These ideas surfaced at a recent “lunch and learn” event widely attended by government communicators, but the concepts are applicable in any organizational environment.
Theme #1: Employees Aren’t Interested
How do you increase the likelihood that employees will “tune in?”
Most importantly, build (or rebuild) trust between leadership and the workforce. Before key information leaves the office, agency, department, and so on, send a message to internal audiences first. At times this can mean an email blast to all employees at once. Sometimes the correct approach is a more complex, multi-stage effort targeted to distinct stakeholder groups within the organization.
Generally, make sure you’re sending the right information, to the right people, at the right time. If possible, call out the intended audience in a separate section. When you do send a message, ensure that it only contains information that employees need or want, and keep the content brief, concise, and actionable. End the message with the name and email address and/or phone number of a point of contact who can answer questions.
At meetings, keep introductions to under five minutes and focus the time on the work to be done. Consider the audience as well as the purpose; share information your audience finds helpful and useful. Be attentive to inclusivity, ensuring that quieter voices are surfaced and that diverse approaches to problem-solving are welcomed. Avoid controlling who speaks when. After the meeting, follow up and send attendees a concise bulleted list of the information shared or discussion highlights.
Reaching employees who work away from a computer for a large percentage of the time requires a separate communication strategy, but not a complicated one. Use meetings (“roll call”) to transmit essential information. Off-hours phone calls are also a good way to get participation from this group. Consider a portal from your external website only accessible by authenticated employees.
Theme #2: Gaining the Boss’ Confidence
Internal communicators have long reported that leaders seem to lack respect for the work that they do. The straightforward solution to this challenge is to establish the worth of the function by going “above and beyond.” Volunteer to attend key meetings, take notes and translate agency initiatives and key messages into plain language for the benefit of others outside the room. Test potential messages using different content formulations to see which convey the content most effectively (A/B testing). Then, find opportunities to present “before-and-after messages” with metrics. Nobody has ever complained about someone who made them sound better.
Sometimes, disagreements arise over content. At some point in the professional life of any internal communicator, a manager or subject matter expert will express strong views about how a document should be worded.
How does the communicator manage the seemingly intractable combination of jargon-filled text and intractable experts? Focus first on the relationship, then on the words. Build trust with leadership, managers, and experts at all levels by respect for the value they offer. Once that is established, and on a quiet day, the communicator can ask for a meeting to walk through a typical document, explaining how and why certain text would be edited.
Bottom line: Rather than butting heads with the expert, ask for their support.
Theme #3: Losing Control of the Content
Related to the topic of productive conflict, sometimes writers find that the organization shies away from engaging them altogether. For example, a communicator may be asked to develop a document and then circulate it for clearance, but without the near-completed version returning to them for a final review and edit before approval. While this is frustrating, this is common. Edits happen for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that individual reviewers feel the need to add their “stamp” to the work. Acceptance of this reality is key.
A variation on this problem occurs when too many, ever-changing versions of a final document circulate among many “editors” for too long, compromising the integrity of the document. Since this has to do with process rather than content, it is possible to engage leadership in establishing deadlines that are enforced.
Similarly, as a means of establishing clear and consistent expectations for written work, it is helpful to establish an editorial board comprised of expert writer-editors who meet to discuss, establish, circulate and if possible, enforce editorial standards.
Theme #4: Finding Up-To-Date Information Quickly
Given the amount of content generated by any agency, intranets and collaborative knowledge-sharing sites can become a minefield of documents, not only because so many are posted but also because different versions of the same item may be listed with no clear marking indicating which should be used.
There are many approaches to this common problem, and they are beyond the scope of a simple blog post. A simple one is to post contact information for every page on the intranet. Another is to professionalize the knowledge-sharing function rather than leaving it to change. Invest in usability work to determine whether knowledge-sharing sites are achieving their intended goals. Surveys are a great way to start.
Some other effective solutions include posting plain-language guides and videos to the intranet showing how the site and information should be used. Employees also appreciate having the name of a point of contact for questions about the content on a webpage. Posting the date last updated is helpful as well.
On a higher-level, employees appreciate a standardized approach to knowledge-sharing sites within and throughout government departments, agencies, and offices so that they can develop a general sense of familiarity with the interface as well as literacy in navigating it.
Theme #5: The Need to Grow Technology Literacy
In a world where technology continually advances rapidly, writers may find that they lack the upgraded skills that would help them communicate effectively with internal audiences. For example, they may appreciate a podcast or an internal discussion hosted over a social collaboration site more than a straightforward blog post or email. Skills in document publishing, content management systems, and collaboration sites are all highly relevant today.
Keeping up with best practices and the wide array of potentially useful technologies can be daunting for employees if they are not encouraged to take advantage of them. Accordingly, it can be helpful to make available on the intranet a comprehensive listing of technologies available for use as well as training resources—printed, on-demand and/or live—to facilitate their implementation. Given the uneven support that communicators may have day-to-day, it is helpful if technology and training are made available without the need for a separate approval through the organizational chain of command.
The rewards for effective internal communication are many: trust, engagement, productivity, and efficiency and overall effectiveness and getting the work of the agency done. On the flipside, poor internal communication leaves employees frustrated, confused, conflicted and even mistrustful. Agencies that use internal communication skillfully should find that they can turn around even the most challenging situations for the benefit of all.
Blog post by Dr. Blumenthal based on December 3, 2021 Federal Communicators Network “Lunch and Learn.” Public domain.