Improving how King County communicates with employees

Posted on August 23, 2011 by

Is King County government doing a sufficient job of communicating information, initiatives and countywide developments to employees like you, and providing opportunities to hear from you? The question came to mind recently when a Florida government agency called for ideas about communicating with its large staff.

The caller was doing a survey of agencies around the country as part of developing their own internal communications options. King County came up in their research because of our communication with employees about the Health Reform Initiative, which has definitely provided some useful lessons.

In particular, the caller was interested in options for reaching employees without computer access and those doing shift work – something with which King County has some experience, thanks to our varied lines of business and positions like bus drivers, landfill operators, truck drivers, wastewater treatment plant operators, clinicians, animal shelter staff, Sheriff’s deputies, and corrections officers.

In compiling the information for them, I realized three things:

  1. We have developed several tools and approaches to reach all 13,500 county workers.
  2. There is no simple or one-size fits all way to reach people at more than 100 different work sites countywide operating on different shifts, schedules and lines of business and varying access to computers.
  3. There may be new tools or improved use of existing tools that would improve the effectiveness of our communications flow and conversations with staff, and we should see if they have ideas about them.

What we do now

So what tools are we using now? For employees who work regular, day shift business hours, we use global e-mail and electronic newsletters. For those who don’t have their own computers or e-mail accounts or who work varied shifts, there are paper versions of electronic newsletters that go to places like the landfill and bus bases, messages printed on pay stubs, paycheck inserts, posters, in-person presentations, webinar/live meetings, websites, department or division newsletters, and special bulletins. All of these methods are considered sustainable and low-cost within our current and forecast budgets. So any new tools we try would also need to meet this requirement.

While most county employees use a computer for the majority of their job, there are some staff, like field employees and those in satellite offices or who work non-standard shifts like those listed above, who may not have daily computer access. Reaching them is an on-going challenge that we’ve tried to overcome with some of the options listed above.

We also:

  • attend staff meetings
  • notify supervisors, who then share the information
  • produce an abbreviated paper version of electronic newsletters
  • use existing internal communications documents, like the required operations bulletin that bus drivers must read as they start their shift, and
  • print and post global emails on common bulletin boards in break rooms.

Still, we always hear from staff who have missed messages. And we’re still looking for an efficient, affordable way to measure the effectiveness of our internal communication. The best we’ve been able to do, outside of communication effectiveness studies, is to track event participation and web hits for online newsletters. County staff are also surveyed annually about how they like to get information and we get a sense of whether information is being disseminated through the ranks by what we hear from co-workers, staff, directors and other informal information channels.

TMI: how much information is too much?

The caller from Florida wanted to know how we balance providing information that is needed, without over-saturating staff. In truth, we’re not sure we successfully strike that balance. The right amount of communication varies by individual. What’s just enough for one person might be information overload for another, and simply not enough for yet another.

We struggle with this every year as we hear complaints from some staff that they receive too many notifications, while others say they never got the news. The county’s benefits division even tried surveying all employees about this and responses were split between people wanting more communication and less communication.

Comedian Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” I agree that we probably cannot please every county employee. But I think we can provide sufficient options so that people can choose the types of information vehicles and conversation tools that work best for their needs.

But which ones? And should we use existing tools differently or try something new? Some companies use social media applications to connect with staff. Many King County staff have begun interacting using Yammer: Some companies use multimedia video and audio messages sent directly to employee handheld devices, while some towns across the country have experimented with holding Telephone Town Hall Meetings with as many as 2,500 people calling in using software provided by a Colorado company. There are many other innovative tools out there as well.

So what could King County do better or differently – or even stop doing – to better communicate with and learn from staff across the county’s 100+ work sites? Please take the survey linked below. Your ideas would be appreciated.

Link to survey monkey:

Natasha Jones is the Director of Customer Service in the King County Executive’s Office. She previously served as the Deputy Communications Manager in the Executive’s Office and has discovered that most customer service issues result from a miscommunication issue.


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