Learn about building an effective internal communication strategy, from tailoring communications and engaging line managers to using social media and developing two-way dialogue.
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Employee communication is an essential part of business and HR’s role. Effective internal communication is important for developing trust within an organisation and has a significant impact on employee engagement, organisational culture and, ultimately, productivity. Yet our research suggests that many employees feel they receive limited or very little information. To be successful, communication needs management support, a clear strategy and evaluation.
This factsheet explores the role internal communication plays in developing engaged employees, achieving organisational goals and supporting strategy and change. It examines aspects of an effective communication strategy, including the role of line managers, social media and two-way or multi-directional dialogue. Finally, it takes a closer look at planning and tailoring communications as well as the roles and responsibilities in good workplace communication.
What is employee communication?
This factsheet looks at internal rather than external communication - it may be helpful to read it in conjunction with our factsheet on employee voice which covers the history of employee involvement, the mechanisms of two-way communications, and its potential benefits. Our factsheet on employer brand is also relevant.
Effective internal communications is at the heart of achieving business outcomes and it’s something the whole organisation is responsible for. It supports the organisation’s smooth running, successful change programmes and good leadership on vision, strategy and values.
Communication in times of crisis
At times of uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, good employee communication becomes even more vital. Evidence shows that virtual teams face more challenges than traditional, face-to-face teams to continue operating effectively. One challenge is maintaining ongoing communication when in person methods are not possible. Our evidence review on developing effective virtual teams provides practical recommendations to mitigate communication issues.
In difficult times, employers can build trust and relieve tensions by communicating reliable information regularly with their employees. Communication should be transparent and include details on how the organisation is responding to, and impacted by, the situation, as well as keeping employees informed of developments which may affect them physically, emotionally and financially. . Listen to our webinar Leading and communicating through crisis, produced during the pandemic.
Organisations should also provide information on any additional support that they provide employees, such as Employee Assistance Programmes or other helplines, and emphasise any other benefits available, such as health insurance. There’s more on what employers should be doing in the current crisis in our Responding to the coronavirus hub.
For UK businesses, Brexit will bring major change in the near future. The most immediate challenge for HR teams is to provide a clear channel for communication and information. Our Brexit hub has dedicated commentary and resources to help people professionals plan effectively and respond with agility. Our podcast Brexit – managing communications highlights how, with effective communication, HR professionals can best support their leaders and staff.
Why does communication with employees matter?
Communication is a critical aspect of employee engagement, which in turn promotes better performance, employee retention and well-being. Employees are more engaged when information flows freely and they’re aware of organisational activities and management decisions that affect their jobs. It’s also important for developing trust-based relationships between managers and staff, by demonstrating to workers that they are valued members of the organisation and are treated with respect.
However, despite the need for communication to be high up the agenda in all organisations, our Spring 2017 Employee Outlook survey found that two-fifths of employees said they receive either limited information or none at all when it comes to their organisation’s strategy.
Challenges in effective organisational communication can lie across all areas of the system. Faced with change and complexity, senior leaders often struggle to communicate clearly and authentically about where the organisation is going and the impact on employees. Equally, managers can lack the skills, confidence and time needed to communicate well with their teams. Further, traditional ‘static’ intranets are often unwieldy and content-heavy; not designed for employee usability and this is a particular problem for people who’re used to personalised, on-demand content in their private lives.
Principles of an effective employee communications strategy
A truly effective approach to internal communication will be cohesive and strategic, and support a culture of trust and openness.
- Builds a shared sense of purpose aligned to organisational strategy.
- Receives attention and support from senior leaders.
- Drives genuine dialogue.
- Draws on a range of digital channels and tools.
- Is essential to good people management.
- Depends on being reviewed and assessed for effectiveness.
In our report From best to good practice HR: developing principles for the profession we explored the principles that enable two-way relationships between people and organisations. We also highlighted the importance of employees having a meaningful voice at work in our 2019 report Talking about voice.
The role of senior leaders and people managers
A successful communication strategy depends on the full support of senior leaders as they are a key communication channel to all employees. But rather than being a ‘top down’ exercise, there needs to be two-way dialogue, so that people have meaningful opportunities to feed their views upwards and discuss them with colleagues. Where resources permit, leaders may need support and training to be authentic, clear and inclusive in their communication.
Our Talking about voice research showed that employees two main concerns are work pressure and organisational change. Over half also say they had not raised these issues with their manager, colleague, HR or other representative. Failing to hear such views can lead to poor organisational outcomes (such as lower performance) and employee outcomes (such as lower well-being and motivation).
Using social technology
Employees are increasingly seeing intranets as out of date and unwieldy sources of information. This is a particularly the case for people who are used to personalised, on-demand content in their private lives. Instead, enterprise social networks, such as online discussion forums or interactive intranets, are a potentially game-changing shift in how internal communications work. Some organisations are seeing benefits from internal social media in:
- Enabling employee interaction and a sense of belonging.
- Quickly resolving operational issues, especially across a dispersed workforce.
- Encouraging teams or departments to collaborate.
- Giving employees greater voice.
- Gaining insight into issues that affect employees and their work.
New communication technologies are emerging fast. When looking at what will work best for an organisation, it’s vital to think carefully about what employees throughout the organisation need to do and what help they need to achieve it. Access to different technology channels for all employees needs to be reviewed to make sure everyone can receive and engage with the messages.
Two-way and multi-directional dialogue
The principle of two-way and responsive communication is crucial. Effective two-way communication supports the psychological contract and employee engagement, as individuals feel listened to and valued.
However, with the use of enterprise social networks, communication has increasingly become not only two-way, but multi-directional. Employees can share their views with colleagues at the same time as feeding them ‘upwards’, and quickly receive responses from colleagues or leaders in any part of the organisation. As our research report Social media and employee voice argues, this has marked a significant shift in how internal communications work and their impact.
Assessing communications effectiveness
There are two key levels for evaluating communication effectiveness:
- Overall culture of communication within the organisation - a regular employee attitude survey can ask questions covering, for example:
- whether employees feel fully informed
- is communication regular and consistent
- do employees’ feel listened to
- are leaders trusted.
- Success against specific objectives -any communications campaign must have a clear aim, for example, awareness of a particular initiative, or a change in perceptions or behaviour. Once the aim is established, it’s possible to measure the campaign’s success.
Specific communication strategies
When facing organisational change, carefully planned communications are vital. A good communications plan will cover appropriate timing, content, style and the channels to be used. It’s also important to give clear, honest and consistent messages
Channel and message selection
Communications planning should start with the outcome – what do you want the audience to think, feel or do as a result? This gives a good basis for selecting appropriate messages and channels.
Some methods of communication tend to be top-down, such as all-staff presentations or team briefings. Others, such as group meetings or online discussion forums, provide more opportunity for dialogue.
When consultation and dialogue is needed, it’s important that the method chosen stimulates an appropriate two-way discussion. For example, while an enterprise social network may work well for some discussions, more sensitive or targeted issues will be better as face-to-face individual or group meetings. It’s also important that communication addresses individual needs, including remote or part-time workers, or those who may feel more comfortable having one-to-one conversations rather than large group meetings.
Technology has transformed the range of options available for communicating with employees. However, not all employees will habitually use social tools. Communicators should consider the range of channels available and match them with how people prefer to receive information and communicate as well as accessibility across different employee groups.
Some organisations segment employees so they can tailor communications to different audiences. This can apply to both for the style of communication and the method – for example, using the intranet for employees who have computer access, but other approaches for employees who don’t.
Organisation size is also an important factor. Communication is more complex in a global organisation, especially where different languages and cultures are involved.
Roles and responsibilities in communication
In large organisations, internal communications departments play a key role in developing the communication strategy and the flow of messages across the organisation. People professionals need to work with these specialists to ensure clear and timely communication around people management and employment issues.
Senior leaders set the tone for role modelling good communication, in terms of outlining strategy and purpose, and in their own communication style.
Managers are the front line of communicating with employees. They need to understand the importance of communicating and listening, have the right skills, and be willing to have conversations with their staff. This includes being prepared to address difficult situations. Read our Developing managers for engagement and wellbeing guidance.
Finally, all employees play a role in ensuring effective communications. Sharing, learning, listening and collaborating is key to an organisation’s success and adaptability.
Useful contacts and further reading
Acas - Informing and consulting your employees about workplace matters
Involvement and Participation Association - case studies
Books and reports
ACAS (2014) Employee communications and consultation. Advisory booklet. London: Acas.
COWAN, D. (2017) Strategic internal communication: how to build employee engagement and performance. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page..
DEWHURST, S. and FITZPATRICK, L. (2019) Successful employee communications: a practitioner's guide to tools, models and best practice for internal communication. London: Kogan Page.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
CALNAN, M. (2017) How to use internal social networks. People Management (online). 27 September.
D`APRIX, R. and FAGAN-SMITH, B. (2011) Open communication cultures: best practice in a changing world. Strategic Communication Management. Vol 15, No 5, June. pp36-39.
WALDEN, J., JUNG, E.H. and WESTERMAN, Y.K. (2017) Employee communication, job engagement, and organisational commitment: a study of members of the millennial generation. Journal of Public Relations Research. Vol 29, No 2-3, pp73-89.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Rebecca Peters.
Rebecca Peters: Research Adviser
Rebecca joined the Research team in 2019, specialising in the area of health and well-being at work as both a practitioner and a researcher. Before joining the CIPD Rebecca worked part time at Kingston University in the Business School research department, where she worked on several research-driven projects. Additionally, Rebecca worked part time at a health & well-being consultancy where she facilitated various well-being workshops, both externally and in-house.
Rebecca has a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, where she conducted research on Prison Officers’ resilience and coping strategies. The output of this research consisted of a behavioural framework which highlighted positive and negative strategies that Prison Officers used in their daily working life.