Effective internal communications is the heart of achieving business outcomes and everyone in the organisation plays an important part. Strong communication enables organisations to operate smoothly, successfully implement change programmes and ensures good leadership to communicate vision, strategy and values.
Why does communication with employees matter?
Communication is a critical aspect of employee engagement, which in turn promotes better performance, employee retention and well-being. Employees are more engaged when information flows freely and they are aware of organisational activities and management decisions that affect their jobs. It is also important for developing trust-based relationships between managers and staff, by demonstrating to workers that they are valued members of the organisation and are treated with respect.
However, despite the need for communication to be a priority agenda in all organisations, CIPD’s Spring 2017 Employee Outlook survey found that two-fifths of employees said they receive either limited information or none at all when it comes to their organisation’s strategy.
Challenges in effective organisational communication can occur across all areas of the system. Faced with change and complexity, senior leaders often struggle to communicate clearly and authentically about where the organisation is going and the impact on employees. Equally, managers can lack the skills, confidence and time needed to communicate well with their teams. Further, traditional ‘static’ intranets are often unwieldy and content-heavy; not designed for employee usability and this is a particular problem for people who are used to personalised, on-demand content in their private lives.
Principles of an effective employee communications strategy
A truly effective approach to internal communication will be cohesive and strategic and supports a culture of trust and openness. Successful communication:
- builds on a shared sense of purpose and aligned to business strategy
- receives attention and support from senior leadership
- is driven by genuine dialogue
- is part of the expectation of good people management
- draws on a range of digital channels and tools
- is reviewed and assessed for effectiveness.
The role of senior leaders and people managers
Senior leaders are key communication channels to employees as well as the embodiment of the organisation. Where resources permit, communications professionals should partner with leaders to help them be authentic, clear and inclusive in their communication.
Good communication from senior leaders supports employees in their roles and wider organisational performance. Sharing information helps employees to make decisions and be effective in their work, and encourages them to communicate with and learn from one another.
Using social technology
Static intranets are increasingly seen as out of date and unwieldy repositories of information. In their place, or alongside them, social media is being used as a more effective communication tool.
Enterprise social networks (which work like an in-house Facebook) are a potentially game-changing shift in how internal communications work. Already, some organisations are seeing benefits from internal social media in:
- enabling employee interaction and a sense of unity
- resolving operational issues quickly, especially across a dispersed workforce
- encouraging collaboration across teams or departments
- giving employees greater voice
- gaining insight into issues that affect employees and their work
Communication technology is a market in which new players are emerging fast. When looking at the types of system or technology will work best for an organisation, it is important to carefully consider what employees throughout the organisation need to do and what help they need to achieve it.
Two-way and multi-directional dialogue
The principle of two-way and responsive communication is extremely important. Good two-way communication supports the psychological contract and employee engagement, as employees feel listened to and valued.
However, with the advent of enterprise social networks, communication is increasingly becoming not only two-way, but multi-directional. Employees can share their views with colleagues at the same time as feeding them ‘upwards’ and quickly receive responses from colleagues or leaders in any part of the organisation. This marks a significant shift in the workings and impact to internal communications.
Assessing communications effectiveness
There are two key levels for evaluating communications effectiveness:
- Overall culture of communication within the organisation – one effective way to measure this is to ask questions about communication in the regular employee attitude survey, for example covering:
- whether employees feel fully informed
- regularity and consistency of communication
- whether employees feel heard
- trust in leadership
- Success against specific objectives – when launching a communication campaign, it is important to establish is the overall objective, for example, awareness about a particular initiative or a change in perception or behaviour. Once the objective is established, it is then possible to measure whether the campaign makes a difference.
When facing organisational change, there is a huge benefit to be gained from developing communications plans that look at the appropriate timing, content, style and channels to be used. There is a need to consider:
- regularity and consistency of communication
- honesty and straight talking
- clarity of the customer’s message
Channel and message selection
Communications planning should start with the outcome – what do you want the audience to think, feel or do based on the communication? This gives a good base on which to select appropriate messaging tools and channels.
Some methods of communication tend to be top-down, such as all-staff presentations or team briefings. Others, such as group meetings or online discussion forums, provide more opportunity for dialogue.
When dialogue is required it is important that the method chosen for communication both stimulates this two-way approach and generates an appropriate level of discussion. For example, an enterprise social network may work well for some discussions, other more sensitive or targeted issues will benefit from face-to-face individual or group meetings. it is also important that communication channels address the diversity of individual needs in the workforce, including remote or part-time workers and those who may prefer having one-to-one conversations rather than large group meetings.
Digital technology transformed the range of options available for communicating with employees. However, not all employees will habitually use tools such as intranets and social networks, so communicators should consider the range of channels at their disposal, matching them with how people in the target audience prefer to receive and communicate information.
Some organisations segment employees so they can tailor communications to different audiences. This can be differentiated by the styles of communication and the channels used – for example, using the intranet for employees who have computer access, but other approaches for employees who do not.
Organisational size is also an important factor and will be more complex in a multi-national organisation than in a single site establishment, especially where different languages and cultures are involved.
Roles and Responsibilities in Communication
Internal communications departments play a central role in developing the communication strategy, creating and curating information and enabling the flow of communication across the organisation. Internal communication departments will also need to coordinate the communication efforts of various stakeholders and some examples are highlighted below:
- HR professionals need to work with internal communications specialists to ensure clear and timely communication around people management and employment issues.
- L&D professionals need to oversee and support the relevant skills development and ensure buy-in from the personnels involved.
- Senior leaders set the tone for communication across the organisation, both in terms of outlining the strategy and purpose, and in their own communication style and approach.
- Managers are the front line of communication with employees. They need to understand the importance of communicating and listening, have the skills required, be willing to enter into dialogue with employees and be prepared to address difficult situations and have courageous conversations.
- Finally, all employees play a role in ensuring effective communications. Sharing, learning, listening and collaboration between employees is increasingly becoming key to an organisation’s success and adaptability.
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