Poor literacy: still a workplace communication challenge

by Janet Houen, Group Manager

Published on
August 6, 2018

If you are reading this, presumably literacy and numeracy are not issues you have to face in your day-to-day life. Your ability to read, to fill out a form or use a computer with ease is something you — and your employer — probably take for granted.

But for an estimated four million Australians, the prospects of a working environment increasingly reliant on technology can be daunting and limiting. That’s the estimated number of people who have inadequate literacy for the workplace, according to a new alliance of industry and vocational educators, formed to advocate for a nationwide policy and easier access to programs for employers and employees. And it’s a pretty shocking figure, from a working population of around 12.5 million.

Of course, this is not a new story. Many studies over the years have looked at the problem from a range of perspectives: ‘failure’ of our education system; impacts of poor literacy and numeracy on productivity and as a contributing factor to long-term unemployment; the changing nature of previously manual jobs; lack of support for immigrants to learn our (let’s face it) crazily complicated lingo to a standard where they can find a decent job.

What is worth revisiting though is the implication for workforce communication and engagement. Once you start thinking about the scope, it is quite the Pandora’s Box. Critical issues such as people’s ability to complete vital compliance activities and training in an operational environment, moving to employee self-service or mobile apps for HR-related record-keeping, roll-out of any digital solution that requires user input, getting good response to that expensive employee engagement survey, or communicating effectively for complex things like enterprise agreement negotiations are just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s not just reading, writing, adding up — digital literacy is still a thing too, regardless of the seeming ubiquity of technology in our lives.

At Rowland, we do much of our work with diverse, dispersed organisations — companies having to cater for a workforce spanning the frontline to the C-suite, in locations from the coal mine or the factory floor to Collins Street. High up in the ivory tower, it is so easy to take for granted that the receiver of the information will be able to read and understand the fact sheet, the CEO’s email, the poster, or will know how to use that great new online form, but that is clearly not the case.

These are always questions we ask our clients at the outset: do you really understand your workforce literacy levels?; do you know your English-as-second-language stats?; what is the access to and use of technology like across the business?; how clued-in are your managers to the issue?. The answers help to inform approach — not only to content development, but also to what effective implementation will look like.

Not surprisingly, simplicity is key — great images, straightforward language, video (hopefully, increasingly), tailored and targeted roll-out plans. Potentially even translation into other languages if that’s warranted given the workforce profile. Making sure leaders are in the loop is also — as always — a critical communication success factor. With the enduring feedback that people want to hear directly from their own leader, so too comes the need to support those leaders to communicate well, and to be on the lookout for those who might be struggling.

The bottom line is that if you are making an investment in something strategic, be crystal clear the people you will rely on to bring it to life are suitably prepared to do so, and can understand what you’re asking them to do.

None of this solves the bigger-picture issue, but it is a worthwhile planning reminder for internal communicators everywhere. Check out the story on AM, ABC Radio National’s morning news program here.