We held our EFS online forum with Caroline Ward, Head of Culture and Internal Communications at Slater + Gordon and Nicholas Wardle, Head of Employee Engagement and Communications at One Housing to discuss how internal communications transforms employee engagement. What I didn’t expect was a reminder of my English A-Level and the eponymous film starring Emma Thompson. But “Only Connect” EM Forster’s epigraph to his 1909 novel Howard’s End, couldn’t sum up better the purpose those in these closely related disciplines are striving to serve.
“Treasure human connection”, Forster said. But be warned: acquire too many contacts and you risk diminishing the quality of those you’re connected with. Reflect on how many people in your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts you’re actually speaking to and you realise how prescient the man was. In a year when we’ve spent more time physically removed from one another than virtually any other; yet conversely been dependent on sharing data on whom we’re in contact with to fight the spread of Covid-19; the quality of human connection will be one of the defining themes of this year.
Overcoming the challenge of facilitating communication to, and between, a large workforce and in a way that maintains quality of connection and engagement is the daunting responsibility typically ascribed to internal communications (IC). Time to celebrate these unsung heroes? They’re certainly far more than mere organisers of ‘chat with the chief’! Caroline and Nicholas made a strong case for just how useful IC is – and can potentially be – for employee engagement. And they reminded us how IC has evolved to keep in step with changing times.
Starting at the top, the way technology is liberating leadership teams to send a video to all staff from their desks and receive comments back is helping them become more accessible. In accord with its changing role towards that of enabler and sounding board, IC can help QA the message. It can ensure there’s a link with the strategic narrative and makes maximum use of all available, widest-reaching channels. Today’s IC professionals have a duty to educate their leadership about the importance of communication. And they should ideally be devoting one fifth of their time to it our guests suggested.
When the question came up how big an IC team needs to be Nick and Caroline said there is no set rule. It depends on internal capability. Caroline giving the example of a major retailer she knows with 2000 staff whose directors eschew internal communications in favour of doing it themselves. Great – if you’ve the confidence and ability. But with the rising sophistication of technology one thing is clear says Caroline: internal communications teams increasingly need more specialists than generalists nowadays.
When it comes to an organisation’s middle, good internal communications teams can help create channels. These allow the management community to link up horizontally as well as up and down. They facilitate information sharing, consistency and maintain line of sight. So it’s clear in which direction the organisation is going, why and what the key issues and priorities are. And if you’re a manager and smarting because your IC team refused your recent request to publish a post? Remember IC isn’t a free-for-all, they’re only acting in the organisation’s best interests, say Caroline and Nick.
Poorly executed change programmes often attract criticism for the use of internal communications. Far from taking aim at the messenger, Nick would remind those in leadership that change shouldn’t be done to people but by people. Internal communications can play a positive role here. By highlighting the changes made in an organisation as a result of listening to its people. So act on the evidence of those internal surveys. Too many organisations don’t and are missing a trick, says Nick.
Which leads neatly to the area of employee engagement where internal communications arguably can play its strongest hand. Giving all employees a voice and encouraging their involvement they can share how they’re contributing to the organisation’s journey and ultimately its legacy. According to Nick and Caroline it’s time to embrace all the opportunities technology affords and to get creative. To this degree One Housing have introduced ‘Inside One’ TV with guest presenters and a queue of people wanting airtime. It’s creating a sense of unity and camaraderie no newsletter or social media platform could match. Which is why if you’re in internal communications and doing good but under-appreciated work you should estimate your ROI. If the IT department charges for their time perhaps internal communications should too argues Nick.
Like employee engagement Nick and Caroline show that internal communications has become too limited a term to describe the value it can bring to an organisation. It truly enables its people to connect, communicate, collaborate and engage. So celebrate your internal communications team for being the facilitators of connection they truly are. EM Forster would have approved.
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