Why the traditional communication cascade is costing you

Posted on: January 24, 2024Updated on: April 16, 2024By: Max Lerner

How are you sharing information with your frontline? How are you collecting insights from them back to head office? 

Here’s our guess on how things go: 

  • Head office sends an email with information on a new product launch to senior leadership. 
  • Senior leadership emails the intel to their middle managers. 
  • Middle management, in turn, emails the info to their floor managers. 
  • Your floor managers then explain it to their shift leads and staff at a pre-shift team huddle or by printing out the email and pinning it to the bulletin board. 
  • Your frontline shares their ideas and feedback to head office through their managers or via annual surveys.

We get it: this is the way it’s been done, especially at the corporate level, for a long time. Top-down communication dates back to the industrial revolution—or earlier—so shifting to a newer approach to gathering and sharing information with staff is never easy. But it’s worth it. Because this approach, what’s known as the “traditional communication cascade,” might be costing your frontline organization money. 

Here are five reasons the traditional communication cascade might be costing your organization:

1. It can turn floor managers into bottlenecks

In a corporate or deskbound organization, it might make sense for a manager to be the sole resource of information for the team. However, in frontline organizations, there are inherent challenges to that approach. The scale and scope of frontlines make consistent in-person information sharing difficult, especially because staff aren’t all working at the same time. 

For one thing, this leads to “Championing fatigue” where it’s constantly on floor managers to drive awareness and engagement around key initiatives and company announcements. 

But even more worrying, it’s a major time investment collecting, organizing and relaying information from head office. Whether they’re relying on one-off conversations, pre-shift huddles, or sharing information through a binder or bulletin board, it takes time and energy. That bogs managers down in admin work, reducing their time spent providing staff with the 1:1 support and leadership that is found to contribute to their overall success and happiness

And this turns managers into bottlenecks. Post-pandemic, managers are wearing more hats than ever. They’re managing safety protocols, mentoring staff, driving CX or guest experience, focusing on operational efficiency and execution. That leaves little time for disseminating announcements from head office, especially in a consistent and measurable way. 

2. Communications are at risk of being filtered and reinterpreted

Another major challenge of the traditional communication cascade is the broken telephone effect. It’s a natural by-product of information waterfalling down an organization: messages get lost in translation, or they get simplified or diluted in an attempt to avoid information overload

Why is this an issue? A lack of consistent and accurate information reduces operational consistency, which every organization desperately needs right now. Let’s say you’re a retailer launching a new sportswear line. Head office develops key information about the promo, and shares it down the communication cascade. But as you get further down the cascade, that broken telephone kicks in. Details of the promotion get interpreted or summarized. Floor managers across the country each put their own spin on the information. Key points are shared verbally so key points get missed or changed. Maybe there’s a language barrier. Maybe even a few factual errors creep in. So now it’s launch day, and customers are coming in-store, only to get an inconsistent, confusing, frustrating experience that’s misaligned with their online research, or other locations. And that has a major impact on the overall success of the program. 

3. It’s harder to measure

We talk about this a lot: the ability to measure and track every interaction with your frontline is critical to success. It enables organizations to monitor knowledge gaps and training progress, it provides a quantifiable look at employee engagement, it proactively shares red flags and warning signs that disruptions are ahead… the list goes on. 

The trouble with cascading communication is that it often doesn’t allow for the standardization, optimization and tracking required for consistent information sharing on frontlines. In other words: it doesn’t scale well. If you have VPs telling middle managers telling district managers telling floor managers telling frontline workers about a key event or important announcement, you’re looking at a concoction of ad-hoc communication tools and in-person conversations that make it near-impossible to track whether the right information was shared at the right time, at an organizational level—particularly when you get to disseminating information to the frontline workers, a.k.a. the people that actually need the information the most.

4. It can cause pre-shift meetings to run too long

We love pre-shift team huddles. They can be the most impactful, most insightful five minutes in a frontline team’s day. But those quick check-ins aren’t for sharing all the information coming from head office. In fact, Floor managers should be using these huddles to inspire their teams, reiterate crucial information and facilitate team-wide sharing and best practices. 

Team huddles are not the right time to introduce a major organizational change, or announce the organization’s plan for Black Friday. When you start to share that information in this setting, they run long. That’s more time off the floor for staff—and managers. 

5. It can lead to more frontline employee turnover…

We all know that turnover costs you. It disrupts productivity, it impacts morale, it means more hiring and onboarding… we get it. And while there are many things that drive voluntary turnover at a frontline organization, a lack of two-way communication is at the root of many of them. Recent polling of the frontline workforce found that a strong employee community, empathetic leadership and recognition are all strong drivers of frontline happiness and success, and strong communication is at the core of all of them. 

6. …and impact the customer and guest experience

Here’s where that two-way communication really comes into play. In the traditional communication cascade, upward feedback is being gathered annually—if that. But if you’re only inviting feedback from your staff once a year, you’re missing out on the insights that can make-or-break your customer experience, whether through flags around confusing or non-existing training and knowledge gaps, optimizations to processes or improvements to promotions or key events. 

With a robust two-way communication strategy (and the right feedback loops for collecting ideas at scale) in play, feedback from the frontline is flowing on a daily basis, and acting on that employee feedback is simple and easy—and impactful.  

The traditional communication cascade is inefficient for frontline organizations—but the impacts go far deeper. It can increase turnover, hurt CX, cause burnout in your floor managers…the list goes on. By investing in frontline communication, organizations can not just improve employee engagement and morale—they can drive serious business outcomes.

Max Lerner

Max Lerner is an instructional designer and avid frontline enablement enthusiast, with years of experience helping organizations support their teams to drive business outcomes.

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