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Leadership/Vision

Communication: getting internal messaging right

The pandemic has brought internal communications to the fore, highlighting the challenges and opportunities leaders face when it comes to engaging with employees

Opening the floor for questions
Credit:
Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

The City of London was stunned in early 2021 when a senior figure in the professional services space was forced out of his job.

KPMG chairman Bill Michael’s offence was to drastically misjudge the tone of communications with his staff. In a virtual meeting he told employees worried about their jobs and working conditions during the pandemic to “stop moaning” and stop acting like victims.

Michael’s downfall is a stark illustration of how important it is for company leaders to communicate effectively with employees and, increasingly, empathetically too. The Covid-19 crisis has underlined this point as businesses have stepped up information and support for employees who working from home and possibly feeling isolated or insecure about their continuing employment.

Internal communications had risen in prominence before the pandemic as companies competed for employees in a competitive job market.

And investors have also paid more attention to how companies treat employees when assessing the sustainability of their investment target.

Admittedly, this progress began from a low starting point. The practice of formal internal communications did not really appear until the 1990s and has generally played second fiddle to media, public and investor relations.

There is now little argument about the importance of the link between a company’s employee communications and its business outcomes.

For example. most of the questions in Gallup’s benchmark Q12 engagement survey are directly or indirectly about communication.

And a 2019 report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found three-quarters of business leaders said engaged employees performed better.

Keep the rhythm

Jos Harrison, owner and principal of The Internal Comms Team, a consultancy, says: “Before the pandemic, financial services businesses were saying how important it was that organisations communicated well. Over the past 12 months they have upped the frequency, rhythm and drumbeat.”

(Re)insurance company QBE started issuing updates to employees five days a week at the start of the crisis to keep staff reassured and informed, and impressed upon all its managers the need for communication.

“It was important that line managers knew their role was to cascade information through meetings. Senior managers held their own virtual meetings over Teams,” says Roger Lowry, QBE’s European head of communications and marketing. “That meant we could have face-to-face contact, which is reassuring because you can read body language, and it gave people a chance to ask questions in real time.”

QBE’s regular employee communications have settled down to twice a week in a magazine format, which includes HR updates and softer stories on topics such as QBE’s efforts for the wider good. The company has senior team meetings every fortnight and international CEO Jason Harris holds a town hall meeting about every three months.

KPMG’s Michael sealed his fate in a town hall – an established communication forum for leaders. If anything, these gatherings have become more important during the pandemic but companies need to work to make them effective.

Steve Colton, whose two decades in the insurance industry includes seven years running communications at Aspen Group, says: “You can do any number of blogs, online articles or videos but there isn’t any substitute for face-to face interaction. The more the merrier.”

Colton says Aspen’s chief executive would hold interactive town halls every month or six weeks with plenty of time for questions submitted in person or anonymously.

Anonymity allowed workers to broach difficult subjects such as a profit warning or management disruption, he says. To encourage participation, says Colton, he would sometimes plant difficult questions.

Line managers step up

Effective communication needs to take place frequently at all levels - not just intermittently from the boss. The pandemic has highlighted the role of senior and line managers in maintaining regular contact.

Colton says: “On the back of the global town halls at Aspen the heads of insurance, reinsurance and separate functions would have mini-town halls, huddles and meetings.”

Company leaders are usually well drilled in effective communication but this is often not the case for middle managers and line managers. A Gallup survey found that managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement while a Harris poll for Interact showed 69% of managers were uncomfortable with a communications role.

“Middle managers have the best knowledge of the workforce, and team members rely heavily on their communication about the business, so it is vital that managers are adequately trained on how to frame information in a clear, effective and engaging way,” says Paul Leach, people and performance lead at consultancy firm GreenKite Associates.

Lowry says: “It’s not just about what the corporate centre is doing. The big change [during the pandemic] has been the willingness of line managers to have more frequent communications, responding to encouragement from senior leaders to keep in touch with people and be aware of their circumstances.

“Most line managers recognise that it’s an important part of their job but they may not be natural communicators. Where they can feel exposed is in answering secondary questions. We provide them with briefings, Q&As, help guides and a lot of supporting material so they don’t feel exposed.”

Two-way conversation

Communication also needs to travel both ways, experts say. Telling people what’s happening without listening doesn’t cut it in the age of social media when everyone has a voice.

Harrison says: “A lot of organisations are still one-way communicators that send out information. Employees tell me they want to give feedback, share their day-to-day experiences with customers and put forward ideas.”

Communication becomes still more complex when a company has a global workforce in different time zones with varying processes and cultural norms.

Colton says: “I have sent out group communications and realised that if you’re in a small branch in Vietnam that probably what I’ve sent doesn’t mean anything. You really need a second version from your leader in Vietnam saying: ‘This is what it means for us.’”

Leach says: “Communication is the key to making global teams work - it creates a strong team dynamic and enables staff to be considerate of the situation and feel encouraged to make it work.”

Technology has increased the need for effective communication and will be an essential part of making it work in future, through communication hubs, according to Harrison.

“People have more information, resources and the opportunity to interact in their personal lives and they expect the same connectivity when they go to work and to be listened to,” he says. “If they go to work and the intranet is like something from the 90s and keeps failing, and they can’t get the information they need to do their job they think: “My company can’t be bothered with me.”

Companies have stepped up employee communication during the pandemic, says Harrison, and the task now is to build in lasting improvements.

“Organisations tend to get the big things right,” he says. “For any merger there will be people responsible for communications but where things aren’t as good is when there’s a change in process or for a particular part of the business.”

The crisis has underlined the need for effective internal communications and created opportunities and challenges for the future. Companies will need to consider how employees’ expectations have changed, whether organisations can maintain a higher level of communication when business returns to normal, and what measures are needed to communicate with a workforce working partly from home.

Lowry says: “At a time of crisis that affected everyone, we in employee communications found ourselves at the centre of the company's communications strategy. The senior team wants to bottle the best of what we achieved in 2020 – the community sense and togetherness.

“We want to keep the spirit and the atmosphere so that you can tell your line manager you’re under pressure. People can be freer to express themselves as individuals rather than there having to be a corporate response.”

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