Prioritizing internal communications (Guest Commentary)

Ask employees about their preferences for receiving information
By Marcia McDougall
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/14/2012

Organizations with highly engaged workforces share several touchpoints, including an effective internal communications strategy.

Employees at firms on Aon Hewitt’s annual list of the Best Employers in Canada understand their employer’s business objectives and their role in achieving them, have the information they need to make good decisions about their benefits and appreciate all the elements of their total rewards package.

For many organizations, however, internal communications is an afterthought. While creating and implementing a business plan can rightly be expected to receive top priority, developing an internal communications strategy that reinforces that plan is much further down the list.

Many employers wait until they reach a certain size or open a second location before they address internal communications. Often, their approach simply evolves over time, with little planning. However, there are real advantages to building a solid internal communications strategy early on.

Employers should develop a communication strategy right from the start, regardless of their size, according to Esther Huberman, communications consultant at Pal Benefits in Toronto.

“If leadership and HR aren’t communicating regularly with their staff, employees’ only source for answers is each other — the grapevine,” she says. “Inaccurate information may have a negative impact on employees’ perceptions, which may spill over into what they communicate to customers and other audiences.”

But one factor that can thwart a well thought-out plan is a lack of leadership buy-in.

“If an organization’s executive team doesn’t believe that it’s important to share information about the business with their staff, it’s unlikely that employees will feel a strong sense of commitment to their employer,” says Huberman.

Getting started

Before jumping into the planning phase, employers should address the big picture of how to maximize the impact of communications, according to Kim McMullen, principal of KMcMullen Communications in Toronto.

She recommends employers consider how to best align the internal communication strategy with the business goals and external brand.

“Communication with employees should be designed to support the business and reinforce what the company stands for,” she says. “If an organization is in a high-touch business with a strong customer service focus, it’s likely that their employees also value high-touch communication. In this situation, an inclusive approach allowing for face-to-face communication, employee dialogue and personalized messaging would reinforce the business model and align with employee preferences.”

A comprehensive strategy covers:

• who (sender/audience)

• what (general information about the company, changes to specific initiatives and personal information for each employee)

• when (frequency)

• how (in-person or through various media).

It’s also important to include a means of evaluating if the initiatives have met expectations — whether that’s an increase in the number of hits to a website, employee feedback or action taken following a communiqué, for example.

It’s also important to have a benchmark before implementing a strategy in order to measure success, says Huberman.

Making contact

The most challenging aspect is how to reach employees, primarily because there are so many options, with the Internet, intranet, email, video, social media, webcasts, podcasts and interactive portals.

The key determinant is the audience: How do employees like to receive communication? What are their access points for information outside of work?

Asking employees for their preferences is a safer bet than assumptions, says Huberman.

“An employer can’t jump to the conclusion, for example, that older workers will shy away from online communication — many are embracing new technology.”

With three generations of employees in the workplace, organizations may need to communicate the same message in several different ways to accommodate various needs.

McMullen also recommends choosing a delivery method that supports the organization’s goals. Sending a message such as “We are committed to going green” with a paper memo and printed posters is contradictory.

But employers must focus on what they’re saying as much as how they’re saying it. If a particular communiqué doesn’t receive the anticipated reaction, it may have more to do with content than delivery. For example, McMullen advises organizations to be cognizant of demands placed on staff.

“In busy organizations, where employees are stretched thin and are juggling multiple priorities, employees prefer quick hits of information — just what they need to know, when they need to know it. Lengthy emails and documents are typically glanced at and set aside, so key messages, actions and deadlines must be highly visible.”

It’s also important to revisit a communication strategy at least annually to ensure it remains effective. Communication channels and employee demographics shift over time and internal communication plans must evolve to meet the changing needs of the audience.

Marcia McDougall is president of InteGreat Marketing PR Events in Toronto. She can be reached at mmcdougall@integreatmarketing.com.

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