Though it may seem chaotic to those working in it right now, the future of internal communications is bright, writes Simon Rutter.
It’s harder than ever for corporations to keep up with the changes outside and inside their walls. From technological breakthroughs, economic uncertainty, and social unrest to multi-generational workplaces, hybrid, and inclusion — it’s a lot. Throw in evolving expectations of the role business should play in broader society, and there is greater need than ever for companies to be clear and compelling in their communications, and that starts with their employees.
Against such a fast-moving backdrop, what does the future look like for internal communications? In this blog I’ll look at seven new, and some not so new, challenges that the profession will need to tackle to increase its influence and remain relevant.
1. Strategy, strategy, strategy
In this blog I wrote that internal communications is the process of communicating with your employees to ensure they understand your business strategy and their role in delivering it. However, this isn’t happening as much as it should, which we know from both the profession itself, and the perceived impact of its work.
In Gallagher’s most recent State of the Sector Report, 74% of communicators believe the purpose of internal communications is to create an inclusive workplace that fosters a healthy culture and sense of belonging, versus 67% who believe it should be focused on strategic alignment.
The downstream impact of this is huge. The Institute of Internal Communications discovered that only around half of UK workers believe their company has clearly communicated its strategy.
When your people are clear on the goals and priorities of your organization, the benefits are huge. Engagement, confidence, employee advocacy, and, therefore company performance, all improve. At a time when most people spend less than 15 minutes consuming company messages, you have to make them count. To do that, they need to be strategic, useful, and relevant.
2. Speak less, listen more
Internal communicators have often found themselves SOS (Sending out Stuff) at the behest of various stakeholders. Combined with growing pressure from all sides, especially employees (who, at 61%, make up by far the highest number) on leaders to speak out, it’s easy to see why companies continue to rely on broadcasting out messages. Indeed, half of UK workers don’t feel heard by their employer, and even fewer believe their views are taken into account in decision-making.
This one-way traffic needs to be replaced by listening and dialogue. Employees are now the priority stakeholder group for organizations, who are increasingly managing from the inside out. This re-drawing of the stakeholder landscape, particularly on social issues, places even more focus on how communications teams listen, learn, give feedback upwards, and ensure their leaders act on employee concerns.
But empathy alone isn’t enough. During times of conflict and unrest, which are sadly increasing in frequency, internal communicators need to help leaders better support their people by actively listening, being intentional about what they say and do, and creating a safe space for all voices to be heard, thereby cultivating a culture of inclusion and belonging.
Speaking less and listening more will be crucial to the future success of internal communications.
3. Generational divides
There are now up to five different generations in the workplace, all with their own worldviews, strengths, and expectations. For internal communicators this is a fantastic opportunity to drill into audience-specific insights, build personas, and create content that is tailored and targeted.
Internal communicators should also share these analytics with people managers, to help them communicate with (much) older and (much) younger employees. This data will support people managers by enabling them to better understand what is important to each group of their employees, what they need to succeed, and their expectations of work, their employer, and their boss.
Listening, understanding, and highlighting the diverse needs of each generation with senior leaders will also strengthen the internal communications team’s authority as a strategic advisor. For example, by sharing employee sentiment on social issues, internal communicators can help to inform decision-making on whether the company should take a stand or not, which can hugely impact its reputation.
Managing the generational divides while maximizing the differences is going to be rich, fertile ground for internal communications.
4. The measurement challenge
Internal communications has historically struggled with measurement and demonstrating its ROI for a variety of reasons, including inadequate technology. Indeed, improving impact measurement and evaluation was a top priority for communicators in 2023, partly to argue for increased resources to tackle some of their biggest challenges.
But now, the department is increasingly being placed in a connecting-and-conducting role by organizations. Teams are expected to be on top of an ever-expanding list of stakeholders, facilitate employee listening, and scan for emerging risks.
The key to doing this job effectively is data. To make informed decisions, executives need actionable data that is communicated to them in a way they can grasp quickly. Little wonder, then, that 54% of communicators in this report say the value of communications technology is only as powerful as the interpretation and application of the data, and 44% are investing more heavily in platforms and tools.
Communicators who can both provide high-quality, real-time data from across their sprawling stakeholder web and translate it in a meaningful way will enhance their reputations as a source of reliable information that enables their organization to provide greater clarity, enhance their reputation, and reduce risk.
5. Making new ways of work, work
There are two elements to this. The first are the new ways of working that have exploded since the pandemic. While hybrid is the preferred option, some companies remain totally remote, while others have mandated a full-time return to the office.
Whatever the situation, making the new ways of working work is an ongoing challenge for internal communicators. With 90% of organizations planning change programs in 2024, and the majority focused on tech and systems, it’s critical that internal communicators understand and adapt their channel mix to the needs and preferences of a dispersed workforce. Teams must balance educating employees on the benefits of new technologies to drive uptake, while helping them avoid overwhelm and burnout from the plethora of tools they’re now expected to use. As we mentioned earlier, listening and data will be critical.
Secondly, it’s crucial not to forget that up to 80% of workers are deskless, for example those in retail. As this report highlights, deskless workers are verbal communicators operating in a verbal culture, while most people working in offices are working in a written culture. This clash of styles, combined with a lack of audience insight, means internal communicators need to re-think their strategies to reach and connect with deskless workers.
6. Coaching a modern style of leadership
Internal communicators as coaches of leaders is nothing new, but in the future, there will be a greater emphasis on this side of the job. Why? There is a growing demand on leaders to provide self-aware, humble, and inspirational leadership. But as this study shows, only 25% believe their leaders to be engaged, passionate, and someone others would want to follow. This explains the globally low scores in employee engagement, growing rates of attrition, and decreasing productivity.
Internal communicators are uniquely placed to coach executives into a contemporary style of leadership. They understand the company’s purpose, strategy, and culture. They have data and insights on what employees are thinking and feeling. And they know how to work with leaders’ individual styles to help them communicate more authentically and purposefully.
All of this puts internal communications in the spotlight, but also gives teams an incredible chance to change perceptions of corporate leadership, with huge gains to be made.
7. A bigger role in employee experience
Employee experience (EX) is about using people, processes, and technology to deliver a consistent, positive, and sustainable workplace. To do that, internal communications, HR, IT, facilities, and other functions must come together to deliver the experience in an integrated, seamless fashion. There’s no ‘owner’ as such – it’s true, cross-functional teamwork.
With 90% of companies worldwide prioritizing EX, it’s going to be a key focus in the future of internal communications. You cannot deliver a great EX without effective internal communications, which helps make the various stages of the employee lifecycle tangible, aligned, and compelling. For example, many companies are attempting to tackle escalating sick leave rates by increasing their wellbeing resources. However, if these changes are not communicated to employees, then they don’t know how to access them and, as a result, have a negative experience of their employer.
In fact, there is not a single area of EX that isn’t affected by the quality of internal communications. As such, teams will start to play a bigger role in designing and delivering EX, becoming business partners with, rather than to, HR and IT functions.
The future of internal communications
It’s wild out there now, both outside and inside organizations. But within this seeming chaos, there is rich opportunity for internal communications to help employees make sense of constant change, transform business performance, and create the type of leadership the world desperately needs.
The future of internal communications is bright.