Revitalizing Internal Communication: How to Use Strategic Thinking to Engage Employees

December 17, 2015


Reaching and engaging employees is becoming more difficult.

Employees are feeling pressured with an overwhelming array of communication choices, and their inboxes are bursting, making it more likely they’ll miss, skip or forget critical information.

Even when it comes to issues employees care about — HR topics such as benefits, pay and performance management — communication falls short.

Recently, Davis & Company commissioned a study of 1,000 employees from large corporations (those with a workforce of 5,000 or more) and asked them how well their companies manage HR communication.

The Human Resources Communication Study 2015 found that nearly 100 percent of respondents read or skim everything they receive, but only 30 percent are happy with communication, and 50 percent feel indifferent.

But here’s the truly alarming takeaway: Most employees say HR communication doesn’t prepare them to make smart decisions. Just 25 percent of employees feel well informed about compensation, 15 percent are comfortable with benefits information and only 11.5 percent have enough knowledge to take action on performance management.

As you might suspect, since communication isn’t meeting employees’ needs, they are left with a lot of questions. But though they turn to the company intranet, HR representatives or their managers for help, only half are receiving the answers they need.

What’s the problem?

With all the effort made on communication, why does it so often miss the mark? There is a flawed assumption that employees are a captive audience who greet every internal message with rapt attention. But instead, we create communication that is often too:

• General: We think one size will fit all, even though employees are incredibly diverse in age, job level, gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.

• Comprehensive: In an effort to include all pertinent information, we create long, dense and detailed content.

• Technical: Only subject-matter experts care about such terms as “company ratios” and “weighted ratings.” Employees just want to know what to do.

• Old school: When was the last time you read a 500-word external newspaper article? Or watched a 15-minute talking head video on YouTube? Too much internal communication is stuck in a time warp.

The result? Communication too often misses the mark. As one survey respondent commented, “I have a master’s degree in public administration and sometimes I still cannot understand the materials as presented.”

Luckily, the solution to this complicated problem is actually quite simple. Draw upon all you’ve learned about external communication to rethink your approach to internal communication. The same principles you use to spark a reporter’s interest or build participation in social media work inside organizations as well.

Here are five ways to do it:

1. Know your audience.

Back when you were in school, you learned that the fundamental rule of good communication is to know your audience. And you discovered that the most effective way to reach people — and motivate them to take action — is to understand who they are and what they need.

It sounds basic, yet assessing employees is a step that’s often skipped in internal communication. We plunge into creating communication without thinking about the people we’re building it for. Even worse, we take it for granted that the ways we like communicating will work equally well for employees.

Instead, you need to spend time upfront thoroughly exploring your employee audience. Start by analyzing demographics so you have a clear picture of who works at your organization. Then conduct qualitative research — focus groups and interviews — to explore what information employees need and how they prefer to receive it.

2. Create communication designed especially for employees.

Now that you’ve got a firm handle on your audience, your process of creating communication needs to change. For example, let’s say you’ve just watched the head of HR give a presentation to senior management about a new program. The PowerPoint deck was appropriately detailed:  44 slides explaining why the program is needed, how it was designed and what’s changing.

Now it’s time to communicate to employees. The first thing you should do is close the PowerPoint file and take out a blank sheet of paper. Why? Because the way HR structured your message to “sell” its program to management is very different from how you need to frame your message for employees.

Instead, use that blank piece of paper to answer the question, What’s the most important thing employees need to know? As you write the answer, limit your response to 15 words or fewer.

This isn’t easy, but it’s important because you’ve just “framed” your message and created a core statement that captures the essence of what you need to communicate. From here, you can create a message platform that organizes content in a cohesive way.

As you do this, continue to focus on the two essential questions that employees always ask: “What does this mean to me?” and “What do I need to do?”

3. Help employees take action.

Take a pause from your hard work to head over to the nearest newsstand. As you peruse publications like Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health and Bon Appetit, notice the cover lines:

How one “Biggest Loser” really lost 140 pounds

  • Make dinner like a pro — in just 30 minutes
  • 7 success strategies your CEO doesn’t want you to know
  • Sleep deeply and wake up energized

What do these cover lines have in common? They promise to help readers solve a problem and improve something. Magazine editors know that people crave information that makes things easier, simpler, faster and better.

The official name for this approach is service journalism. The idea is that you (the communicator) perform a service for the reader. By packaging information in a way that is useful for readers, they will be more likely to use that information to take action.

Luckily, much of the content you communicate internally lends itself to this approach because it personally affects employees, and there’s often a “how to” component. Here are some examples:

  • Five ways to increase your productivity without leaving your workstation
  • The pros and cons of flexible work arrangements
  • Three steps to choose your best medical coverage

4. Simplify the content.

It’s true that much of the content you need to communicate is complex. But regardless of how complicated a topic is, one of the best ways to meet employees’ needs is to make communication as simple as possible.

• Use plain language. Abolish jargon. Get rid of complicated words and terms that are difficult to understand. How do you know if your language is simple enough? Check your readability. (See the Spelling/Grammar preferences in Microsoft Word.) The average American reads at a ninth-grade level, so some companies use that as a guide (as do publications like Reader’s Digest).

• Cut content into manageable chunks. “Chunking” is necessary because we’ve become a society of skimmers and scanners, glancing through a print publication or browsing a website to quickly find what we need. We’ll read shorter bits of information much more readily than huge columns of words with no break in sight.

• Be as brief as possible. Ask yourself how long employees will really spend on a given communication. Then edit copy to the absolute maximum of 100-word articles and 50-word emails.

5. Communicate in time.

When it comes to internal communication, the Rolling Stones got it wrong: Time is definitely not on your side. In fact, timing is one of the trickiest elements to get right. Provide information too early, and employees are likely to ignore it. Share content too late, and employees will feel blindsided.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for managing time wisely. Instead, you need to work to achieve the right balance. Seek to give employees enough time to understand an upcoming change so they can process it. And then give notice when something is about to take place.

The old way of communicating to employees — disseminating information — just doesn’t work anymore. Instead, adopt the savvy strategies you use to reach external audiences in order to meet employees’ needs and achieve a new level of engagement.

Alison Davis

Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, an award-winning employee communication firm. She is the author of several books, including “49 Ways to Improve Employee Communications.”


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