Investing in employee communication programs yields big dividends, according to a new study by Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Effective staff communication in the business world lowers staff turnover rates while increasing shareholder returns and companies’ market value, according to the study. The good news is that nearly half of those gains were realized by driving managers’ behavior to communicate more effectively, connecting employees to business strategy and following a formal process.

The bad news is that the education industry generally ranks among the United States’ and Canada’s least effective communicators, along with utilities, health-care organizations, and other service providers.

Given the record number of new teachers leaving the field within their first five years, a national teaching shortage, and the growing frustration among seasoned educators, we have some work to do.

Like the classic Pogo cartoon says, “We have met the enemy–and he is us.” If we want teachers and support staff to roll out the red carpet for others, we have to first roll out the red carpet for them.

Engaging more employees in decision making, continually seeking their feedback, and making sure they hear important news and information first–before external stakeholders hear it–doesn’t cost huge sums of money, yet yields big dividends.

According to Watson Wyatt, firms that communicate effectively are 4.5 times more likely to report high levels of employee engagement, compared with firms that communicate less effectively.

Top communicators are also 20 percent more likely to report lower turnover rates than their peers, while generating shareholder returns that are 57 percent higher than those reported by poor communicators.

For school administrators, this means adding communication to your job descriptions and role-modeling the behavior you want students to emulate.

We also need to provide department heads and other managers with the training, tools, and resources they need to boost their communication skills.

“Having a powerful and successful employee communication program takes more than just having the right tools and vehicles in place,” says Kathryn Yates, global director of communication consulting at Watson Wyatt. “It requires building a strong foundation to ensure that employees understand their role in the organization and have a way to voice their opinions. It also requires that companies view communication as critical to their overall success and key to changing employee behavior.”

While face-to-face remains the most powerful way to share information and impact employee behavior, electronic communications are gaining momentum.

Three-quarters of all respondents on the Watson Wyatt survey increased their use of electronic communication over the previous 24 months, while 30 percent decreased their use of print communication.

Additionally, 7 percent of the high-effectiveness companies used blogs and wikis to share news and information with employees. Just as the best public-relations efforts are planned, systematic, strategic, and two-way, the best employee communication programs are mapped out in advance and based on stakeholder research.

If you don’t have a formal employee communications program in place, now’s the time to start one.

While you’ll want to consider “multiple intelligences” and use a variety of communication channels and experiences to reach your employees, electronic communications clearly should be part of that mix.

Password-protected intranets built just for staff are popular choices and can include everything from directory-type information and calendars to interactive lesson plans and teacher blogs.

Enterprise software integrated into these intranet sites is making it easier for employees to update their own human-resource data, from address changes to benefits selection.

Electronic newsletters sent via eMail and then archived on intranet sites are quickly replacing print versions, although most districts still need to make hard copies available to bus drivers and other staff who don’t have access to computers at work.

Originally designed to handle emergency communications with parents, web-based voice, eMail, and pager broadcasts also can help distribute breaking news quickly and effectively to employees when minutes count.

These systems also might be used to contact substitute teachers, nurses, and other critical staff. Now, high-volume phone calls and eBlasts that used to take hours and multiple staff members can be completed in just minutes.

Keep in mind, however, that in our information-saturated world, repetition and consistency are absolutely essential if you want your message to “stick” to the target.

Someone who averages 150 to 200 eMail messages per day might not get to your eMail message in a timely fashion, even if you mark it urgent (which I recommend using only in cases of severe bodily injury and/or death).

Faxes, voice mail, instant messaging, eBlasts, pod and video casts, blogs, banner ads, eNewsletters, and education access channels on cable television are all part of an already overcrowded mass-media market that foists thousands of commercial messages each day on consumers.

We might be information-rich, but we’re not information-wise–at least not yet. That’s why good, old-fashioned, face-to-face and interpersonal communication are growing in importance, years after being declared dead by the mainstream media.

Once again, developments in broadcasting and the news business are changing how we work, play, and communicate. Having a plan in place with a timeline of activities and a solid evaluation component are critical, often-overlooked components of any successful employee communication program.

However, as the Watson Wyatt study shows, investing in employee communications offers compelling results in terms of organizational effectiveness and meeting business goals.

While we might not measure financial outputs in schools, we do face increasing public and news media scrutiny. By focusing on best practices in employee communications and boosting our skills, we can improve our bottom line: improving teaching and learning.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

LINK: Watson Wyatt Worldwide