Surviving the increased workload epidemic

While at work some time ago you lost your raison d’être. You feel beaten down, uninspired … splintered and scattered and torn. Your job is no longer the job you were hired for, it’s an amalgamation of three other jobs, none of which you have professional experience in.

“Where did everyone go,” you wonder, looking around the once densely populated office space at several desks now used for temporary storage of file boxes and empty binders. “Thats right – one position was eliminated and you now handle it, another was offered an early retirement package to quickly reduce the headcount, and the last person left for a new job where she was offered a higher level position. “No chance of growing here,” she told you on her way to the exit interview, “get out as soon as you can!”

This pattern appears throughout the mid-sized company, each department dwindling as the CEO talks about the need to cut costs and scale-down budgets at town hall meetings. “Why did this happen?” you want to ask when the CEO opens to room for questions, but you don’t out of fear of retaliation. No one asks any questions. The CEO concludes the meeting after a minute of uncomfortable silence. On the way out you whisper to your friend from demand planning, “why am I doing all this work alone? Doesn’t he see what he’s doing?”

Finding dollars to save here and there, it looks great when summed up on a spreadsheet. Why pay multiple salaries when one person can carry all of the weight? Eliminate a few seemingly unnecessary responsibilities, like most of the internal communication role and half of the web team responsible for social media and e-commerce. “Those web things practically run themselves,” proclaimed the EVP of Operations. He doesn’t appear to be carrying additional weight when he leaves early each afternoon the weather is nice to play nine holes.

It’s really happening.

Go back to the opening paragraph, those descriptive words following that fancy French phrase that means reason for existence. This is an existential crisis for any employee enduring a company experiencing downsizing and reorganization. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, feeling tied down, unable to escape because the job market is ultra-competitive with others in your same circumstance also looking for a way out. Meanwhile, the workload is so overbearing your nights and weekends are rarely your own time.

When you question your multiplying position, consider: has your salary multiplied to compensate for the extra workload and additional responsibilities? Maybe a 1.75% merit increase for good behavior, not enough to cancel out the spike in next year’s healthcare cost. Has your title changed and position elevated to reflect the new work earning you a place at the decision-making table giving credence to the vast business knowledge you had to acquire to handle these jobs? Are you respected any more than you were when first hired?

From the employee’s perspective, this is an impossible situation to perpetuate any longer than you must. I’ve been through this, as well as several other good people I’ve known, some bearing the weight while others escaping at first chance. It kills morale; the corporate culture becomes heavily pessimistic and resentful. When staff is under-performing and feeling negative, and turn-over is high, where do you think the company is headed?

The right way to handle this.

I’m now addressing those with the decision-making power: don’t set this downward spiral in motion. Fight it at every step in your senior leadership and steering committee meetings. The answer to declining sales is rarely found by eliminating internal resources, it is found by examining the marketplace and reassessing your products.

Are you truly producing what people want? Or are your products a shallow reflection of what the marketplace demands? What new innovations are you introducing? Cutting supply chain and manufacturing costs by removing features your customers have grown to appreciate and expect won’t solve anything either. If anything, it will turn your customers off breaking their loyalty. Instead of producing a pale imitation of Apple’s latest iPhone, create a new cutting edge device that will blow it away.

I know it’s not as a simple as that. Money needs to be invested on research and technological development for starters, it’s a huge process. I get it. But it’s worthwhile in the end when your new product outsells the competition in a landslide if you’re willing to make the investment.

The answer lies in proactive creativity and innovation.

The answer is not in eliminating your staff and resources, and overburdening those who remain. A proactive creative approach to solving the business problems at-hand will permeate the business culture. Offering the staff the ability to participate in improving the business appeals to their intrinsic needs to be a part of something bigger, to do good. An employee body working together is far stronger than a few at the top making the decisions and putting the burden on those below.

Some advice for everyone stuck in an overburdened situation:

  1. Find it in yourself to remain optimistic. You can’t affect positive change feeling angry and resentful, even if you are in the right.
  2. Look for every opportunity no matter how small to contribute toward a better solution. Make recommendations to leaders who will listen.
  3. Influence your peers with optimism, encourage them to work with you toward improving the environment.

This is a complex matter that requires action on several fronts to resolve. You can only do your best within the confines of your role. Therefore, start with yourself, improve what you can around you, and encourage it to spread. If you find yourself leaving for a new opportunity, don’t lose the positive focus.

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Leverage this: try effective communication

The use of jargon, or corporate speak, has had a genocidal effect on good-natured simple words. These words didn’t ask to be violated when someone seeking impromptu authority uses them incorrectly to speak over another’s head. The tragic popularization of converting nouns into verbs, for instance – leverage, impact, blue-sky – does not make you a better speaker or writer. Nor do figurative phrases whose meanings are lost on the average person, like boil the ocean, pissing on fire hydrants, and circle back.

If you speak in jargon, you are not communicating effectively.

Though you may think jargon makes you sound more professional or smarter, it does the opposite. Consider phrases like the team exhibited robust performance this month and my idea has been blue-sky’d by marketing, which are both esoteric and void of humanity. Here are a few reasons jargon is ineffective:

  • The recipient may not understand the meaning of the slang words;
  • The audience may feel you are talking down to them, especially when they work outside of your circle;
  • There is an emotional disconnect from jargon, authentic passion cannot be expressed through it;
  • Jargon by design eliminates personal accountability.

It’s bad enough when jargon and buzzwords appear in emails or presentations, but when I hear them in personal conversations I cringe. Not the good kind of cringe induced by a comic riffing on a taboo subject, for which I have a high appreciation. I wish I was using hyperbole right now, but I have had the sad fortune of witnessing all of the examples mentioned in this blog spoken in some type of face-to-face conversation at work this year. I keep a mental note each time I encounter these terms and my disgust for them.

I dare you to talk that way to Grandma.

You might use the following sentence when speaking to a colleague at work:

I’m not trying to boil the ocean here, but we do need to leverage the latest ad campaign assets to incentivize the consumer during BF/CM to create another lift. 

Consider speaking this way to anyone else in your life – your parents, your kids, your grandmother, your friends while watching a football game at the bar – and count the seconds it takes to hear what did you just say?, repeat that in English, or some kind of mockery and laughter at your expense. With this in mind, ask yourself what value comes from using jargon at work. I bet this is not easy to answer. Meanwhile, common speak is clear and specific:

I know it’s difficult, but we need to rework the latest ad campaign to continue driving sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The student intern gets it. The admin gets it. The old-school senior vice president who chose not to retire fifteen years ago gets it. The creative professional from a non-corporate background gets it. And it wasn’t complicated to say. Is this making sense now?

Unnecessary, if not misleading.

The English language contains an abundance of great words to fit most any occasion and meaning. I know it’s not perfect, there are voids by not having words for certain objects (is there a common word for the interior section of the arm opposite the elbow?), complexities (such as the homonyms there, their, they’re), and words with multiple meanings (such as lie, post, and stake).

The language exists for us to use and enjoy. Explore dictionaries and thesauruses for strong alternatives to jargon. You have full creative license. If you’re unsure your audience will comprehend the word you found while in context, find something more suitable. It’s not difficult. Even the most successful novelists keep reference books at their desks for precisely this reason. The key in finding good words is simplicity. Million dollar words, those rarely seen outside specialized texts used in the medical community or academia, rarely suit the need as they come across in the same vein as jargon. So avoid them unless it’s appropriate for your audience.

Help make the world a better place. Communicate effectively, don’t use jargon.

Where do I begin (in writing for business)

A common question for anyone with a concept that merits exploration and writing about: Where do I begin? This was the first thought that came to mind as I prepared to write this blog. The blur of ideas swirling through my brain right were each vying to surface, holding each other down to drown rather than allow any the opportunity to escape unscathed. My ideas were composed of hardened exteriors with spines and claws capable of taking anyone’s fingers off, yet malleable amorphous bodies lay beneath the surfaces waiting to express themselves.

I’m sure everyone experiences this difficulty when they set out to write something, some may call it writer’s block or procrastination, for others it’s seen as a matter of organizing thoughts. Whatever your perspective, they are all essentially different terms for the same thing.

So where do I begin to apply this blog to effective writing that is applicable to any reader who may stumble across this  article? Good thing I kept asking myself this, it’s like I’m working through another cycle of missing motivation – see my previous blog entry on motivation to learn more. And now I’ll step outside of my head.

Grab attention

In business writing, the example I’ll use throughout this exercise, it is important to begin with a succinct message that immediately grabs attention. No different than journalism or fiction, really, though the intended audience of any corporate communication is expecting another doldrum memorandum or speech. You can’t let dull happen. Ever. Let’s use a speech here, don’t ever start a speech with “I’m so glad to be here, my name is _______ and I’m really happy to meet you. My accomplishments include….” Everyone’s heard that intro before, it’s expected and exhausting, the audience is already staring at the light fixtures or shutting their eyes to take a nap. Instead, begin with, “Here’s your solution…..” or “Tomorrow we will begin….”

As tempting as it is, you may want to avoid at all costs beginning a speech with the words “I killed your baby today, she deserved it.” Attention grabbing – absolutely. A few will find the humor, unfortunately, most will not. But think of a similar and relevant statement that will command the attention of even the most apathetic employee. Then carry that heightened moment forward with further supporting details.

In medias res

Then there is beginning in medias res. Unless you are a writer or have been enrolled in a writing program, you are less likely to encounter this term. Thing is, you’ve seen it used in movies, TV dramas, and books of all kinds. SImply explained, it’s beginning the story in the midst of action from the middle of the narrative, an abrupt flash forward if you will, that immediately draws the audience to an upcoming conflict that early part of the story is building up to. I find it a fun literary device as I don’t always like to tell stories in chronological order. Think about how this can apply to preparing a presentation or speech. Open with a teaser that immediately engages the audience, then transition to the beginning of the story you are about to tell. Just don’t lose the momentum that opener initiated.

Begin with the end

There are other aspects to where to begin, such as sorting out your thoughts, like my opening paragraph to this blog entry. Sometimes, those swirling thoughts are so overwhelming and cumbersome that the best place to begin is with the end. What is your intended result? Who are you talking to and why? If you are persuading an audience that a new process will benefit the company by reducing expenses thereby improve their bonuses, start there and follow with supporting information like how this came to be and why it will work, then close with a reiteration of your initial point. SImple, right?

Where this blog entry started and has headed I couldn’t fathom before I began. This idea was one of those soft-bodied cores beneath a spiny exoskeleton when it was first spawned, difficult to approach until I found exactly the right point to access its warm and bountiful interior. I hope that you have come away with something useful in your own writing endeavors, even if some strange visual metaphors to remember this by.

A Writers Exploration: Where I Am

I am here in early May as my MFA Writing program spring semesters wraps. I have definitely come out ahead from where I started, making a few self-discoveries along the way. For instance, I learned that I am a natural at writing horror and suspense in my fiction life, something I never touched on until recently. I had always aimed at the slice of life, somewhat absurd, realism in my earlier days of writing, mixed with elements of surrealism for the unexpected. Rejuvenating my writing style in the psycho thriller and horror area story feels like a natural progression for me, one that I just took the risk and succeeded at. Who knew? My first story in this genre will be published soon, details to come.

I find myself filled with far more knowledge about the discipline of corporate communication and PR than I had ever anticipated. The things that come out of my mouth on this subject at work or during casual conversations catch me by surprise sometimes, only proving that my MFA endeavor is anything but futile. I now have a solidified foundation in communication that I have already begun to build upon, which will only continue upwards as I finish my schooling and grow in my professional life.

Most important, I find myself a more confident writer, no longer afraid to take risks and voice my opinions. Risk-taking led to my upcoming first horror publication and brought out my contrarian nature in the world of critiques and classrooms.

Recently, my classmates learned that I couldn’t assimilate with the accepted norm; rather, I innately challenged the authenticity and validity of a big Hollywood screen adaptation to a great Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Surprisingly, most of my classmates respected my opinion and did not appear as upset as I had expected considering the Shawshank Redemption film is so highly revered. I did write my review with the utmost respect, after scrapping the scathing first draft. What can I say? I’m an obsessive purist in my artistic roots, it’s who I am. The movie on its own was good, but did not capture the complexity and the many shades of gray that is human nature as depicted in the book. But that’s a whole other discussion.

So, here I am writing my last blog entry for the spring 2012 semester. It’s sad to see a great semester come to an end, but exciting to know I have accomplished so much and gained some new friends along the way. I am already eagerly anticipating the next semester and reconvening with my classmates at our next residency in August.

As for this blog, I will carry on regularly.

Book Review: Real-Time Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott

I enjoyed every page of this book – well almost every page – the subject of analytics tends to lose me in any book. I enjoyed it to the point that I tweeted David Meerman Scott late Saturday night telling him that I was “loving it”; that the book addressed many of the frustrations I face professionally. He responded to me on Sunday afternoon via Twitter to thank me, and reminded me “real time is a mind-set.” A mind-set I will gladly take on in the communication profession.

Real-Time Marketing and PR tackles real world issues I know others like me have faced in the PR and corporate communication field: road blocks of bureaucracy, lethargy, and fear. The hesitancy to respond to matters in real-time can be painful to any company, particularly to its employees. And the lack of empowerment for employees to publicly defend and promote their company in the discourse of public opinion can be detrimental to corporate culture.

“Big business is designed to move forward according to plan, at a measured and deliberate pace.” (35) Organizations traditionally rely on the slow mechanics of consensus building, conducting studies, legal reviews, practicing caution, and meeting compliance within hierarchal structures. Meanwhile, in the outside world where the fruits of their labor matter most, consumers set the pace, and that pace is lightning fast in the social media realm.

An important concept this book conveys is that social media are only the tools, whereas real-time is a mind-set. Companies cannot presume they are active in the real-time market place just because they have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. The real time mind-set means actively responding to customers or proactively dealing with breaking news about the company before a crisis develops. In order to do this, however, social media must be monitored rigorously – in real time – using social and web analytics tools. Those tools should be integrated into the standard processes of a PR or marketing department, contributing data – such as ratios of positive versus negative commentary about a product – to all decision-making, not just checked in on occasionally. The data these tools collect and filter direct the appropriate message to the best recipient to handle the matter as immediately as possible. On a larger scale, the data provides trend tracking of both the positive and negative commentary, providing immediate insight into current public opinion.

On the customer service front, the real time mind-set requires flexibility and humanity, responding to issues immediately with a guiding principle that keeps the employees’ efforts on message. Consumers do not want to hear from an automaton reciting a script; they want to hear from humans making split-second decisions that the company endorses to satisfy their needs. This means companies need to listen to their public. They need to participate in the public conversations about them. If they don’t speak for themselves, others will, despite their best or worst intentions.

“In a real-time corporate culture everyone is recognized as a responsible adult.” (40) In other words, senior managers need to trust the people they hire to do right by the company, to not let fear of the unknown impede potential sales from a satisfied customer. In top-down traditional management structures, unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. I have witnessed leaders who were slow to respond to the simplest requests, wanting to pass the smallest detail through legal review before a communication could be shared publicly. It’s quite discouraging to the employees when these same leaders claim they want to see everyone as happy collaborators and transparent communicators. The only transparency is evident in their fear of the new ways of doing business. Scott is a fighter on this front, stating, “In the new always-on world of communications, success requires empowering your frontline people to use their own judgment as they engage your customers – in real time.” (63)

“Lawyers are not communicators,” Scott says, “the opinion of your legal staff should be considered, but final decisions should be made by competent real-time communicators.” (136) He recommends the creation of a new C-suite position: the Chief Real-Time Communications Officer. I would welcome this role in my organization. This person would “provide leadership and coordination for a range of real-time activities, starting with the creation of company guidelines. It would include a mandate to ensure compliance and consistency with those guidelines, once established.” (190) This person would interface with legal, marketing, PR, and plethora of other departments to best represent the company at any possible minute of the day. Real time communication is a cross-functional role based in communication, but requires the involvement and buy-in of all other aspects of a business. It fits the mold that every public facet of a business, from a customer service center’s hold music to the paper stock an employee’s business card is printed on, represents the company’s brand. The concept of real-time is no different.

I found Scott’s historical perspective on real time interesting. He explains that only in modern times during the age of mass media, starting in the 1950s, the history of communication was an aberration. “We spent six decades in a bizarre, one-sided, television-centered regime that gave no voice to consumers. But with the rise of the real-time web that era is over.” (215) He explained that, “word of mouth has regained its historic power.” (215)

Real-Time Marketing and PR is a great book tying together the tried and true public relations methodologies of the past century and applying them to the latest communication technologies. I strongly recommend that anyone in the fields of marketing or PR should read this book, seasoned veterans and newcomers alike. Even more so, I recommend this book to any manager feeling trepidation about taking their company into the new way of doing real-time business.