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The future for Internal Communications

This blog looks at what Internal Communications can do in the future to become more useful and relevant to internal audiences.

Last year, Ragan reported that 46% of employees they surveyed rated themselves satisfied or extremely satisfied with the state of internal communication. A significant 34% said they were dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied. Leaving 20% with ‘no opinion’. That’s a disappointing figure and begs the question, what can Internal Communications do in the future to become more useful and relevant to internal audiences?

Firstly, we’ve got the name of the function wrong. We don’t do Internal Communications.

I think the question we ask employees needs to be clarified. Are you satisfied with Internal Communications? It’s not really granular enough. Are you getting the information, insight and inspiration you need to do a job that leaves you proud of the work that you and your colleagues do as one integrated team? It’s not as pithy a question, but it more accurately defines what we mean by ‘Internal Communications’ – information; insight; inspiration and integration.

Internal Communications will be replaced by Employee Experience professionals who integrate everything required to determine the experience required on the inside that will drive the behaviours required for the outside. And Employee Experience will need to decide whether it sits inside or outside HR, Marketing and Communications. It needs to act as the glue, bringing people policies, insights, L&D and facilities together into one offer for people – where is its home? The leader of this function will need to integrate effectively – in my view, that’s not best served by taking sides which is what happens far too often.

Internal Communications will be replaced by Employee Experience professionals who integrate everything required to determine the experience required on the inside that will drive the behaviours required for the outside.

And Employee Experience will need to become a more of a service. Our client, Southwest Airlines, has their Employee Services function at the front door – not hidden away – it is the first thing employees see when they come to work in the morning. If there are issues, they can be raised. That’s putting employees first.

As Employee Experience professionals we need to look to how digital tools, work environments, leadership and marketing can help us.

Let’s start with leadership. I went into the world of work with a simple mantra for myself: never act like you have a boss. This does not mean going rogue, but instead means taking responsibility for my work, proactively carve my own career path and working when, where and how I need to deliver end results. It’s empowering.

Smarkets in London have followed a similar attitude that they have taken to the wider workforce. Their CEO believes in self-managing – the art of teams appointing their own leaders and even setting their own salaries. In Jason’s view, “hierarchies suck the life out of organisations” and lead to unnecessary costs and slow organisations down. Letting teams set where and how they work; even letting their peers assess whether they should get a pay rise. That’s inspiring.

This is a frightening prospect. Why? Because it shakes our accepted view of the world. Our world has been shaped by received wisdom, like organograms and simple concepts like job descriptions and contracted hours. Breaking away from those concepts is frightening, but the more we can become outcome focused, the better.

Digital tools can help us be more outcome focused, and when we talk about the future of ‘Internal Communications’ it’s to digital that we tend to look. We look to tools like Workplace from Facebook; to Slack and MS Teams; to one-stop communication shops like Poppulo. And while these platforms are all great examples of digital enabling collaboration and targeted communication, we need to look deeper for examples of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can truly add value in the workplace.

Digital tools can help us be more outcome focused, and when we talk about the future of ‘Internal Communications’ it’s to digital that we tend to look.

Our client IBM has set out a simple employer brand promise – to keep its people ahead of the game by ensuring that they have the skills that clients will be buying tomorrow. That requires some machinery behind the scenes. It needs AI that can look at what clients are buying, in what proportions and then it needs to serve up the training required in a timely manner so that employees can stay up to date.

AI can link people inside organisations who are facing the same training challenges – it can partner them. Putting the fears of big brother aside, AI can listen out for conversations that employees are having across email and other ‘social’ tools, pick up on shared challenges and put people together. Would it help if two engineers in a business working on a similar challenge could find one another? That is integrating the organisation.

Another of our clients, Avanade, is looking at the holy grail and how EX (Employee Experience and CX (Customer Experience) combine. This use of data will enable clients to identify the changes to Employee Experience that will inform decisions that will deliver returns on investment.

Quite simply, AI saves time. From self-populating profile pages for employees to AI enabled interview processes, AI gets things done faster. Unilever are experimenting with the roll out of a UNABOT – a piece of machine learning that can answer employee questions on a whole host of topics.

Other tools are available – Chorus analyses sales calls and can pick out the problems that employees face in order to serve up relevant training to them. Cognito also monitors calls and anticipates employee requirements for information by understanding vocal patterns such as pauses. Spoke is a helpdesk that you can purchase as a plug-in as part of Slack. It monitors common requests and can start to serve up information on demand. That’s integration information as employees need it. There are so many more that you can find at Capterra.

But tools are only half the picture. Employees have to want to use them. They need to be inspired with great internal marketing. And for me, this is where entertainment comes in. The future Employee Experience team will need to recruit storytellers, filmmakers, writers and painters – the true visual arts is something that can’t be fully copied by AI. This is where we need to compete – tapping into new ideas that will stir the imagination.

The future Employee Experience team will need to recruit storytellers, filmmakers, writers and painters – the true visual arts is something that can’t be fully copied by AI. This is where we need to compete – tapping into new ideas that will stir the imagination.

Much has been made of gamification and how it can lift mundane content. Our client RBS has used gamification to bring recent changes in regulations to life. By focusing on the medium rather than the content, they increased engagement dramatically. Again, this takes courage. Too many internal communicators do not want to take the risks involved in doing something differently, but that is where true entertainment lies.

Film is a similar challenge. In an increasing visual world – 95 million Instagram’s will be posted today – we are turning to moving image to get points across. And they work… if you follow some simple rules. Keep it short and sweet – employees tend not to go longer than 90 seconds unless they are captive; get to the point fast – if your film hasn’t started to impart a message within 3 seconds you can lose them. Say something – and be #consistent. Yes, hashtags do work – they can increase message cut-through by 21% if used consistently. But, perhaps build them off the back of what you know your people are already talking about.

Culturally, this picture changes. In Europe, Hubspot reports a 30% preference for film against a 45% preference in North America. In Europe, the demand for news articles is 41% (NA, 43%) and research content 35% (NA, 31%).

Again, we have to learn to be less conservative and more courageous. Yes, we need to be led by the data we have on our people, but no, we must not play it safe! Research content should be bold. It should lead with a point of view that will help employees reach conclusions.

Part of the way we market is also about tapping into internal influencers. The external world is great at this. Colin Furze is using a gadget and suddenly another million get sold. We have our own influencers inside organisations, and we have to learn to use them in putting across messages. If your CEO is boring, don’t worry. The marketing team are not using the CEO to sell products. You don’t have to use her alone to inspire employees and sell-in ideas.

All these tools will become more vital as we work together across borders and in different locations. The rise of the gig economy and coworking spaces has inspired employers to experiment with new office environments. This isn’t about telling everyone to just work from home. In fact, I expect to see those organisations that have ‘sent everyone home’ to be calling them back to the workplace because it’s lonely and unproductive. Collaborative teams are 4 times more effective, but there is something more primeval at work here. Studies have shown that in test groups employees working in the same room as others are more effective than those working alone. That is people just working alongside each other – not in teams.

Studies have shown that in test groups employees working in the same room as others are more effective than those working alone. That is people just working alongside each other – not in teams.

I’m not suggesting a full-scale return to the office, but we will need to make our office environments more welcoming; we’ll need to go back to fantastic advertising in our workspaces – using tools like Enplug – and we’ll need to let employees work from anywhere. That of course means serving up employees with content daily – start the day 10-minute programmes that cover the vital information that people need.

Of course, all this will need to be done for the price of a chocolate bar, so integrating with other functions budgets will be essential. Every initiative a business undertakes must result in a budget that is meaningful and ring-fenced to drive ROI through better productivity; eNPS scores and the right levels of retention.

The future looks exciting. Challenging, but one thing is certain in my view, the need for Employee Experience is going to get greater and Internal Communications must change to reflect that.

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