I recently attended the Internal Communications Conference in Manchester and between the various presentations and conversations in the break, it was clear that there is a growing confidence and recognition of the industry’s importance in driving company growth.
While the emphasis on the day was on best practice and successful case studies, I think it is worth exploring some of the reasons why internal communications is becoming critical to companies’ future success.
In their article “Organising for the age of urgency”, McKinsey talk about how companies find themselves having to transform every few years in a world where the only constant is change. To become faster and more agile, these organisations are pushing decision making to the edges of the organisation. Such “high-velocity” decision-making means that teams and employees are expected to react quickly to changing events in real-time and as a result don’t always get the chance to “check the manual” of refer back to central command.
Guiding decisions and behaviours
In the face of such challenges, it is now more important than ever that everyone in the organisation understands the overall direction of travel. Employees need to feel aligned with the company purpose and internalise the vision while living and breathing the values. This is because in the heat of battle, these strategic elements provide essential guardrails that help guide fundamental behaviours and decision-making – moment by moment.
Therefore the role of internal communications is more important than ever in ensuring that the vision and the strategy of the business is understood and that employees are inspired and activated to deliver on key goals and initiatives.
The changing landscape of work
Against this backdrop, the very concepts of the workplace, the workforce, and work itself are changing. We have entered a new era of the human capital-centric economy, where talent and culture sit at the heart of competitive advantage.
In the pursuit of agility, companies are also working in ways that are more fluid and increasingly embracing the gig economy. As a result, the “Hollywood” model of a talent marketplace is becoming a more commonplace, whereby teams coalesce around projects before dispersing to work on new and different initiatives.
Leaders are also increasingly aware that building a diverse and inclusive workforce is central to their ability to think in more rounded and relevant ways that are essential to sustaining competitive advantage. At the same time, demographic shifts mean we’re seeing the emergence of five generations in the workforce. Each of these generations are shaped by events that are unique to their own personal timeframes. As a result, there are major inter-generational differences around perspectives, values and modes of communication which must be bridged. However, there is a real opportunity for businesses to create healthy dialogue across the generations to find ways of working that match these differences in complementary and productive ways.
An education and skills gap means that attracting and retaining the best talent is now harder than ever. As a result, the balance of power between employers and employees has shifted, creating a new social contract between the two. Today’s employees also need to feel that their own personal values align with those of the company. The old directive and top down modes of communication no longer cut it with today’s workforce.
All of these issues make building a cohesive and effective working culture where employees are motivated, happy and healthy a challenge to say the least.
If leaders are to equip their businesses with a dynamic, motivated workforce that pulls together in the same direction, they must adopt a significant shift in mindset. They need to recognise that communicating to employees requires the same strategic rigor and creative focus as any customer audience.
“Jennifer Thomas, head of internal communications at the Direct Line Group, urged attendees to take time to understand the landscape of their organisation. ”
This means mapping the internal audience and channels in the same way as you would for any external campaign. Defining who your employees really are can reveal key insights in how to communicate in ways that creates a more engaged workforce and better business outcomes.
As workers are under more cognitive load than ever, you have to communicate with personalised precision and power in formats and channels that works best for them if your messages are to cut through their day-to-day distractions. This means testing what works across the different generations too so that you get the right blend of physical, digital and face-to-face communications.
The importance of measuring the impact of internal communications was discussed too, not just in terms of the metrics around engagement but also where possible linking to the business outcomes. In many ways, an organisation represents an ideal closed-loop system for measurement where different variables can reliably be tested against business outcomes. By measuring not only channel and engagement metrics but also linking this to specific HR data around departments and teams, internal communication teams will be able to demonstrate their value more clearly to leadership. Showing how specific internal campaigns have really moved the needle and directly led to increased productivity or sales will make securing ongoing resources and investment much easier.
People and Platforms
Technology was a big part of the conference conversation too. Zoe Vafardi, Head of Communications from TalkTalk made the point that internal communications and IT must work closely together to choose, integrate and deploy the right platforms and tools within the business. Employees expect the same level of user experience from their enterprise tools as they do from those in their personal lives.
“Jo Storr, Senior Internal Communications and Engagement Manager at DFS cited her workforce’s familiarity with Facebook as the main reason she had chosen Workplace by Facebook as their internal social platform and as a result adoption of the tool had been relatively painless.”
Interestingly, she also talked about how senior management were more accepting of the fact that employees would be using the tool on their phones on the shop floor during quiet periods.
There were other examples where Yammer or Microsoft 365 had been deployed to good effect. For example, Centrica wanted to breathe new life into the companies’ use of Yammer and supported the move with strong engagement campaigns which achieved some great results. They moved their ideas programme onto the platform and by integrating the Sideways 6 ideas management tool into Yammer they were able to generate over 900+ ideas via a reach of 2.7m with 13,000 active users.
Centrica’s Internal Communication Managers, Geoff Timblett and Claire Chambers, urged attendees to be brave and encourage honesty on the platform but also made the point that within the work environment social dialogue tended to be self-moderating as co-workers usually stepped in where necessary.
Great employee experience. Great customer experience.
While there was lots of talk about communication and engagement, very little was said about how to deliver a great brand experience for employees. What will be interesting to see over the next few years is how marketing, HR and internal communications work together more closely around the overall employee experience.
With the 4th industrial revolution underway, we’re seeing the convergence of physical space, digital technology and a more switched on workforce who want the freedom to work in new and more flexible ways. Property companies such as JLL are thinking hard about the future of work and are helping to shape the human experience by designing workplaces around people in a way that integrates technology in interesting ways.
With all this in mind, the conversation needs to go beyond just talking about content, formats and channels to one of how to design rewarding and personalised experiences for employees. Organisations need to focus on the employee experience from the very first touchpoint as job candidates, to when they step through the door on day one, through to the moment they leave.
Leading businesses are starting to bring together cross functional team that combine expertise from marketing and internal communications, HR, IT and facilities management to work closely together to create experiences that inspire workers, foster more creative collaboration while making a difference to the bottom line.
These businesses recognize that their customers are no longer loyal simply to a brand itself but are loyal to great experiences in their lives. Unless your employees internalise your brand in a positive way based on their day-to-day working life then they are never going to amplify this to the outside world. So getting your employee experience right is the starting point for building a great brand too.
Considering all this, it looks like interesting times ahead for internal communications and HR over the next few years. As Peter Drucker famously said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, so when you have a clear strategy for building a great culture then good things happen.
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