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Internal Communications

How to share information that drives powerful business outcomes

On this page, you’ll learn everything you need to know about building effective internal communications practices in organizations that rely heavily on dispersed groups of frontline workers. While large global organizations often employ dozens of internal communications professionals to manage information sharing across business units and regions, every leader should make employee communications one of their core competencies. In fact, an effective, authentic, transparent approach to organizational communications can become a prime differentiator in competitive high-turnover industries like healthcare, food service, and retail.

What is internal communications?

Wikipedia offers a thorough definition of systematic internal communications (also known as employee communications or employee relations): 

“Internal communications is the function responsible for effective communications among participants within an organization. The scope of the function varies by organization and practitioner, from producing and delivering messages and campaigns on behalf of management, to facilitating two-way dialogue and developing the communication skills of the organization's participants.”

What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that accountability for internal communications should be pervasive across the organization, whether or not that practice is formalized with specific staff or processes that orchestrate the flow of information. The goal of successful internal communications should be to connect employees with your company’s mission and purpose, which requires leaders to encourage two-way interactions, tie updates and messages to business strategies, and foster employee engagement. Dr. Kevin Ruck describes this approach in his book, Exploring Internal Communication, which defines internal communications as:

Corporate information provided to employees that is also tailored to specific internal stakeholder groups (middle managers, line managers, functional and project teams, and peer groups) combined with the concurrent facilitation of employee voice that is treated seriously by all managers.”  

In order to develop a shared understanding and goal alignment amongst frontline workers, you need to empower everyone with key information and connections that span all groups, hierarchies, locations, and everything in between.

Why internal communications matters

Well-executed organizational communications is a driver for major business value in the form of employee engagement and productivity, even helping differentiate you from competitors in a tight talent market. Depending on how you approach employee communications, it will help or hinder a whole host of important outcomes for your business, including:

  • Workforce performance, efficiency, and innovation (driving down costs)
  • Work quality and speed of service (driving up sales)
  • Employee engagement, happiness, trust, retention, and loyalty
  • Talent acquisition and turnover
  • Teamwork and team-building
  • Company culture and the overall employee experience

Assigning responsibility for internal communications

While large global organizations might employ several internal communications professionals to manage a variety of programs across business units and regions, every leader in any company should make employee communications one of their core competencies. As digital workplaces make communications easier to disseminate and access, accountability must be shared by:

  • C-level executives (CEO, COO, CMO, CHRO)
  • Operations leads
  • Above-store management
  • Department, store, or regional managers
  • Human resources specialists
  • Subject-matter experts, and even 
  • Internal influencers or brand ambassadors from key segments of the organization.

Professionals who specialize exclusively in internal communications tend to wear multiple hats that often span traditional human resources and corporate communications functions. They hold responsibility for everything from disseminating management’s vision and strategy, driving alignment around the company mission and values, and supporting change communications, to facilitating cultural transformation, knowledge sharing and collaboration, employer branding, large company meetings and events, and last but not least, championing the voice of the employee.

Best practices for internal communications 

Employee communications can be tricky to get just right. If you communicate too often, you risk information overload that might distract workers from their core tasks. However, if you communicate inconsistently or inaccurately, people might not get the information they need to be successful at their jobs. Getting your frontline to consume, absorb, and remember the information you share is always important, but especially during a crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic. This is because successfully reaching your employees with pertinent information can be crucial for maintaining order, trust, and getting a consistent message out to your customers.  

Five ways the best communicators accomplish this include:

  1. Transparent, two-way dialogue: Old school top-down, “spray-and-pray” blast email techniques really don’t cut it anymore, especially if you rely on leagues of frontline workers who may or may not check their email regularly. In every organization, it’s crucial to foster an open feedback loop that links your back office, above-store leaders, frontline, and more.  In particular, you should listen carefully to the managers operating your stores, restaurants, or facilities, as well as key stakeholders across your supply chain.

    “It’s important not to overlook bidirectional communication—employees and partners may have concerns or observations and need a clear channel through which they can communicate them to leadership.” —
    451Research

    Encourage and enable multi-directional discussion so anyone can raise issues to not just their manager, but to corporate executives as well. Maintain regular dialogue between designated central and local communications leads, so you’ll have visibility into how messaging is being received across the organization, and can make adjustments as needed. If disagreements or concerns start to percolate, acknowledge them right away, and reiterate the company values behind whichever policies are questioned. Not everyone will agree with every decision you make, but they almost always prefer to be heard and to receive thoughtful explanations versus silence.

  2. Consistent, comprehensive information: When determining which information to share with frontline staff, start by itemizing everything they need (and want) to know as they interact with customers on a daily basis. Keep in mind that geographically dispersed teams of essential workers often feel disconnected from the rest of the organization. You don’t want them relying on second- or third-hand information (or, worse, misinformation), so your communications must be both accurate and authoritative. 

  3. Timeliness, frequency and agility: Many executive teams want all organization-wide announcements to be well-thought-out and fully polished before sharing them with employees. This is a natural instinct. But timeliness and responsiveness are more important than perfection, especially in the midst of emergency or crisis situations with lots of uncertainty.  If you find yourself needing to communicate during times when organizational changes or other specifics are still in flux, say only what you know to be true, and simply acknowledge when you’re still working out certain details. Reassuring teams that you’ll send more pertinent information as soon as possible is better than leaving your frontline wondering what’s going on, or rushing to get out information that’s likely to change.

  4. Empathy: The tone you use to connect with frontline teams is almost as crucial as what you say. Thoughtful and well-executed internal announcements, messages, videos, emails, group chats, and conference calls can have a major impact in the form of stronger relationships and engagement across your organization. The best leaders find a way to strike the right balance by always keeping empathy and compassion top of mind. In doing so, they’re able to ensure that their communications resonate with employees.

    “The key in communicating is practicing empathy—putting yourself in the shoes of your employees as you craft your message specifically for them. Rather than seeing communications through the lens of your own stresses and pressures, communicate with a focus on employees’ concerns. Be the leader who thinks first about your employees and their perspectives and then creates communications from this place of understanding.” — Alex Budak, UC Berkeley

  5. Authenticity: Make sure your updates sound human and conversational, as opposed to overly polished “corporate speak.” It can be useful to funnel most messages through one key executive that your teams are familiar with and who is good at communicating calmly, early, and predictably. In this way, you’ll show employees that not only are leaders informed and in control, but that they care about the frontline and their well-being.

To learn more read our blog on Communicating with impact: The role of empathy in a crisis.

Key elements of an internal communications plan

Your employee relations approach probably fluctuates quite a bit based on workforce sentiment, changing business needs, or external events in the industry or economy as a whole. Given this, it’s helpful to think of your internal communications plan as a living, breathing organism. Whether you’re just starting to document processes and tactics in a formalized plan, or looking for ways to improve one you already have in place, there are eight key ingredients you can map out and adapt to the unique requirements of your organization. 

  1. Situation analysis: This should be a brief overview that covers your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, as well as any relevant trends in employee sentiment or organizational structure considerations.

  2. Objectives: Keep your objectives measurable and achievable, such as “increase staff retention by 10%,” “achieve an average employee net promoter score (eNPS) of 30” or “grow digital workplace participation amongst frontline workers by 20%.”

  3. Strategies: List the specific techniques you’ll use to reach your goals. This might include nurturing mission/values alignment through executive Q&A sessions, town halls, or videos; facilitating knowledge sharing, collaboration, and innovation via a digital workplace, idea jams, or hack days; or promoting new feedback channels to encourage open discussion.

  4. Spokespeople: Decide on your primary and secondary spokespeople who will act as the voice of the company internally. This might include leaders from both your corporate headquarters and individual locations or regions. Keep in mind that the seniority of your spokespeople is often less important than how well they embody the characteristics of empathy and authenticity that we described above.

  5. Audience segments: Assessing and documenting who will receive your messages is a critical step in the planning process. Put some thought into the different needs, attitudes, channels, and demands that will play a role in how you’ll reach each segment of your workforce. For example, you might employ different tactics to communicate with various types of frontline workers (caregivers, cashiers, delivery people, greeters, baggers, servers, kitchen crew, warehouse staff, bakers, janitors, etc.), and yet others with store managers and shift leaders, regional or district managers, or back-office employees at your corporate headquarters. Some less obvious, but often useful, ways to segment employee groups might even be by their age or life stage, digital literacy, race, location, department, or even their attitude or engagement level with the company. Keep in mind that a single approach won’t work for everyone, so you’ll need to consider a variety of approaches that can help you effectively connect with each segment of your workforce.

  6. Key messages: The messaging you use in your plan will vary depending on which initiative, event, or overall strategy you’re communicating about. But what shouldn’t change is being sure to explain why people should care, what it means to them, and how the information you’re sharing ties to the company’s values and purpose. Whenever possible, include a call to action articulating what you want your frontline workers to do with the information—whether that be to complete their open enrollment forms, follow new safety procedures, or act as an ambassador of your brand. Always try to keep your talking points succinct (ideally no more than a page long), so you stay focused on only the most important information you need to convey.

  7. Tactics and timing: Here’s where you get into more of the nitty-gritty, laying out a specific sequence of events and communication channels that will help you achieve your objectives. Keep in mind that the timing of each tactic can be very important, especially for sensitive internal communications. If you are preparing for a reduction in force or an acquisition, you usually shouldn’t just send out one blast announcement and be done. You’ll need to carefully sequence notifications for middle managers and line managers, so they are prepared to cascade key points and answer any questions the frontline will have when the time comes. However, for more basic or urgent updates, you might utilize an organization-wide message to get information out quickly, and then offer venues for employees to ask questions of subject-matter experts or corporate leaders directly after the news is published.

  8. Measurement and expected outcomes: Your plan should also include details about how and when you’re going to measure the change you are working towards. This could be in the form of tracking meeting attendance or comments/reactions in your digital workplace platform, sending out short weekly pulse surveys directly to employees’ mobile devices, or conducting an in-depth annual employee engagement study.

While you can prepare an internal communications plan for any business or leadership initiative, some of the most common drivers for systematic planning tend to be major organizational restructuring or crisis scenarios. All of the elements reviewed above should also be included in any broader crisis communications or change management plan. To learn more about this, read How to build a resilient comms plan at crisis speed.

Internal communications during a crisis

During any kind of emergency or crisis, real-time information is every employee’s lifeline. As such, internal communication plays a pivotal role in supporting each level of the organization. By thoughtfully using the best practices listed above to cut through people’s inevitable fear, uncertainty, and doubt, employee communications can increase the likelihood that your messages are heard and absorbed, your employees stay engaged, and your teams feel well-equipped to navigate through difficult challenges. What’s more, solid internal communications delivers priceless benefits—like greater agility, resilience, and durability—to your entire business, both during emergency situations and over the long term.

In practice, there are three key ways you can leverage proactive, intentional internal communications to fill information gaps during a crisis:

  1. Broadcast official announcements in real-time: When a crisis occurs, it’s helpful to assign one HQ staff member the responsibility of getting news and decisions from the corporate office out to the entire organization as quickly as possible. Rather than relying on various management layers to cascade such valuable, time-sensitive information, consider leveraging a mobile-first platform like Crew to share important messages instantly. Even if you don’t have a full-time communicator on staff, an HR, marketing, or operations lead can be in charge of producing written or multimedia announcements, ensuring appropriate approvals, and publishing org-wide updates about things like store closures, new safety procedures, or whatever changes the emergency calls for. This will give every employee the information they need in the palm of their hands, and provide your central team with a view into how quickly and widely those details are consumed—so you can rest easy knowing that everyone has their marching orders when big changes or disasters impact the business.

  2. Curate a centralized library of key information: Another common challenge during most emergency scenarios is details and policies changing at a fast and furious pace. Once you get information out to your frontline, how do you keep them updated as the situation evolves without overloading them or keeping them from important tasks? One way to do this is to establish a living resource, where they can find the latest policies, training materials, leadership announcements, frequently-asked questions, and, in the case of a pandemic like COVID-19, other guidelines or updates from local or federal public health organizations (e.g., current shelter in place rules, sanitation procedures to follow, etc.).

  3. Facilitate open team collaboration and coordination: 

              Finally, you should let your managers know that you expect receiving feedback, questions, and ideas from the frontline to remain a priority, even in the midst of chaos. It’s a good idea to also designate a central lead to focus on  ensuring rapid answers from HQ to frontline questions, addressing negative conversations that might percolate in your digital workplace or offline, promoting site-to-site knowledge sharing and crowd-sourced problem solving, and publicly recognizing stellar performance and innovative suggestions from the frontline. One way to encourage this dialog is to establish an employee advisory council and ensure you have regular communication with them throughout the crisis to keep the pulse of the frontline. 

    "With top-down communication, it's important that it goes down as well as comes back up. There are a number of retailers that have taken the approach of ‘we are going to slap a website up and we are going to post things up there.’ And the problem then is that associates don't have a good way of communicating back or asking questions."  - Bob Clements President, Axsium Group

Examples of internal communications

The specific types of content you need to share will vary by organization, but a general rule of thumb is to carefully consider what topics will help each segment of your organization do their jobs better or feel more engaged with your company and its mission. Whether you are reacting to a troubling organizational issue or crisis, or simply trying to get ahead of the game by increasing the effectiveness of your communications, it’s useful to first hone in on your frontline employees who are likely scattered far from your central office. Make sure you uncover their biggest issues and priorities, and determine what they need to know, considering areas such as:

  • Employee onboarding (e.g., employee handbook, key contacts or resources, the company’s mission, vision, values, and purpose)
  • Benefits based on employee status (e.g., part-time, full-time, furloughed, leave of absence)
  • Learning and development (and career growth) opportunities
  • Job security reassurance
  • Flexible scheduling options
  • Customer experience expectations (e.g. speed of service goals, CSAT benchmarks)
  • Limited time off promotions or marketing campaigns
  • How to escalate questions, concerns, solution ideas
  • Location-specific procedures, policies, and shift tasks
  • Positive frontline recognition and success stories
  • Updates from company leadership
  • The competitive landscape
  • Relevant industry news
  • Safety and wellness information

All of this information can take a variety of forms and mediums. You may decide your audiences are best served by written communications, such as regularly updated “frequently-asked questions” (FAQ) documents with details your employees can review when time allows. Or perhaps you lean towards short posts that highlight the most timely news each day. Keep in mind that your teams will always benefit from succinct, memorable visuals, like infographics or short videos that help them understand more nuanced details or major policy changes. And always include purpose and positivity in your communications whenever you can. Celebrate innovative problem-solving when it occurs, and reinforce your values and mission so that employees understand the “why” behind the “what” you’re communicating.

Best (and worst) channels for internal communications 

Think about how many channels of incoming information we are all inundated with in our personal lives today—from traditional television to streaming services, from radio to podcasts, from Facebook to TikTok, and from text messaging to Zoom videos. In many workplaces, the information landscape is double or triple the size and frequency of non-work content people consume, stretching attention spans thin. Most vehicles for business communications fall into these common categories:

  • The digital environment: This includes information shared via your digital workplace, perhaps including a corporate intranet, collaboration tool, messaging system, internal social media, email lists, webcasts, wikis, news feeds, or other business apps.
  • The physical environment: Many organizations rely on their brick and mortar workspaces to spread communication through TV monitors or paper-based materials, such as bulletin board flyers, posters, printed newsletters, window decals, brochures, memos, handbooks, policy binders, and more.
  • In-person conversations: While remote work and contactless interactions are on the rise, live human-to-human communication will always play a role in the workplace. This includes one-on-one meetings with managers or mentors, as well as one-to-many all-hands, trainings, briefings, site visits, brown bag lunches, town hall discussions, round-table employee feedback sessions, offsite meetings, etc.

Of course, there are pros and cons to each internal communications channel, so consider the current constraints of your environment as you determine which ones will be most effective at reaching and engaging each of your audience segments. In general, some of the least effective venues are those that are paper-based or rely on cascading information by word-of-mouth. These approaches tend to result in inconsistent, delayed, or outdated content dissemination. On the other hand, easy-to-access mobile apps like Crew and other digital workplace solutions help you get details out rapidly, so you can keep everyone on the same page. And since most mobile and web solutions are interactive, they enable employees to respond to your communications with comments, reactions, or questions, allowing you to centralize pertinent updates in one place and keep managers from having to respond to the same inquiries over and over again. When possible, live (or at least video-based) interactions bring a personal touch that can’t be replicated when it comes to driving increased engagement levels.

The role of frontline managers

An employee’s direct manager should be their most frequent and trusted connection to the broader organization and its purpose. As such, frontline managers’ role in distributing and reinforcing your company’s internal communications is paramount. For certain sensitive (but less urgent) messages, you might want frontline managers to be the first touch point for communications, asking them to cascade information directly to their teams. For more urgent (or less sensitive) information, you’ll need to inform, but bypass, managers to get details rapidly from HQ to frontline teams with no intervention. 

In addition to these models for top-down communications, you should lean on frontline managers to help with cultivating two-way communications, synthesizing team feedback, and feeding it back to above-store and HQ leaders. However, it’s critical to also offer frontline teams some direct lines of communication with the central office in cases where they might want to provide anonymous feedback or have constructive feedback to share about the managers themselves. 

Key audiences to target

In order to employ highly effective internal communications strategies, you’ll need to assess, segment, and document exactly who should receive each message or campaign you intend to put out there. For example, is your video intended for part-time frontline workers, specific departments/functions/ locations, middle managers, salaried back-office staff, all of the above, or some other group of employees? Put some thought into the different needs, attitudes, channels, and demands that will play a role in how you’ll reach each audience segment or sub-group. In service-oriented establishments like healthcare facilities, restaurants, and retail stores that rely heavily on frontline workers, the most typical internal audiences we encounter are:

  • Frontline workers in various locations - e.g., cashiers, delivery people, greeters, baggers, servers, kitchen crew, warehouse staff, bakers, janitors, etc.
  • Store managers and shift leaders
  • Regional, district, or other above-store directors
  • Back-office employees at headquarters

In addition to these high-level employee segments, it’s worth noting that it’s often crucial for your internal messaging to align with communications going out to external audiences, such as suppliers and partners, walk-in and online consumers, corporate franchisor and sister franchisees, or even media and investors. Aim for topline messages that remain consistent across all of these audiences, as well as more targeted, nuanced talking points that are tailored to the questions and concerns of each different internal and external constituent.

Measuring success

Once you’ve explored all of these aspects of your internal communications strategies, an important next step is to formalize measurement practices that help you evaluate their effectiveness. This should start off with an internal communications inventory and audit. In this way, you can start to identify which channels are doing the best job at getting messages out to which audiences. Once you have a clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not in your communications environment, you can double-down on the right tactics to ensure lasting positive change and create a culture that celebrates engagement, transparency, and problem-solving.

There are many ways to determine the impact of your communications, especially when it comes to your digital workplace. For example, you might look at metrics such as: 

Another tool at your disposal is surveys, such as in-depth questionnaires that measure employee engagement quarterly or yearly, or short, frequent pulse surveys. Depending on the size of your organization, it can be highly valuable to monitor external social reviews (like Glassdoor) or how often employees re-share company content via their social networks. And don’t forget to look at things like your average attendance at internal in-person events like trainings, team meetings, town halls, or all-hands.

Additional resources

COVID-19 Resources
How to build a resilient comms plan at crisis speed
Communicating with impact: The role of empathy in a crisis
4 considerations to lead during times of uncertainty
10 resources to help leaders improve COVID-19 communications
5 steps to successful crisis communication: Expert Q&A
How has COVID-19 changed frontline communication?

Other Blog Posts
Engage your workforce with modern HR communication
Leading the way: How healthcare orgs are adopting more agile comms

Case Studies
How Taco Bell keeps the frontline connected
Largest Planet Fitness franchisee keeps 2,000+ employees engaged
Lower turnover at family-focused grocer
80% lower turnover at Affinity Living Group
30% increase in employee retention at Valero