The Internal Communications Pulse Check
Internal Communications (IC) has emerged as the new hero, rising to the occasion and coming into its own during these turbulent times. Communication can and does mould behaviour, which, in turn, builds culture and this has proved to be one of the reasons why the IC function is now centre stage.
A group of senior communicators converged in the ‘Creative Sandbox’ to share their learnings and experiences. They concluded that IC does the all-important role of enhancing cohesion, gauging organisational sentiments, and then taking on the mantle as the custodian of culture. Driving business continuity, keeping engagement high, ensuring everyday recognition for team members and much more. Then the circle is repeated. As the pulse check signals new emerging needs, internal communications evolve and responds.
IC can and must be the eyes and ears of the organisation
According to Dr Usha Iyer, Head Corporate Communications, Strides Pharma, “Internal communications became the eyes and ears of the leaders. We were the trusted partner. Having a finger on the pulse and sentiment of the team was a huge value that we delivered to the business.”
Neha Kothari, Head Internal Communications, Infosys Limited, elaborated on the importance of knowing employee sentiment before communicating “Aligning IC with HR works really well. It helps ensure we have a finger on the pulse of the organization, and we know what employees care about.” She went on to explain how this helped bring real change alive and said, “Regular employee pulse reports help inform and architect a strong employee communications program. Within a week of work from home, nearly 85,000 desktops/ laptops were shipped to employees’ homes as this was the biggest pain point that needed to be addressed. We ensured this was delivered to the remotest of places. Another example was an amendment in the broadband policy, which was introduced almost overnight. When people had a genuine problem, the organisation responded fast to address their needs.” She shared how leaders in the organisation are dependent on the IC team to tell them what the employees’ issues are and then used this insight to respond.
A good reminder that communications is a two-way process and listening to the pulse of the employees is one of the most valuable functions the IC function can play.
IC at the heart of it all
Employee engagement happens when you tug at heart strings, with empathy and genuine intent. Aniisu K Verghese, who is an award- winning internal communications leader reminded us that employee engagement and the role that employee communication plays has always been part of what internal communications has driven. “During this pandemic and the lockdown, the value of it has become much more pronounced. The fact that we are not face to face and the need to drive recognition has made it more important than ever.” According to him, three things influence engagement: 1) The line manager relationship, 2) The line of sight to purpose, and 3) Involving employees.
Bringing the last point alive through an example of how to involve employees, Aniisu shared that he has had great success in creating an informal group of employees who are passionate about giving back to the brand. He seeks to actively recruit people who have a skill or flair for writing, design, creativity, photography or videography, among other skills, onto this ‘Brand Council’. During the pandemic he shared how a significant amount of engagement came from this group who had their heart into pitching in with voluntary effort in their own time. Thanks to their efforts an internal radio channel was born creating a series of 15-20 minute podcasts, created, curated and produced entirely by this group. Truly a tribute to the power of IC – Of the people. By the people. For the people.
Neha highlighted how from a phase when they had these very stringent and strict rules about working from home, suddenly in March there was a complete shift thanks to COVID and the critical role of IC emerged, to make this happen seamlessly. Building trust between team members, managers and clients was at the heart of it all. Managing stress caused due to uncertainty, focussing on overall health and wellness became critical aspects for IC in addition to continuous communication around collaboration and culture.
IC the importance of involving every team member and family
Neha talked about the power of family connect and how that really worked to build their internal communications efforts. “With kids at home lots of parents were finding it difficult to cope. An example of what worked was something as simple as a story telling session where employees volunteered to read to all the kids. The feedback we got was that for parents this was a great one hour break and the kids loved it. A genuine effort done by our own employees, is what made it click and work.”
Pallavi Deshmukh, Head of Corporate Communications, Bridgestone, called out the importance of partnering with leaders who understand the value of communication. “The fear of exclusion in the last 8 months has grown. There is a fatigue that is setting in. It is not just the role of comms and HR to build camaraderie and a safe working environment. It is every team member’s responsibility to make employees feel included. The human element needs to be focussed on. It’s important to let our leaders know how teams are feeling and have a pulse on how situations are evolving in the organisation. Inclusive communication and empathy are going to be crucial.” She also acknowledged the success they had with involving families into the ambit of communications and felt that educating families and bringing them on board really worked well.
Aniisu underscored the importance of IC in bringing new employees on board.“When employees join any organisation they do come in very excited wanting to do a lot more. Along the way there are many factors which pull them down. For example, if they don’t get recognised. If they don’t understand how they connect to the bigger picture they feel disengaged. According to Gallup statistics, 13 per cent of the workforce is truly engaged.”
This clearly demonstrates the need for driving a strong internal communications program that can have a huge positive impact on business performance. It’s no secret that a better engaged workforce delivers better results.
A touchy topic - Where should IC sit in the organisation structure?
Aniisu felt that IC should report into the CEO’s office or be an independent department. “A bird’s eye view is important.” He felt that if IC gets annexed to other departments, it can sometimes result in trust, influence and access challenges. Pallavi too felt that to be the voice of the organisation and build an overarching narrative, IC need to be an independent function reporting to CEO. Alignment with other functions off course is crucial but an unbiased view comes when no one department wields influence and IC can spearhead and be the VOICE of the Leadership as well as employees. It brings the organisation together on one common ground and towards a common purpose.
There was another school of thought that emerged, where the power of partnership with HR was the key to good IC. The benefit being that HR had the pulse of the organisation and basis clear processes that were put in place, IC and HR partnered beautifully. A single point of contact was defined and then the IC team created all the content. Together they were fluid and flexible and at the same time had defined a clear protocol of approvals. The key to success was that the system they set in place was clear and simple to follow plus they did not have too many people involved.In the early stages, an everyday ritual of engaging,helped in cutting out the bureaucracy that can sometimes set in between teams.
IC Different strokes for different folks
Usha highlighted the difference in handling IC for a manufacturing vs a services firm. “IC has had to take into account the nuances of the organisation or sector it operates within, and evolve according to the situation. Rules were being rewritten and suddenly all bets were off. We had to think on our feet. Several angles had to be considered – did the organisation fall under ‘essential services’? Was the organisation part of the services sector or manufacturing? As the lockdown started, especially in the early phases when it was new and morale was still fairly high and people were in the ‘we shall overcome this together’ mood, there was more focus on providing clarity on rapidly evolving employee policy and employee engagement. And here, if you were, say, in the services sector with an almost fully digitally connected workforce, it was easier to engage and stay connected. For example a fitness challenge or a cooking-from- home campaign and leadership outreach brought a certain energy alive. However, if you were in the manufacturing sector with varied levels of digital coverage between different parts of the organisation, it made for a very different environment to communicate within. More so, if you were globally spread, and even more so if you were part of essential services, as this meant that parts of the organisation were still travelling to work! Recognising such COVID warriors, driving a sense of pride took centre stage; getting employees to feel proud about the critical role that the company and the sector plays in society, was the driver of communication efforts.”
The relevance and importance of IC has really come into its own. Getting the message down to the last person in a manufacturing site who does not have regular access to a digital touch point is a challenge. Finding ways to regularly engage – Video, Email, Notice boards, Telephone, online townhall meetings and a host of tools have been put to regular use. The importance of mental health as a topic for IC to shine a spotlight on by doing simple things likeawareness talks and games to bring the topic onto the table was a big part of internal communications. Streamlining the frequency of communication and the harmonisation of it across departments has helped make IC a much more coordinated effort.
A proud moment for IC, and a new phase begins
Usha wrapped up the discussion on an optimistic note “As a function, we always debate the question of ‘getting a seat at the table’. Our efforts in these last few months have gone a long way in settling this question. Being made a part of the business continuity team demonstrated the importance of IC as a valued strategic partner. The sense of purpose it gave to the team made us proud.” She also left the group with a strong reminder of staying true to what is being communicated. “The situation ensured that the organisation’s actions and communication matched and stayed genuine. IC was the strategic partner of the leaders in creating the plan, the messaging, and keeping track of employee sentiment. We were constantly tested – are you walking the talk? If not, you stand exposed!”
That said, there is much to be done still. The note we began on was about having a keen ear to the ground and keeping a pulse check of what was going on with employees. In this context, Neha ended on the note that a new phase is emerging for Internal Communicators. “Now it’s moving into a business as usual phase. Every Friday we used to have these team meetings that had absolutely no work talk. That is now starting to find some mentions of work creeping in.” More critical for IC teams to keep a pulse check and pivot onto the next idea. To find a new way to keep morale high and channels of communication open.
As always, the Creative Sandbox wrapped up with a rapid fire round where each participant shared one thing they learnt in the last 6 months.
Aniisu…“the agility and ability to mould yourself as you go along. Do more with less.”
Neha…“take risks. There is no guide or play book for this.”
Pallavi…“A time to be truly responsive – to changing trends and employee needs.”
Usha…“Authenticity. 2020 taught us what authentic Communication sounds like.”
Nikhil –“Genuine intent matters. People see it or see through it.”
The Creative Sandbox is a platform for communicators to share and learn from each other, hosted by Weber Shandwick.