With the popularity of flat hierarchies, the right communications pathways are crucial for front-line managers, says Alison Coleman
Case study: Transport for London
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For any internal workplace communication process to work, an organisation must have all of its line managers on board. This is especially true in the case of benefits communication.
With many employers having abandoned their old hierarchical management structures to create a flatter organisation, the burden of responsibility is increasingly falling on the front-line manager. The question is, are they up to handling their responsibilities at the sharp end of the communication chain, or are they the weakest link?
It depends on the company, says Kevin Shilling, managing director of benefits communications consultancy Shilling Communications. "Some organisations have a very strong communications culture and a good internal communications structure, where the line manager plays a key role," he says. "Even if it is bad news that has to be communicated, such as the closing of a pensions scheme, a good communications infrastructure will ensure this is delivered in the most effective way. In organisations where the structure is poor or virtually non existent, line managers often don’t see communication of things like benefits as their responsibility."
Companies may have to bypass the line manager and find alternative solutions, for example, by identifying a communications ambassador among the workforce, not necessarily someone in a supervisory role. With training they can be very good at getting the message across. But this is a compromise that undermines a fundamental role of line management: communication.
Bob Arnold, director of strategic consulting at HR consultancy Chiumento, says: "The issue of line managers being the weakest link in the corporate communication chain really is raising its head right across industry right now. There are two key issues; the first is that in many instances the line manager simply hasn’t a clue about what is in the benefits package. The second is, they may not know the people they are supervising sufficiently well enough to know which elements of a benefits package motivates them."
One emerging trend is the use of technology to deliver benefits messages, in some cases rendering the line manager’s communication role redundant. At the AstraZeneca Sales and Marketing Company, a division of the pharmaceutical giant, line manager training touches on benefits schemes, but it is not an area they are explicitly asked to cover. Instead, everything that the 1,700 employees need to know about their flexible benefits statement, pension, or any aspect of their employment, is delivered electronically.
Its reward and recognition consultant, Natalie Meredith, says: "Everything that needs to be communicated to the staff is driven through our intranet system, and we have an outsourced call centre to handle any queries they might have."
A technology-based communication system may work well with a fairly young workforce, (and people in sales tend to be young), who are intranet-savvy and prefer the convenience of instant information access to face-to-face discussions. But not everyone understands benefits jargon or even the value of their benefits package and would prefer to be able to find the closest person to them who might know the answer, their line manager.
In bypassing the line manager with technology, companies could also be missing out on a crucial factor: motivation. Chiumento’s Arnold says: "Motivation is often driven by those people who interact with employees on a day-to-day basis, and this is more likely to be the line manager than a member of the senior management team."
Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has shown that in the relationship between people management and performance, the line manager link is key. Assistant director general of the CIPD, Duncan Brown, says: "What we have found is that in organisations where HR strategy is not being properly effected, it is often down to the line manager. There are huge pressures on them to deliver results and they often lack the time and the reason to take on the responsibilities of benefits communication."
This can result in the filtering of HR messages at line manager level, with a significant impact on their delivery. "For example, where organisational changes are being made that might be perceived as negative by the staff, a line manager may put a negative spin on the message. With better support and skills training their role at the sharp end of the communication could prove crucial in the way these messages are conveyed to the workforce," says Brown.
But their weakness in the communication chain may not be their fault. People are often promoted to line management positions on the basis of their technical or organisational skills rather than communication ability. Also if the organisation works on performance-related pay, the line manager may feel obliged to concentrate on those tasks directly related to time and money.
Firms must take some responsibility. Sally Ling, head of communications at benefits communications firm GE Communications, says: "Ultimately it is the joint responsibility of the corporate HR and pensions departments to ensure that line managers are fully informed of the content of messages that need to be communicated and kept in the loop."
Organisations need to articulate what they are offering individual employees on a daily basis. With the correct training and support, it is the line managers who are best placed to offer this positive reinforcement of the corporate message.
"This is even more important in light of the current issues surrounding HR and business partnering," adds the CIPD’s Brown. "If you are a strategic HR partner, how do you link with the line? A poor HR function that has not established a good relationship with line management will face trouble. It is about striking a balance; getting the HR information right and to line managers without burying them."
Research carried out by periodical IRS Employment Review earlier this year revealed the role and responsibilities of line managers. The findings included:
• Typically a line manager takes responsibility for between three and 10 employees, with very few being accountable for teams of more than 25.
• More than two-thirds of respondents said that there had been some change in the role of line managers in their organisation in the past three years.
• The most commonly identified change was an increase in line managers’ overall level of responsibility (identified by almost 60% of organisations). This was followed closely by an increase in their level of people management responsibilities, as stated by 52% of organisations.
• Almost 70% (68.8%) expect the next three years to bring further substantial or some change to the role of line managers.
In the current climate of uncertainty surrounding pensions, getting the right messages across to employees is crucial.
Transport for London’s Pension Fund has approximately 20,000 active members, as well as 20,000 deferred members and 42,000 pensioners. Pensions manager Garry Wake says: "Pensions are constantly in the news, so getting the latest information across to all members and providing them with reassurance is vital. While the line manager is a key link in the communication chain, it would be unreasonable to expect them to be able to answer detailed questions on what is quite a complex or personal subject."
Paper-based copies of individual annual benefits statements, plus other documents such as the annual review of the pension fund, set out clearly in layperson’s terms, are sent to the homes of every member. The pension fund website and the pensions office is there to help with any enquiries.
"You wouldn’t expect, for example, a busy station manager to be able to discuss benefits and pensions in detail with the staff," says Wake. "That’s not to detract from the importance of the relationship between line managers and workers, but where they can play a key role in the chain of benefits communication is in a broader context, answering more basic staff questions, such as ‘How do I join the scheme?’ and ‘How can I transfer into it’`, and pointing them in our direction. Beyond that, it is a job for the experts."