When John Scardapane opened the first Saladworks in 1986, getting regular face time with his employees was a given, not a management strategy. But as the brand started to expand across the country, it became more difficult for Scardapane to foster that human connection with Saladworks employees.
“If you want to maintain your culture and your vision of the company, you have to be out there with your employees—no one else can do it,” Scardapane says. So, two years ago, he started blocking off a couple of days a week for in-person meetings with his crew. Saladworks also plans team-building events twice a year and provides a free daily meal to employees who eat in the lunchroom at headquarters.
“Things come out of these face-to-face interactions that you’re just not going to get through a text or through an e-mail,” Scardapane says. “You start a bonding relationship with an employee or a franchisee, and it starts to grow.”
Stacey Hanke, communication expert and author of Yes You Can: Everything You Need From A-Z to Influence Others to Take Action, says face-to-face interaction is more important now than ever before.
“The use of technology-based communication has increased dramatically over the past several years,” she says. While it’s easy to fire off an e-mail or post something to Twitter, Hanke says that’s part of the problem. “These days, we often feel more comfortable having a conversation via e-mail than having to pick up the phone and do it. … To some degree, we hide behind it.”
Mike Shumsky, CEO of CiCi’s Pizza, says face-to-face interactions with employees offer the opportunity to build relationships with them.
“Part of the success of anyone in the hospitality industry is how well you treat and interact with other people,” he says. “I think it’s absolutely critical that the management reflects that.”
Issues arise when CEOs stray from that mentality and start to over-rely on electronic forms of communication, Hanke says. “It can break down relationships, rather than build them,” she says.
Shumsky says visiting stores across the country and even bussing tables or delivering a pizza to a customer’s table while he’s there helps his franchisees and other employees feel connected to him.
“It creates some camaraderie with those different people in the various stations of the restaurant. They see I’m familiar with what they do and appreciate it,” he says.
The in-person visits also give Shumsky a chance to solicit valuable feedback from employees, both formally through a series of questions he asks and in more informal ways.
“Lots of times employees end up teaching me better ways to operate the store,” he says. “They say, ‘Hey, Mike, you’re doing it wrong. Let me show you how I’ve been doing it.’”
That kind of back and forth that’s possible during face-to-face interactions is one of the best ways to prevent miscommunications, Hanke says. “You can get so much context from a facial expression or a tone of voice,” she says.
Put Down the Blackberry
While it’s difficult to get face time with employees when you’re the CEO of a larger chain, Saladworks’ Scardapane says that this is when it becomes most important to prioritize in-person meetings. He says he discovered this firsthand when Saladworks started aggressive national growth two years ago.
“We came across an individual that wanted to do eight stores with us, and we felt that it was important for him to understand what our demographics are and what the physical key factors we look for in a store location are,” he says.
So Scardapane offered to fly out to the market and spend a couple of days personally touring sites with the franchisee. The trip went so well that Scardapane decided to meet with all future franchisees to assist with site selection.
“It gives me a chance to spend a full day or two with them and talk about the company, talk about our values and what we expect for them,” he says. “It gives them that personal time that we never had before, so you’re accomplishing several things in one trip.”
But increasing personal interactions doesn’t have to be so time-consuming, Hanke says.
To get into the habit of communicating in a more personal way, she says, try stopping mid-e-mail from time to time and calling up the person instead.
She also recommends attending meetings and walking around the office without an iPad or Blackberry.
“How a leader communicates is a strong reflection on how the rest of that organization communicates,” Hanke says. “If you’re just tied to your phone all the time, everyone will be the same with their heads all down, constantly looking at screens.”
Even something as simple as banning electronics at meetings can be enough to create a more relationship-driven work environment, she says.
E-Mail Has Its Place
Of course, there are situations when electronic communication is helpful, or even necessary.
“If someone wants you to review a document and give your input, written feedback is always important,” Hanke says. “That way they can look back on your comments later.”
New company practices or strategies should also be handed down in writing so that employees have something documented that they can refer to, she says.
When it comes to addressing questions from departments or individual employees, Hanke says execs should e-mail their response only when they can do so clearly and concisely.
“If there’s absolutely no chance that your e-mail will be misunderstood, go ahead and send it,” she says. Sometimes it can be helpful to leave a voicemail in addition to e-mailing someone to give context to the message, she says.
At CiCi’s, Shumsky has regular meetings specifically to determine which communication method is best suited to deliver certain messages.
“There are about six or seven avenues we have available to communicate with our franchisees and restaurant managers,” he says. “So every Friday we bring together some members of senior-level management to discuss which topics we need to communicate and how exactly we want to communicate each one.”
When all else fails, Hanke says, it’s helpful to ask yourself if there’s a particular reason to e-mail the message you’re about to send.
“If you’re sending it that way intentionally, then that’s what’s important,” she says.