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