THE BLOG
01/14/2015 02:37 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

The Workplace Communication Gap that No One is Talking About

Paul Simcock via Getty Images

The San Francisco-based Slack has quickly become the darling of the tech industry. In just over a year, the company has amassed $180 million in venture capital funding from a handful of Sand Hill Road titans including participation by Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Google Ventures and Accel Partners. Valued at $1.12 billion, in nine months, Slack became one of the fastest start-ups to reach the $1 billion club joining companies like YouTube, Groupon and Yammer.

What it says is organizations are spending billions of dollars on communication tools for their employees. It's a huge bet on collaboration and efficient communication as a means to productivity and economic output. In the knowledge economy, peer-to-peer communications are raw materials that, when harnessed in a meaningful way, lead to real returns. It's common sense to bet that more efficient communications inside companies will make our gains bigger and come faster.

It may be common sense, but it's not the right bet.

There's a below the waterline issue in our modern organizations that no one is talking about and that communication tools like Slack, Yammer, Jive and soon to launch Facebook for the enterprise are not addressing: bottom-up feedback and top-down understanding.

Despite all the talk about the great flattening that has been happening in our modern organizations, traditional power structures still exist -- employees still have bosses. There is a disconnect between them and individual contributors that is driving a wedge in our companies and making them increasingly untenable. Just look at research by Bain & Company: Not only are the majority of us disengaged at work, engagement drops significantly with each organizational layer away from the CEO. The least engaged workers are front-line workers -- those who interact directly with customers.

What's missing is a transparent dialogue between leaders and employees about what's most important to us as individual workers and collectively to our organizations and a conversation around the inevitable competing priorities. Our current methods for sourcing feedback -- annual engagement surveys and survey technologies like SurveyMonkey -- feel more like research tools designed to dissect, deconstruct and test a series of assumptions rather than a way to empathetically understand what people really think and leverage their engagement to move our organizations forward. Additionally, because of the design, build, deploy, analyze and report-out cycles required of our current feedback processes, leaders are slow to take action -- it takes 3-6 months on average to move from data collection to action planning on a typical annual employee survey. There is no wonder why more than half of companies don't even get to developing action plans and organizational trust is eroding rapidly.

Feedback is critical to the success of any organization. Employees hold the keys to the next big breakthrough and solutions to what ails our organizations. Leadership has broad market context, relationships and the anointed power to move mountains. If only we could connect and align the two in a constructive way more regularly.

Nowhere is this need to increase the frequency of bottom-up feedback and top down understanding more visceral than in organizations experiencing high degrees of change. Rapidly growing companies like Glassdoor, Docusign and Hailo in the UK are perfect examples. Their headcounts are expanding at a clip of 30-50% year-over-year. These types of companies are used to having everyone under the same roof. In the past, leaders could get a pulse on their employees' engagement and feedback just by walking around. Now, communication needs to be intentional. The ground is shifting so quickly they can't afford to wait until the end of the year to surface and address employee ideas and concerns.

Similarly, larger organizations will increasingly assume risk if they ignore the trend towards getting more rapid feedback. Companies that are shedding headcount, reshuffling leadership, undergoing mergers or acquisitions, launching new products and services, rebranding or experiencing stiff competition from emerging players particularly need to check-in with employees more regularly than once every other year. These days, organizations fitting at least one of these scenarios is the norm and not the exception.

It takes a progressive and forward-looking leader to spot this trend toward organizations needing to adapt to more real-time feedback processes. The good news is that there are resources available to help steer you and manage the shift. Josh Bersin, the Deloitte analyst, maps the trend and core players in his recent Forbes article: "Quantified Self: Meet Quantified Employee." The bad news is that our organizational feedback processes are entrenched by habit and woven into the fabric of core business processes. You have to be courageous to try something new.

The risk to modern companies who don't adapt to the real-time feedback trend is great. After all, in the modern knowledge economy, employee engagement is the new capital that keeps the economic engine chugging along. If you don't know how your employees feel today, it is critical that you find out. More than that, you need to ask them what they think. Employees want to be more than just employees. They want to be respected for their unique perspectives and experiences, feel connected emotionally to the purpose of their organizations and know how their contributions are driving their businesses forward. You can't foster this type of culture by checking in once or twice per year.

So, next time you think about doing things the same old way, put yourself in your employees' shoes. What would they want?

A more authentic voice.