If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that internal communications can be a make-or-break factor for any company.
Recently, the topic went viral after a hostile email from Elon Musk to his staff sent shock waves across the nation. The internal email tells his near 100,000-person team to either return to the office or to leave the company. Musk then left a comment on Twitter saying that employees who choose not to come in could “pretend to work somewhere else.”
Clearly, this approach does not set the right tone for a happy working environment. But, what is the best approach for small business managers looking to develop a solid internal communications strategy? And how do you create an internal communications plan that promotes transparency and community in the workplace? Keep reading to find out answers to these questions and more.
Table of Contents
What is internal communication?
Communication at work means a little bit more than casual socialization between employees. Internal communication is how information flows across departments and teams within the organization. Essentially, it is about keeping employees informed and connected.
In order to create healthy communications and a healthy work environment, an effective internal communications plan should deliver these key points:
- Help employees stay aware of the company’s values and mission
- Promote transparency and employee engagement
- Encourage collaboration between teams and departments
- Make sure that all team members know about company changes, executive decisions, and the reasons behind new ways forward.
Internal and external communication
It is important to differentiate here between internal and external communications. The biggest difference is the stakeholders that are involved in the process.
Internal communications centers around how employees communicate within the organization, while external communication is more about how employees talk about the organization. For example, an employee promoting the brand on social media would be classified as external communications.
Although they require different strategies and target different audiences, note that the two should work together harmoniously. Both directly impact the company’s image and reputation. In reality, the way that your company communicates comes down to the policies and messages that your brand represents.
Benefits of effective internal communication
Before outlining the details of how to put a strategy in place, let’s take a look at some of the ways that your company can benefit from effective internal communications.
- Enhances engagement- It is fundamental to helping employees feel connected to the company. Employees who feel like their voices are heard often feel more invested in their work. According to Forbes, ”Highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability”. Additionally, more communicative and engaged teams also mean higher levels of organizational commitment and reduced workplace hostility.
- Reduces expenses- Communication blunders can be pricey and can have an especially detrimental effect on smaller businesses. The same piece by Forbes goes on to say that “disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year”. For businesses on a budget, internal communication should not stay on the sidelines.
- Promotes Productivity- An effective internal communications strategy means that employees feel more connected to each other and to those who hold decision-making positions. Studies show that employee productivity increases by 20-25% in organizations where employees are connected.
Common communication challenges
Many of the challenges that companies face with internal communications are nothing new. As pointed out by internal communications expert Jenni Field, “when you look at the latest trends in internal communication, a lot of them have been on our list for the last 10-20 years.”
With this being said, the pandemic has dramatically changed the way that people work and communicate at work. Although things like hybrid work and purpose-driven communication existed before the pandemic, they became more prominent necessities as a result of the event. In the words of Field, “A crisis escalates an existing trend.”
Communicating internally with hybrid and remote teams
Although many benefits come along with remote work, the lack of face-to-face interaction can leave many employees feeling disengaged and disconnected. With the increase of remote-first and hybrid companies, this issue is more pronounced and the stakes are higher now than ever before.
Effective internal communication strategies are even more critical in agile organizations and companies with more complex organizational structures. In these situations, it is often harder to reach everyone, especially if there is no streamlined way of doing so.
The best way to communicate with remote teams is by creating norms that establish communication protocols. It is best to not overload remote workers with messages, however, you shouldn’t cut messages short while talking about important issues either.
Additionally, be aware of the differences that come with text-based communication. More introverted employees might feel more comfortable communicating in this way and may be more likely to share their insights through internal messages and emails. However, text-based communication can also lead to misunderstandings and confusion about intention. It might be easier to misinterpret or misunderstand messages. In these cases, clarity is key.
Last but not least, you should make time for informal chats and socialization while communicating with remote teams. Often, it is difficult for remote workers to have the same rapport as those who are working together in person. Perhaps set up monthly virtual team-building events and happy hours so that your team gets to know each other on a more human level.
Internal communication and onboarding
Onboarding is arguably the phase in which internal communication has the most impact.
First impressions matter and good internal communication should be practiced from the start. Studies show that employees who receive a good onboarding experience are 82% more likely to stay with the company during their first year of work. This means that establishing good communication habits should be a top priority from the start.
While communicating with new employees, it is best to think about what makes your company culture unique. Rather than just saying that your company is a good place to work, show new employees the reasons why your work culture stands out.
Additionally, it is a good practice to share your internal communications protocols with new employees during their onboarding session. Share with them the channels and technology that you use to communicate across the company, and let them know who to contact if they need support. This will help them to feel comfortable from day one and ensure that issues are communicated before they become larger problems.
Sometimes information is stored in a way that is difficult for everyone to access. When this happens, so-called organizational silos start to emerge. Like silos used on a farm to separate and store resources, organizational silos in a company are commonplace when there is not enough communication across departments and teams.
As a result, many are left in the dark about topics that are important to get across, making interdepartmental collaboration and larger global projects nearly impossible.
In order to ward off silo mentalities in your organization, it is crucial to encourage and strengthen cross-departmental communication.
This can mean having representatives attending meetings of different departments. Or, perhaps creating more team-building events and activities with multiple departments. The actions of one department carry repercussions for everyone. When it comes to communicating projects and new initiatives, less segmentation can make for more success.
This is a problem for many organizations, especially when there are multiple platforms and channels of communication. When it comes to effective workplace communication, less is usually more. No one can stay up to date with 50+ slack channels, emails, and company announcements.
While it is important not to create silos, it is crucial to keep company-wide channels to a minimum and make sure that the right information is given to the right people and groups.
It is also important to consider the length of the content that you are sharing. Detailed communication of policy changes and more serious announcements is often necessary, however, lengthy messages for daily occurrences run the risk of never being read. While communicating, it is important to be friendly, yet concise. Give people exactly what they need to know. No more, no less.
The role of HR in internal communication
The role of HR has changed. With digitization, professionals working in the field are spending less time with routine administrative tasks and growing into a more business partner-oriented role. HR business partners play an important role in communicating, especially with company executives about strategic decisions.
Additionally, they are often responsible for delivering company-wide messages to employees and collaborating with external stakeholders. In other words, the role of HR is one of communicating in all directions.
However, it should be noted that when it comes to internal communications, the responsibility does not just belong to HR. Executives and individual employees play a big part in circulating information.
As seen by the reactions to Musk’s message, the voice of those in senior management roles is powerful, and can dramatically impact the way that employees and external stakeholders feel about the company.
In addition to HR and senior leaders, employees are responsible for sharing their ideas, providing feedback to one another, and communicating across teams. Without everyone’s active involvement in the process, your internal communication will most likely suffer.
How to deal with internal communication barriers
Make sure communication is horizontal
According to a recent survey, 66% of internal communications professionals said that the level of influence on senior leaders has increased due to the pandemic. Although top-down communication and CEO messages impact employee satisfaction and the overall work culture, the most effective internal communication strategies empower employees to be open and share.
Communication should be equal and symmetrical in an organization. This means that information about decisions, changes to company policies and procedures, and the reasons behind those changes should be conveyed to employees. Additionally, their participation in the conversation should be encouraged. Functional internal communication means that employees are heard and that their opinions are accounted for in the decision-making process.
Communicate bad news
It is not just messages about benefits and company achievements, internal communications managers are responsible for creating a community and promoting transparency while communicating difficult and bad news. This means making sure employees aren’t blindsided by terminations, failures, and unpopular policy changes.
According to Field, “you just have to be really open and honest” when it comes to communicating employee dismissals and layoffs. For Field, effective communication practices while discussing bad news include the following:
- Don’t prerecord messages. It eliminates the possibility of discussion about the important issue. Additionally, it does not exactly set the right tone while delivering important messages.
- Give people time to have conversations. Often, communicating bad news links to changes in the company. It’s important for employees to voice their opinions during these times especially.
- Take ambiguity away. During times of change, Field advises to “keep people up to date with what’s happening because it stops that ambiguity, it stops that void of information, which is what people will fill with something that’s negative.”
- Brief your managers. Keeping managers in the loop will help them to answer concerns and ultimately help their team recover from bad news. According to Field, you should “make sure your managers have answers, have Q and A’s, have briefing sheets, and have the time to talk to you before it goes to everyone else.” This will help them to deliver information accurately and deal with different stakeholder groups appropriately.
Internal communication and change management
As seen by Elon Musk’s questionable email about employees not working remotely, aggressive top-down communication is not the best strategy when it comes to managing company-wide policy changes. Whereas effective internal communication and change management can make employees more receptive and willing to commit to those new policies.
When everything is in flux, adaptability is vital. The degree to which your company communicates can be a make or break factor during times of change. Having clear, transparent communication helps everyone to feel secure and like the company has a well-organized plan for the future. Sudden changes without sufficient explanations will create feelings of uncertainty and instability.
Putting an internal communications strategy in place
Having an effective internal communications strategy can help you save time, money, and frustration.
1) Assess your current internal communication strategy
To get started, the first step is taking stock of what you already have. This means assessing the tools and practices that are already in place. While examining your internal communications practices, be sure to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the process to create and approve company messages?
- What kind of information is communicated? And what is the overall tone?
- What works and what doesn’t? What are some examples of functioning internal communication? Where is there room for improvement?
- What is the level of transparency? Do employees feel left out of important conversations?
- Who is responsible for what? Offen, internal communication is an interdisciplinary effort between multiple departments in an organization.
2) Set internal communications goals
Once you have a clear idea of your current internal communications practices, it’s time to start thinking about your objectives. While you might feel eager to put the perfect internal communications practices in place, it’s best to remember that it might take some time.
Especially at first, it’s important to set goals that are realistic and focused. Think about what is the most important objective and why it is a priority. Your new strategy should adapt to the practices and platforms that your team members are already using. This will help to implement any changes as smoothly as possible.
3) Find a way to measure successful internal communication
If there is no way to measure internal communication performance and progress, it will be difficult to develop your strategy. It will be hard to see the impact of your goals and understand what needs to be tweaked with your new practices in place.
Having a clear, systematic way of setting and measuring KPIs will bring you one step closer to aligning business goals and internal communication goals. To do this well,
Think about which metrics to use to track the progress of your internal communication plan. Here are some suggestions:
- Employee engagement
- Email open rates
- Employee turnover
- Employee feedback and suggestions
4) Think about your audience
While developing your strategy and determining what kind of messages need to communicate, it’s important to have a clear understanding of your target audience. This will help you to draft meaningful messages that really connect with readers.
Additionally, it will help you to determine which messages should go to which channels and why. Not everyone needs to hear about every minor company update. If a piece of news only affects certain employees, it is better to set up new channels to better target your audience. That way, you can avoid overloading employees with information that does not relate to their roles.
5) Develop a content workflow
The next step in putting your internal communications strategy in place is creating a content workflow. What does the content production process look like from start to finish? There is no cookie-cutter approach that works perfectly for every company. Depending on the company structure, and the tools used to communicate internally, it varies from company to company. Here are some of the points that you should address when finding a system that works for you:
- Determine who is in charge of internal communications. This will most likely be more than one person.
- Determine stakeholders from other departments that should be involved.
- Work closely with the marketing department to help curate content. This is true for both external and internal communication efforts.
- Create a calendar with dates for upcoming events and messages to go out.
6) Decide which internal communications tools to use
When deciding upon which tools to use to use for internal communications, consider the type of information that you need to communicate and which platform works best. There are a few general guidelines to help you with this:
- For shorter messages, an internal messaging system like Slack might work well.
- In regards to more detailed communication, for example, a company policy change, it might be best to communicate via email.
- For big company changes and bad news, it can be a good idea to communicate these in person or via zoom during all company meetings, such as all hands.
- Or, rather than using messaging systems and email to communicate, the simplest way to communicate important information is through an employee portal. With it, you can create company-wide announcements, create workflows, and instantly send email notifications to all team members.
7) Make improvements based on feedback
The last step to think about while developing your internal communications strategy is employee feedback. Regularly taking stock of how employees communicate can help to guide your strategic decisions and make improvements.
You can do this in several ways. Pulse surveys and satisfaction surveys are excellent places to start. These should ideally be conducted on a quarterly or monthly basis. In these surveys, be sure to include questions regarding the level of transparency that employees feel and their overall satisfaction with communication within their teams.
Additionally, take into consideration the internal communications metrics that you are tracking as well. It might be worthwhile to create a suggestion box for employees so that they can express their concerns and doubts at any time.
Best Practices to improve internal communications
To recap, here are some of the best practices to improve internal communications in your company.
- Communicate the company’s strategic goals. Studies show that on average, 95% of employees are unaware of the company’s strategy. With these numbers, it’s no wonder that there are miscommunications and misalignments within organizations. In order to achieve goals, everyone needs to have the big picture and understand where to direct their energy. A good internal communications strategy communicates the company’s vision, mission, and plan in such a way that is clear for everyone to understand.
- Don’t sugar-coat bad news. While it is important to promote positive thinking in the workplace, toxic positivity can actually discourage employees from sharing problems. Be realistic and honest about topics that aren’t necessarily pleasant. Make sure that everyone feels comfortable expressing their doubts and concerns.
- Communicate with your audience in mind. This is crucial to increase employee engagement. How can employees be responsive to messages if they were not written for them from the beginning? Start with a profile of your intended audience and act as if you are writing to a single person.
- Share the company’s structure with newcomers. Those first few days can be chaotic and it’s important that new hires know who to talk to about issues that come up. It can be especially helpful to share an organizational chart with all team members and their positions.
- Use the appropriate tools. The tools that you use, whether it be software, email, or video conferencing, should always correspond to the message that you want to convey to your team. The tool that you use contributes to the overall tone of communication. Using certain tools in the wrong context can come across as cold or less human.
Internal communication software
In order to have effective internal communications, it’s crucial to have the right tools. Most likely, you will need to use a combination of the following to put a solid internal communications plan in place.
Intranet internal communications software
Some companies opt for intranet software as their communications tool of choice. An intranet is a private network that allows companies to communicate exclusively with employees. The difference between using the company intranet vs. the internet to communicate is that intranets do not allow access to third parties, whereas internet platforms are widely available.
Knowledge-based internal communications software
- Employee dashboard- This works especially well for communications regarding company policy changes and events. With an employee portal like the one that Factorial offers, you can automatically notify employees about company announcements, requests to sign forms and contracts, and requests to fill out surveys via email. Perfect for companies looking to unify their internal communications tools and boost efficiency.
- Messaging tools- Messaging platforms like Slack work well for employee communications on a day-to-day basis.
- Video tools- These are especially important for remote and hybrid teams. Meetings on zoom and google meet work well to boost face-to-face interaction, especially to include everyone in all company events.
Final thoughts on internal communications
Improving internal communications can be a great way to boost engagement and motivation levels in your team. Here are a few key takeaways to remember while putting your strategy in place:
- Internal communication directly impacts employee engagement, motivation levels, and employee trust levels.
- Everyone plays a part in internal communication: HR, CEOs, managers, and employees.
- Having a stellar internal communications strategy in place is good for employer branding. Employees are more likely to act as brand ambassadors when they feel satisfied with their organization.
- Remember that transparency and trust are the most valued outcomes for any organization’s internal communication efforts.