WORDS BY TAL HENDERSON & STACEY PALANGIO
ILLUSTRATION BY COLIN MACFADYEN
Making the right connection, one that resonates and leads to action or a new perspective, is the goal of any communicator. However, achieving this requires a broader and more systematic understanding of what it means for our communications to be “accessible”. Employee communicators often talk about their work, audiences, or messengers in terms of “access” but that is a concept with numerous definitions.
Fundamentally, the reason some communications do not connect with audiences is because there are barriers to access. To be truly effective, we need to remove anything that prevents the message from being delivered, received, or understood.
There are four categories of access to consider:
- Roles – access to channels or tactics by employees given the structure and function of their job design, work location, etc.
- Ability – users of a channel or tactic can use the medium, taking into account a wide range of physical or sensory ability.
- Comprehensibility – content is shaped to be understandable by the audience.
- Affiliations – communications must be inclusive of identity, community and cultural affiliations fostering a sense of membership and psychological safety, with no barriers created through language, images, associations, or other content, editorial, or delivery decisions.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Accessible (definition): easily obtained or used
Employee communications must take into account job structure. Are members of a particular employee audience able to access this channel or content? There are major differences between reaching a desk worker and reaching a mobile sales rep, or a personal support worker, a driver, contact center or retail service rep, or someone on the plant floor.
Consider the following when crafting role-based communications:
- Location – where does the employee work? Does that site enable access to appropriate channels? e.g. mobile sales, manufacturing, desk worker, client interaction
- Activity – does the day-in-the-life of these workers allow time to participate in communication activity? For example, though both the HR specialist and contact center rep work from intranet-connected workstations, the work day of the contact center rep permits very little discretionary time to review a newsfeed or share their thoughts in a jam session; the driver may have almost no time to read or watch but could spend hours listening to a podcast.
- Expectation – are these workers encouraged to participate in comms by management? Consider the retail employee, how would the store manager respond to seeing team members on their phones, scrolling the company Yammer feed? Is everyone aligned to the expectation that frontline workers are to read, like, and chat on the internal social feeds or watch the latest two-minute video from their VP?
Key takeaway: If the role does not have access built into it, from a channel and time perspective, there are role-based barriers to the communication.
Accessible (definition): usable by all members of the audience, irrespective of physical or cognitive ability
Abilities vary for us all. Some we are born with, some are acquired through illness, injury, or exposure to the environment. We have created exclusionary norms about what is and what is not “able,” and this limits us and our colleagues. Activists have worked for years to create an awareness of the needs of those who have disabilities, and it is critical that we understand and apply this perspective to our communication practices. Ability challenges to consider include:
- Neurodiversity (sensory, cognitive, and autism) – from hearing and sight impairment to dyslexia or memory challenges brought on by a stroke, to individuals on the autism spectrum, there are many different ways members of the organization may require support to engage with channels and tactics.
- Physical – anything affecting mobility or dexterity, from walking to handwriting, also physical capacity or stamina.
- Mental health – these include disorders that cause distress and affect a person’s ability to function or focus including PTSD, anxiety, clinical depression, ADHD, panic, and addiction.
- Illness – chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and episodic illnesses like epilepsy can impact the ability of some audience members to participate in some communication activities
Key takeaway: When looking to reach our audiences, we need our communication planning, channels and tactics to account for individuals with a wide range of abilities, visible and invisible.
Accessible (definition): readily understood and appreciated
Communications must be understood and resonate with the audience. Clear and concise communication requires much more effort than what is easiest for the communicator. Determining the best tactic, language and media (e.g. images or video) and the details of their execution is far more challenging than just “blasting out an email.”
Comprehensibility factors to consider when crafting your communications:
- Usability – the experience design of a given tactic – how it is found, accessed and navigated, the overall volume of information and how it is grouped and presented – is foundational to any moment of communication.
- Language – we must communicate in the language spoken or read by our audience or leverage non-verbal approaches.
- Reading level – one of the most common measures of comprehensibility is the “reading level” of the language used. This is roughly based upon the average level of education of the employee audience – with grade 9 being the recommended reading level for the general public.
- Jargon – the modern workplace is highly specialized, and this creates specialized language. “Jargon” may be common for a group of practitioners, but confusing and exclusionary for those outside the practice area. Communicators need to understand whether jargon will be a barrier or an enabler to the audience.
- Literacy and numeracy – reading, writing, and arithmetic skills of differing levels are required to participate in many professional communication activities.
- Sound – a powerful dimension of communication, sound can accomplish more than just the transmission of information. It is also used to shape an experience or emotional tone, or to build engagement. The human voice alone can accomplish a range of objectives, connecting with authenticity and intimacy to inspire the listener.
- Images – still or moving images can immediately make certain concepts clear, concise, or compelling.
- Voice and tone – the style and phrasing of communication draws in or excludes audiences and is one of the most subtle elements to get correct. It requires knowledge of the audience, the content, and skill in the execution.
Key takeaway: It takes skill and creativity to craft arguments and information in a way that truly connects with the target audience.
Accessible (definition): Approachable, particularly in relation to a position of power
When we communicate with an institutional voice or platform, we do so from a position of power. What we recognize and what we overlook, how we frame a situation and who we elevate creates privileged access or barriers to the workforce. Too often, corporate communication sends the message to communities in our organization: “this is not for you, this is for them.” We as communicators must pay special attention and avoid creating diversity, equity and inclusion barriers, and to build diversity and self-awareness into our comms teams. For example, consider:
- Race, ethnicity, and religion – everyone comes from somewhere, has a skin colour, practices culture in certain ways, and has some sort of belief system that guides their actions. In comms, we need to be conscious of how prejudicial bias skews how we represent membership, competence, and leadership. We also need to watch our metaphors and analogies as there are many English language colloquialisms rooted in racism (e.g. computer networking invokes “master/slave pairings,” references to totem poles or spirit animals outside of Indigenous knowledges)
- Sex, gender, gender identity, and sexuality – the history of sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism is woven into the hierarchies of power and replicated in organizations, from pay inequity and access to roles to violence and abuse in the workplace.
- Ability – beyond the practical impact of ability to participate in communication channels and tactics, ability is also a site of prejudice and exclusion (“ableism”).
- Head office bias – within organizations, stories are often told “from the center” and reflect the experience and perspectives of those closer to management and HQ, privileging that country or region, language, and the urban environment where they are typically located.
- Class, economic, and education status – communicators and their bosses are typically connected with the management of an organization and, as they reflect the attitudes of HQ, this can amplify the biases and values of class, economic, and education level. Depending on the industry, this can vary widely, and we need to look beyond the blinders of our own social and professional position.
Key takeaway: Communicating from a position of power requires special consideration of the audience and its diversity. To be effective, a leadership message should be inclusive, accessible and convey respect.
Planning for access
We spend so much time and effort trying to get our messages right to connect with our people. Overlooking systemic issues in how we communicate could mean missing, excluding, or even turning them away. The decisions we make about communications will either build or remove barriers to full membership and participation in our work and in the cultures of our companies. Leaders need to make accessible communication a priority, identify and remove systemic barriers, and build the infrastructure and practices that enable access by every employee.
With thanks to Nadia Bello, Organizational Development and DEI consultant, for her help understanding key topics. Any mistakes are mine. TH