How and why you need an employee-centric internal communication strategy

Jess Dean
How and why you need an employee-centric internal communication strategy

The unfolding of a new year is traditionally a time for reflection, and the perfect time to plan your company strategy for the year ahead. One part of the plan that’s often overlooked though, is a well-thought out internal communication strategy.

Even the best designed strategies are destined to fall short if they are not communicated properly to the people at the heart of the business – your employees. Strategy should be easily digestible to those on the front-line and the managers who support them, which is why an employee-centric approach is essential.

Only when employees feel confident in their awareness and understanding of strategies will they be able to put in the groundwork for strategic success. Otherwise, we can expect our chances of meeting any long-term objectives and direction to quickly peter out.

What is an ‘employee-centric’ internal communication strategy?

An employee-centric internal communication plan is dedicated to putting the experience of employees first – with the intention of increasing employee-strategy interaction. This involves establishing which content and communication channels employees prefer, and in turn, which will be most effective in driving employee participation. By listening to the needs and preferences of employees – and giving these priority – you’ll find employees are more likely to connect and commit both short- and long-term.

This differs to more traditional approaches to internal communication strategy which can be overly ‘manager-’ or ‘director-centric’. Here, the relaying of strategy is based on the subjective preferences of managers, and simple assumptions of what employees would want or respond to. In some cases, communication plans are established without considering their effectiveness and purpose because “they’ve always been done this way”.

An employee-centric approach, on the other hand, complements employees’ personal experiences with traditional and digital channels and applies them to the workspace. It is not just about informing employees – employee-centric communication is multi-directional. Questions and discussion are encouraged to promote understanding, and interaction is championed.

Why take an employee-centric approach?

All too often, the failure of strategies can be attributed to an inability to connect strategy to people. Poor internal communication also threatens collaboration, knowledge sharing and innovation, and the issue is concerningly wide-spread.

In Rethinking Internal Communication: A Stakeholder Approach (2007), Welch and Jackson introduce ‘internal corporate communication’ – defined as the communication between managers and internal stakeholders (employees) concerning an organisation’s strategy. They argue that internal corporate communication is both traditionally neglected and critical to employee engagement, and advocate an employee-centric approach to the distribution of information.

In a later review of 12 academic and consultancy studies, Ruck and Welch (2012) found that satisfaction with organisational information ranged from 53% to 64%. On top of this, only 60% of employees felt that they understood where their organisation was headed.

Business leaders are not ignorant of this fact, nor of its threat, and often cite problems in the communication and implementation of strategy as a key barrier to progression and engagement. However, many remain unaware as to how to actually make improvements.

How to implement an employee-centric internal communication plan

An employee-centric approach to internal communications provides a framework for connecting people to strategy – and driving real results. In order to build an employee-centric approach, we need to put ‘content’ on centre stage.

First of all, we must establish the message we are trying to get across, then we consider its purpose, before finally deciding on the most appropriate communication channels.

However, that is only half the challenge. Once the communication plan has been implemented, we need to review whether employees have actually connected with the content as we had intended.

Step-by-step guide

Building an employee-centric internal communication strategy has three main stages – planning, implementation and optimisation.

Planning

The first step of the planning stage is to review our current communication tools and their performance. This includes online (email, newsletters, social media) and offline channels (one-on-one, company meetings, posters), and establishing which of these employees are most responsive to. It can be helpful to consider which communication tools employees are using outside of the workplace, and whether these are transferable internally (i.e. Facebook Workplace or Whatsapp groups).

Do employees feel bombarded with information from a particular channel? Do they feel the information they receive isn’t relevant to them? Is there simply too much communication, causing them to switch-off altogether?

Finding out the answers to these questions should be based on direct research with employees. Focus groups provide a way to start the discussion and get your team thinking about the type of information they want to see. One-on-one interviews can offer another level of detail in these discussions, bringing deeper concerns to light.

Providing employees with the opportunity to comment anonymously on strategy and internal communication plans makes it even more likely that they will reveal their true opinions and preferences. This also mitigates any reluctance employees may have to sharing their opinions with management, and avoids the pressure towards conformity in group discussions.

Implementation

Delivery is one thing, timing is the other. When implementing an employee-centric internal communication strategy, you need to build a content calendar to map out the best times to distribute your message and specific types of content. Running early pilot tests with small groups of employees can ensure content is getting through to employees ahead of a company-wide rollout.

Messages should be concise to immediately grab and hold the attention of your team. It may seem obvious, but bullet points and images can be key to getting your point across in as few words as possible. Employees could even be enrolled as ‘citizen journalists’ to communicate strategy in a way that naturally resonates with their day-to-day experience of the workplace.

Optimisation

Once your internal communication plan is in place, it’s going to require constant refinement and adjustment, informed by employee feedback. Provide your team with suitable feedback channels that allow them to give their opinion at any time – this way, you can assess the performance of your comms plan in real-time, without waiting for something to break or go wrong.

Don’t be afraid to act on feedback immediately. An additional piece of communication to clarify an ambiguous point in a previous message is much more preferable than widespread misinformation.

So where do I begin?

First things first: start the conversation! This initial step is crucial in opening up to employees and making the switch from a manager-centric to an employee-centric approach. When employees feel like they are being listened to, and can see the changes being made based on their contributions, we end up with a positive feedback loop, propelling us towards a more committed and engaged workforce.

A company that has really committed themselves to an internal communication strategy focused on its employees can expect to see their company vision brought to life. Employees will feel a genuine desire to contribute towards the success of the company mission and live out the company values every single day.

References

Ruck, K. & Welch, M. (2012) Valuing internal communication; management and employee perspectives. Public Relations Review, Vol. 38, Issue 2, pp. 294-302

Welch, M. & Jackson, P. R. (2007) Rethinking internal communication: a stakeholder approach. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 2, pp. 177-198

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