An email with a shouty subject line from a well-meaning colleague lands in your inbox, among the countless other messages competing for your attention on any given day.
You know full well that it contains some important information about the company, but do you bother to read the content?
Author of Strategic Internal Communication: How to Build Employee Engagement and Performance, The Dialogue Box Creator and Maynooth University Associate Lecturer in Law, David Cowan, said too often people were simply data processors, not communicators of their messages.
Ultimately their data went nowhere fast and the message remained unheard.
“You need to understand your audience and make your communication resonate with them, then they will read, listen and respond,” he said.
Welcome to the challenging world of internal communications.
Defining internal communications
Everyone in an organisation is communicating all the time through what they say and do.
They are also interpreting and reacting to the words and actions of others through both formal and informal channels – from the internal memo to water cooler talk.
Dr Cowan, who is an internal communications expert of more than 30 years, said internal communications was best defined in terms of human behaviour.
“Communication is the way we behave. And what we say and do often communicates matters we don’t realise, or we are interpreted in ways we don’t appreciate,” he said.
“This is why internal communications is important because the more self-aware we are, the more we will modify our behaviour.
“Then we can think about what messages to send and what channels to use.”
Engaging the team
When it comes to creating a successful internal communications strategy, Dr Cowan said his top tip, and the reason why he developed The Dialogue Box tool, was to understand that everyone is a communicator.
“We need to start at a very granular level of behaviour and understand the who, why and what of our individual communication,” he said.
“This will then aggregate into a better internal communications environment."
Dr Cowan highlighted that understanding the emotional dimension of our communication and being clear about what our audience needs to hear, rather than what we've decided to tell them, was critical.
“Otherwise, you talk past your audience and just channel noise.”
Dr Cowan said email was the number one communication problem among people he trained.
Everyone becomes snowed under by electronic messages due to human behaviour.
“When you complain about emails, you are complaining about people and, yes, they are complaining about you too.”
“It is a shared problem because it is overused and not effectively focused, which means emails beget emails.”
Dr Cowan said internal communications strategies also failed when companies launched too many programs, making staff feel initiative-weary.
“Because organisations act in siloed ways, they don’t coordinate effectively or don’t see their work as part of a collaborative environment,” he said.
“We are all inundated with information and programs fail because they just pitch more information, often not effectively targeted at staff.
“Again, it comes back to good dialogue.”
The benefits of internal communications
When asked what staff should be told, Dr Cowan said the answer was simple – as much as possible, as soon as possible.
“The more people understand, and the earlier they understand, then the more engaged they will be and the better they will perform,” he said.
“Leaders should build trust in their people and this is done primarily through effective communication.”
How to measure success
Dr Cowan said evaluating communication was notoriously difficult, partly because it was done too infrequently and with the wrong staff questions in mind.
“For internal communications, the best measurement is frequent online polls and other such tools, taking the pulse of the organisation constantly, not with occasional internal surveys,” he said.
Internal communications challenges
When it’s budget time or an economic crash occurs, Dr Cowan said internal communications was often the first portfolio to be cut, highlighting the organisation’s lack of awareness and commitment.
“Internal communications should be the last budget to suffer,” he said.
“Staff see this too, they are not stupid.”
Dr Cowan said internal communications would remain a tick-box exercise for company leaders who didn't see communication as behaviour, ignored the value of collaborative communication and failed to invest in training their people to communicate.
“Internal communications is everybody’s job and an effective internal communications department is one that can help influence and inspire day-to-day activity effectively with the backing of the leadership,” he said.
A local example
At Brightwater Care Group, a not-for-profit provider of aged care, disability and retirement services that has been part of the Western Australian community for 120 years, internal communications is essential to operations.
The group employs more than 2000 people in residential aged care, disability services, home care and commercial and corporate services, who are spread across 25 locations, mobile and work at all hours to provide constant support to more than 2200 people.
Brightwater Care Group Chief Customer Officer Alice Manners, who oversees the group’s internal and external communications, said the internal communications strategy helped ensure staff felt engaged with the business and connected to its mission, which is pursuing the dignity of independence for clients.
“We are a diverse business. We want to ensure our staff understand that whether they work in the frontline of aged care or disability services, our catering team or as an accountant in the head office, they all contribute to our core business – caring for some of WA’s most vulnerable people,” she said.
“We also know that a good employee experience equals a good customer experience, so if our staff are happy and engaged, we know that will mean a great experience for the people we care for.
“Our staff are also our best advocates and we want them to be proud to work with us.”
Modern meets traditional channels
Ms Manners said content was either designed to inform staff of key changes to business or legislative requirements, or engage them so they felt aligned to business values.
With a focus on reaching staff wherever they are and enabling feedback, the Brightwater communications team uses a mix of digital and traditional channels.
These include staff room posters, Microsoft Teams, emails, text and video messages, the intranet, a virtual staffroom, staff meetings and team briefings, executive team roadshows, feedback channels such as an ‘ask the CEO’ email and a printed staff newsletter.
“Different channels work for different content, so for important changes that need to be enacted quickly, text messages have been a great way to get key information to our people fast,” Ms Manner said.
“Content that is designed to engage our staff can often be best delivered by in-person roadshows with key people, video content watched in their own time, staff meetings or by telling stories through our printed staff newsletter.
“Our staff are also really engaged in some of our external channels, like our social media accounts. They love to see the difference they are making.”
With a team representing more than 90 nationalities, Ms Manners said it was necessary to ensure messages were clear for people who spoke English as a second language.
“Translating our communications materials is often expensive and timely, so it’s not always possible,” she said. “Brightwater’s communications team successfully engages through authenticity.
“By writing a message in a way that shows you care, you can engage people to understand and interact with the messaging.”
The power of video
Ms Manners said challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the importance of good internal communications.
“Over the last 18 months, our industry has been impacted enormously by COVID-19 and ongoing changes to State Government directions relating to how we operate during the pandemic,” she said.
“Internal communications has played an extremely important role in ensuring our staff received accurate and timely information with each change.
“In fact, it played an essential role in reassuring and supporting our staff.”
At the start of the pandemic, Brightwater Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Lawrence trialled video messages delivered directly to each staff member’s phone and email account, as a way to reassure teams while delivering key information.
“It was important our staff could see and hear their leader during this time, when it was not possible for Jennifer to be out with them on our sites,” Ms Manners said.
“The videos were so successful and we had such great feedback from staff that they became part of a weekly update from Jennifer during the height of the pandemic and are now part of our ongoing internal communications plan.
“We have always known that it was important but, now more than ever – in a world of constantly changing information and often misinformation – effective communications with staff is essential.”
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