interface, but actual face-to-face conversation with other people. While many have forgotten about it in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, Twitter and telecommuting, savvy HR leaders fully grasp its power.

The folks at The Motley Fool certainly do. Every six months, staff on the company’s 23-person HR team sit down with employees—all 340 of them, affectionately known as “fools”—for a “happiness check-in” to discuss how workers are feeling about their jobs. The Alexandria, Va.-based company, which provides financial and media services to investors, tracks the check-ins and any “to-dos” that come out of them with a custom software tool.

“We use our full people team—recruiting, office ops, communication,” says Lee Burbage, the company’s vice president of human resources. “Regardless of role, everyone plays a part in checking in with fools.”

Dan Ebert, who has spent four decades in various HR positions, understands the power of face time as well. He worked with a small group of HR professionals from across the country who were tasked with merging HR policies from seven different ship-repair companies into a single document. Naturally, there were a number of phone conversations, e-mails and shared documents involved.

Face Time Tips

Given the many demands on HR professionals, from applicant tracking to data-crunching, it can be hard to find time to regularly interact with employees, especially in large organizations. Here are some tips on how to make time for face time—and how to make the best of the conversations you have:

Take a walk. Pamela Harding, SHRM-SCP, chief human resource officer at Next Dimension Media in Seattle, employs what she calls MBWA—Management By Walking Around. “I cut out an hour of my day to just walk around and be available … on the employee’s turf.” It provides exercise for her, Harding says, and talking in person elicits more information from employees.

Get in the zone. The Motley Fool’s “wellness fool,” Sam Whiteside, often works in the company’s café because lots of employees flow through the space during their workday. “She puts herself in a spot where [workers] gather and the interactions happen naturally,” says Lee Burbage, vice president of HR.

If you don’t have open offices that encourage interaction, carve out lounge areas to allow for spontaneous face-to-face conversations, says founder of WorkplaceTrends.com Dan Schawbel.

Remember that talking is a process, not an event. This is especially true when it comes to cross-cultural communication, where it may take many conversations to understand the meaning behind someone’s spoken words. “In a culture like Japan or China, sometimes India, people may not say ‘no’ out of respect,” explains Howard Wallack, SHRM-SCP, global markets executive for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Be open. Saying you have an open-door policy and actually projecting a sense of availability are two different things. “Don’t cross ankles, knees, arms,” says longtime HR manager Dan Ebert. “Those gestures act as a barrier to making people feel that you are open.” Ebert makes it a point to step out from behind his desk when he is speaking to an employee in his office so that there are no barriers between him and the worker during the exchange.

But to reach the finish line, the group decided to meet in person. “We were able to get a consensus within two hours,” Ebert recalls. He reels off a long list of benefits that employers gain from face-to-face communication, including lower turnover, higher productivity, loyalty and employee ownership. “I don’t care which generation it is, people need the human touch.”

While HR must, of course, stay current on many media and technologies, all of which have their place in communicating with employees, meeting in person creates a perception of attention and care, says Charles Rodriguez, SHRM-SCP, senior director of human capital management for Adams Keegan Inc., an HR consulting firm based in Memphis, Tenn.

Annie Korenjak, HR manager at New Belgium Brewing Co. in Asheville, N.C., says that, for HR, being approachable can pay dividends that last long after personal interactions end.

“When we have an open door, mind and heart, it’s easier for our co-workers to trust and involve HR in the conversation and come to us when they have a problem, concern or idea,” she says.

Whether HR professionals need to solicit employee feedback, seek input on business decisions, deliver benefits information or share news about corporate initiatives, they should seize opportunities to engage employees through face-to-face interaction whenever possible.

Forging Connections

Reaching out to employees helps create a sense of community. “It makes a big company feel small—and that’s important,” says Craig Pintoff, senior vice president of human resources at United Rentals, an equipment rental chain based in Stamford, Conn., with 13,000 employees.

Yet it has become increasingly difficult for many HR professionals to tend to the “human” part of their jobs as they increasingly are asked to adapt to the latest digital communication tools and tasked with collecting and analyzing workforce data. While those responsibilities are important, it’s also critical to set aside time to connect. That can take a variety of forms, including one-on-one check-ins, town hall meetings and corporate “listening tours.” All can help foster valuable information exchanges and strengthen personal working relationships.

United Rentals holds annual town hall meetings with its employees around the country. In choosing locations to visit, Pintoff says, his HR team uses employee surveys as a road map. The team looks to gain insights from people working in the areas with high employee engagement scores, and Pintoff also seeks feedback from those in locations with ratings that indicate there’s room for improvement.

“A lot of times, HR is seen as the face of the company,” notes Christine Walters, SHRM-SCP, author of From Hello to Goodbye: Proactive Tips for Maintaining Positive Employeee Relations (Society for Human Resource Management, 2011). Being a good corporate representative requires being available to interpret policies and organizational changes from an employee’s perspective and being a sounding board for workers’ concerns. In-person conversations with employees allow HR to validate whether a company’s messages are being clearly understood. They can also provide channels to counteract the negative effect of misinformation and rumors, Walters says.

But just having those talks isn’t enough. How HR responds to, acknowledges and follows up on employee feedback has an impact on employee relations. “One of the keys to our interactions is to take action,” says the Motley Fool’s Burbage. During check-ins last year with new parents returning from leave, one employee expressed interest in having more time off and volunteered to review the company’s parental leave policy. “She took on the project and worked to make sure we are best in class,” says Burbage, who adds that the employee’s commitment led the company to make a change in policy to extend maternity and paternity leave. After New Belgium’s Korenjak learned during a chat that a co-worker was interested in event planning, she was able to get the employee involved in organizing company-sponsored social events.

For companies that do business overseas, face time can be a cultural necessity. Relationship-building is a critical component for doing business in many countries, according to Alex Khatuntsev, human resources director at Actelion Pharmaceuticals in Zurich. “People here are quite reserved and cautious when dealing with new people,” he notes, “but once trust is established, the ties are very strong.”

A member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Global Special Expertise Panel, Khatuntsev says personal contact between HR staff and employees is a significant factor in creating organizational cohesion.

One place where that’s especially true is Africa. “Face time is an important ingredient in the Nigerian and African culture,” explains Nwamaka Ajayi, associate human resources analyst for Chevron Nigeria and a SHRM Global Special Expertise Panel member. She notes that her organization prefers to deliver important messages to its employees face to face through both formal and informal channels. To explain why, Ajayi quotes a popular Nigerian proverb that roughly translates to “Eye contact gives you a better understanding of the discussion.”

Reaping Rewards

The benefits of getting to know employees in person, particularly on their own turf, are many, including the following:

Creating unity. Even those who grew up with Twitter and texting long for old-fashioned face time at work. “We’ve surveyed people from 16 years old to 60 years old, and they all would prefer face-to-face over digital communication,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends.com, a research and advisory service for HR professionals.

Exchanges don’t have to be long to be effective. In fact, Millennials favor faster, shorter exchanges, Rodriguez says.

Building trust. Let’s face it: A significant chunk of the interactions HR has with staff are for less-than-happy reasons—resolving conflicts between employees, following up on complaints or taking disciplinary action, for example. By investing time with workers when everything is going smoothly, HR professionals can build the trust they need to enhance the effectiveness of the interactions that occur when problems arise.

Managing a crisis. Face-to-face interaction should occur regularly, but HR professionals emphasize that it is even more important in times of crisis, such as in the wake of a natural disaster, business merger or layoffs. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, United Rentals took an unusual step to reach out to its employees. Since banks and ATMs were closed, employees had no way of getting money. So the company dispatched an HR leader to the Gulf Coast carrying cash to give to employees so they could buy essentials. “Under extraordinary circumstances, you do extraordinary things to take care of your team,” Pintoff says.

Having informal chats with employees can also help reduce anxiety over impending mergers and layoffs and provide information to help them plan.

Developing HR within the organization. The personal touch can be critical to HR’s role as business partner. “You can’t be a good business partner if you never leave the HR office,” Rodriguez points out. “If you don’t spend time on the floor or in the field with operations teams, you really can’t assess the knowledge, skills and abilities people need to be successful.”

Facilitating communication with executives. When speaking with time-pressed senior managers, tailor the substance and style of the discussion to be concise and focused. “With executives, the conversation should be more strategic, directed toward the long-term and offer political context,” Khatuntsev advises.

When Face Time Isn’t Possible

Sometimes, talking to employees in person isn’t an option. That’s where technology can help, whether it’s Web conferencing, online meetings or video services such as Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx and, yes, Apple’s version of FaceTime. “It’s what we can call ‘virtual face time,’ ” says Kimberly Elsbach, an organizational behavior expert at the University of California-Davis. “It has some of the same benefits as being in person.”

However, too often, such tools are used in companies only for large official meetings rather than for informal chats. To help telecommuters feel less isolated, Elsbach recommends that HR check in with them periodically by video chat so that they associate HR with a name, face and voice—which will give them the perception that HR is there for them, even when they can’t be physically there.

Though less desirable than in-person or video chats, reaching out with a quick phone call can also help HR forge connections and provide the verbal cues that are missing from e-mail. “There is so much more I can add to the conversation when I can at least hear an employee,” Walters says.

Being There

Recognizing the difference that face time can make, some companies have dialed back on telecommuting for HR staff. “By and large, our HR is in-house,” says Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman. That proximity has brought plaudits from employees. “Having an HR manager [nearby] to respond to any day-to-day questions and resolve an issue or problem is clearly something that all of us at Best Buy appreciate,” Furman says.

It’s not unusual for Steven Rettke, SHRM-CP, an HR operations manager for the Brentwood, Mo., school district, to block out time on his calendar to meet new teachers. “You really have to pencil it in and hold yourself to it,” he says. In fact, Rettke is so passionate about face time that he plans to meet in person with all of the district’s roughly 250 employees this school year.

“When you’re talking about people’s benefits, pay and training, it’s pivotal that HR be out there in the trenches with their staff,” he says. “You need to be very visible.”

Communicating with employees in person and focusing on the human touch also helps HR professionals to highlight the unique value proposition they can offer. “If HR is just seen as a process center, why not outsource it?” Rettke says. “But if you really have a presence, the organization might be less apt to cut HR because upper management sees real value there.”

Lee Michael Katz is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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