Weekly Conversations May Boost Employee Engagement

More-frequent check-ins can engender trust, create openness

By Dana Wilkie March 17, 2015

Most U.S. workers are frustrated by a lack of honesty in their workplaces, a situation that could be remedied with more-frequent—even weekly—monitoring of employee engagement, according to a new survey.

“Trust leads to higher productivity and performance,” said David Hassell, CEO of 15Five, which conducted the online survey of 1,023 full-time employees randomly selected by a third-party pollster. “Lack of trust leads to a lot of maneuvering to try to protect one’s position.”

The results of the Feb. 23-27, 2015, survey were released March 16, 2015, by 15Five, which provides Web–based software to help managers and employees communicate.

Employees were asked about their companies’ internal communication, and the results indicate that many companies “are dealing with serious breakdowns,” 15Five wrote in a graphic highlighting the findings.

Only 15 percent of employees said their companies are doing a “very good” job fostering communication. More than 1 in 8 said they’d rather join a company that values open communication than one that offers lavish perks like top health plans, free food and gym memberships.

In fact, the vast majority of employees said that having managers personally check in with them for at least five minutes a week is more important than such benefits.

A lack of communication can lead employees to believe that supervisors are being secretive, and it can also convince them, in turn, that being open with their managers invites repercussions.

“There are two ways to look at lack of honesty,” Hassell said. “There’s blatantly saying one thing when there’s really another thing going on. Then there’s a lack of open sharing. Leaders may just share positive things but not necessarily anything about challenges—often because leaders fear they may lose the faith of employees. Employees may fear that if they share what’s really going on with them, they may lose their jobs. Usually the exact opposite happens: By sharing openly with staff, you engender more trust.”

Tossing the Annual Performance Review

Lisa H. Shuster, chief administrative officer for Frederick, Md.-based iHire LLC, eliminated annual performance reviews for her 50 employees after concluding that workers hated completing them, managers hated reviewing them and the reviews weren’t conducive to continual feedback for employees.

Instead, managers now hold biweekly meetings with workers to discuss progress toward objectives, how supervisors can support employees’ development, training opportunities and how to overcome any obstacles to the workers’ goals. For bonus and compensation purposes, employees are still evaluated, with “A” performers—defined as consistently meeting or exceeding goals—earning at least 75 percent of the market-based compensation for the industry, and sometimes more, as well as a cost-of-living salary increase.

“A lot of the bureaucracy that you have with annual performance evaluations is gone,” said Shuster, whose company helps businesses find employees and vice versa. “If the employee does an evaluation, then the manager reads it and writes her own evaluation, then it goes to HR, then back to the manager—that’s a very bureaucratic process. Managers need to be having regular communications and relationships with their employees. The annual performance evaluation was never intended to be a substitute for having those regular discussions.”

Luke Frye, accounting operations manager with Bench Accounting Inc., discovered that annual performance evaluations could not keep pace with his company’s rapid growth. “Within that amount of time, the company structure and processes are completely different and perhaps irrelevant,” said Frye, whose company pairs business owners with a bookkeeping team and Web-based software to complete monthly financials.

So now Frye reviews all his direct reports every week, then has a half-hour, Monday check-in with each that focuses, he said, on “What are you working on this week, and how can I help?”

“Providing clear feedback every week enables everyone to collaborate and be part of innovative ideas on how to work together better and faster.”

Generational Differences

Baby Boomers and Millennials tend to be critical of each other’s communication styles, with the former complaining that Millennials “tend to rely exclusively on e-mail and text, and rarely, if ever, pick up the phone to discuss an issue or solve a problem,” 15Five wrote in the graphic. Millennials tend to say that their Boomer supervisors don’t “understand social media and how people communicate today.”

“There’s an impression from the younger generations that Boomers are being guarded,” Hassell said, adding that this may contribute to the feeling among employees—at least younger ones—that their bosses aren’t being open and transparent. “The conversation is more of a one-directional communication, where expectations are set, directives are given, but there’s not feedback, [and the Millennials] feel they don’t have a voice. A lot of these folks are on the front lines of the company, dealing with the customer and the product, and they have a sense for what’s going on—more so than someone who’s two steps removed. But many organizations don’t tap into that and elicit feedback on how the company can improve.”

Forty percent of employees reported that they’re able to share ideas for improving their job performance just a few times a year or less.

Hassell asks each of his employees to spend 15 minutes a week writing a report about work projects and obstacles they may have encountered, that takes him about five minutes to read. He does that reading in about a half-hour on Sunday nights, reviewing this feedback from his six direct reports so he can have insight into what’s going on in their work world, which can lead to more conversations when everyone returns to work Monday.

“It creates a regular rhythm of communication,” Hassell said. “It’s a way to get communication flowing so that when you do have face time, you’re already briefed, you already understand the issues and you already have a deep connection.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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