Top Internal Communication trends, challenges, and opportunities for 2021
— November 10th, 2020
On this day last year, we published a blog looking at what 2020 might hold for employee communication, totally unaware that COVID-19 was already on its deadly way to stopping the world in its tracks.
A year on, as we know too well, everything has changed. Not least the world of work, and how over the past 10 months employee communication has proven itself to be an invaluable trust-creator and business-critical function during a traumatic pandemic.
What lessons have we learned and what are the challenges and opportunities for 2021?
We put that out there and got a terrific – and wonderfully diverse – range of opinions from Guy Britt, Prarthna Takore, Paul Bennun, Sharon McIntosh, Kevin Ruck, Priya Bates, Sinead Meckin, Nicholas Wardle, Zora Artis, Geri Rhoades, Naomi Jones, Thierry Garnier, Jonas Bladt Hansen.
Enjoy the read!
Head of Content.
Guy Britt, Global Head of Co-Worker Communication, Ingka Group–IKEA
Looking ahead to 2021, I believe that one of the biggest issues with many communicators today is that they've forgotten about the critical importance of speed, simplicity, and action – and are making what we do unnecessarily complicated and slow.
Endless strategizing and alignment-seeking; 10 communicators debating the minutiae of a one-page document; wasting valuable time fancying up a 100-page PowerPoint slide deck covered in masses of text and graphs that nobody will remember.
COVID has shown us we shouldn’t be overcomplicating things and shouldn’t be taking a long time to get things done.
We need to keep what we do simple, keep the messages short, and understandable. If an email will do it, send the email. If a phone call or teleconference call will do, do that. If a poster will do it, do that. Above all, take action and take it fast: whatever is required to deliver what our co-workers need.
With every single thing we do, we must ask ourselves, what’s the reality for our co-workers? Are they in an office, or on the tills, or in the warehouse driving forklifts?
That’s what we must always have top of mind when we’re deciding how, when, and where to communicate what we want people to consume.
We must also move away from the prevailing thinking in internal communication that we need big expensive campaigns, that we need to bring in all these agencies to draft this and that; that we’ve got to create big-budget videos, when really listening to our co-workers and sharing their stories can be far more engaging and inspiring.
For example, during Covid, it was not any big announcements or campaigns that our co-workers around the world got excited about.
It was the stories of colleagues on the front line who went into the restaurants of the closed stores to cook food for frontline medical workers, and others who built beds for hospitals in need of more bedding capacity.
That is what went gangbusters with our co-workers across our internal comms. That is what engaged them and inspired them and activated them, wherever they were in the world. They saw something they could do themselves, an idea they could ‘steal with pride’ from.
Forget your big-budget campaigns and videos. This is the way to go.
Prarthna Thakore, Head of Internal Communications, ISG
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that good communication is about change and adaptability. It’s about being flexible, finding ways to reach a range of audiences, and ensuring messaging resonates and provides clarity for employees.
As we head into the New Year and reflect on what channels worked well and what may need some consideration, my hope for 2021 is for communications teams to take a leaf out their counterparts in marketing, and start with their audiences first.
When developing campaigns or launching a new website, marketing and external communications teams take stock of who their audiences are, create personas, and map out their user journeys.
With a shift in ways of working, which will likely continue into 2021 and beyond, it’s more important than ever to apply these principles to IC strategies.
By leading with who your audiences are and discovering what’s important to them, as well as how and when they engage, communications will feel more memorable and personable.
As we head into a year that will most certainly serve us more change, there is also more potential for employees to disconnect.
To help break through the noise and create a personalized employee experience, communicators should take a pulse of what resonated, take time to listen to their people, and shift their communications from broadcasting messages to everyone, to developing hyper-personalized content that is led with their audiences in mind.
Employee-centric communications: The key to workplace engagement
Paul Bennun, VP of Employee Experience at DAZN, the global subscription sports streaming service.
Everyone knows 2020 has been a difficult year. So rather than be overly optimistic, I’m going to look at what I see as the potential challenges and dangers internal communicators should prepare for in 2021, assuming there is no return to the pre-COVID working landscape.
- Prepare for culture fallout.
- Review what your organization promised in 2020.
- Think about the skills needed in the new working world.
I think Culture Fallout is going to be a big one for 2021. The working environment has changed considerably, and whilst the ‘workplace of the future’ concepts hold a range of opportunities, we have to be very aware of the dangers that could come from long-term lack of day-to-day interaction, changes to social norms, etc.
We don’t know yet how this will truly manifest in corporate cultures, but I think that fallout will make its presence felt through 2021.
Secondly, I think internal communicators will face challenges around organizations living up to their promises. 2020 was a year where many businesses promised to treat their people better as a result of COVID-19, or to address social inequality and their own DEI approach (often sparked by the #BLM protests) – 2021 will be the year where some businesses fall short on those promises, and internal communicators should play a significant role in managing that.
Finally, I think internal communicators themselves should realize that a different skill set might be emphasized in 2021.
I think we will see the importance of communication enablers coming to the fore – practitioners who show they can affect the way a business communicates within itself, who can leverage and improve digital channels and peer-to-peer practices, who can provide business with a better comms infrastructure and practice – rather than practitioners who show they can create a compelling narrative, campaign or event, perhaps.
Sharon McIntosh, President, And Then Communications
2020 taught us that predictions are a fool’s game. Who could have foreseen a global pandemic would turn our world upside down? Or that the murder of George Floyd would put a horrific stamp on social injustice?
But we also found professional light in the darkness: Companies realized that internal communication is more valuable than ever before. Critical, in fact. So what’s next for us?
- Executives get real. Gone are the days of the suits-on-high, speaking to the masses. With multiple crises in 2020, CEOs confronted their own humanity and became, well, human. We saw them confined in their living rooms instead of taking off on their company jets. Sometimes, they even choked up or shared their personal passions. Employees will continue to expect executives to show up, listen more, and talk less.
- Frontline employees finally get the attention they deserve. We’ve always talked about reaching frontline employees, but few companies actually have done it. COVID-19 put a spotlight on their value, and my prediction – my hope! – is that our communications and channels will respect them for who they are -- the heroes of our company who we should be celebrating and thanking regularly.
- Employee activism will continue to grow. Employee activism was born in the tech industry, but 2020 hammered the need for all of us to improve our activism skills. Employees called out employers who didn’t abide by COVID-19 safety precautions. Employees of color demanded justice and equality.
Gartner is predicting that by 2022, 1/3 of crisis communications budgets will be used to respond to employees speaking out against their organizations. Internal comms teams will need to increase listening skills on a daily basis to ensure they know what’s bubbling in the virtual company cooler.
Leaders will need to revisit their corporate values, policies, and practices to ensure they are consistent, applicable, and actionable.
These trends are only a handful of what’s coming at us in 2021. And it comes with a world more of unknown. This is our moment, IC people. In 2020, we were placed at the center stage of communications, with a seat at the table and a voice in our company’s actions.
In 2021, that voice will become a megaphone, amplifying employee concerns as never before – humanely, thoughtfully, and strategically.
Dr.Kevin Ruck is an internal communication author and researcher. He is the editor and co-author of Exploring Internal Communication and is co-owner of PR Academy.
Squaring resilience with surveillance
In 2021 more employees will work from home more often than ever before. And many organizations will be profoundly affected by the economic fall-out of a COVID-19 recovery and Brexit in the UK.
If we learned anything in 2020 it was the importance of connecting with employees on a more emotional level, showing the caring side of communication.
Organizations listened more, something that will continue as business as usual. Indeed, listening will become more sophisticated and go far beyond basic surveys as organizations wake up to multiple benefits of taking the process seriously.
The challenge for internal communication managers will be to consolidate many of the gains established in 2020, such as higher senior manager online visibility and better use of internal digital platforms. Changes to working practices will dominate the business agenda.
The ability of organizations to make change happen will depend on the resilience of employees and the way that change is seen as an employee-centric process, not just a Gantt chart.
Reservoirs of resilience are built up through caring, kind, honest, communication. And they quickly run dry with sneaky, covert, surveillance. Squaring these two points will be the key challenge for the year ahead.
Priya Bates, President, and owner, Inner Strength Communications Inc. and co-founder, A Leader Like Me.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion on Display
With the USA and the new administration led by President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris, we’re already starting to see their choices of leadership that visibly “reflect America.” We will see a lot of diversity driven from the top-down and many organizations will follow suit.
But organizations simply checking boxes will be seen as performative on anti-racism as long as their leadership and teams do not reflect their communities and front-end employees. It’s important to have an action plan and measures for accountability.
In 2021, when you make a promise or support a cause; employees, customers, and the public, are going to want to look deeper for proof that your words match your actions.
Connections will lead to more engagement and trust, while disconnects will lead to a lack of trust and worse, reputation risks.
Reorganizations, Mergers, and Acquisitions
The word for many organizations next year will be sustainability as a result of the pandemic fallout. This will mean reorganizations and restructures, to cut costs and avail of new opportunities and ways of doing business.
This will be followed closely by mergers and acquisitions that will create efficiency, combine functionality, and cut costs further. These change initiatives will require strong communication to drive understanding, retain talent, and combine cultures successfully.
The Business Case for Communication Technology
COVID-19 exposed deficiencies in the communications toolkits of many organizations. With the need for instant communication in a situation that was changing daily with different rules and guidelines being imposed by city, region, country, the clear need for highly targeted communication – versus one-size-fits-all – became abundantly clear.
Conveniently, communication technologies have emerged to do exactly that. Internal Communication technologies are going from early adopter to mainstream and there has never been a better opportunity to create a business case for communication technologies.
Sinéad Meckin is an award-winning internal communications professional, who heads up the internal communications practice at Hanover Communications.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that 2021 doesn’t have as many surprises up its sleeve as 2020 did. As this year comes to a close, there are a number of interesting trends and challenges on my radar.
Let’s begin with the challenges. Over the past eight months, organizations around the globe have seen their engagement figures go through the roof. Regrettably, this appears to be less the result of creative thinking and innovation on the part of internal communicators, and more down to employees craving human contact and information in a time of crisis.
As the long-awaited vaccines are rolled out, and the conversation around COVID-19 calms down, we will be able to see where the dust settles. Once it does, we will need to consider three Cs:
- Content: with fewer COVID-19 updates being required, what does “business as usual” content look like? Is it as compelling and engaging as it can be? Does it reflect where the organization is now, and inspire your workforce to work towards your new ambition?
- Channels: if workforces continue to be disparate, what does the channel mix look like? I’ve seen a number of organizations reduce the frequency of their leadership communications to more ‘normal’ levels – but will employees still be receiving the information and updates they’re after?
- Culture: this is a big one for me. I know I’m not alone in this but I miss my colleagues, I miss the buzz in the office, I miss everything I signed up for when I joined my company (save for the work, of course). How do you create a sense of belonging and culture when your employees are working independently at home?
The answers to these questions won’t be easy, but addressing them highlights a big positive regarding employee communications that has come out of 2020. This year has shone a spotlight on internal communications and with it has come increased recognition and respect for the practice.
I believe this trend will continue, provided we remain robust in demonstrating and measuring our contribution to the achievement of business objectives.
Nicholas Wardle, Co-founder of the Employee Experience Opportunity and Head of Employee Engagement & Communications at One Housing.
2021 will be the year of productivity. We all know that the ask will be 'more for less' and those in the people business will need to play their part. (And watch out if you don't.) I believe in the power of three, so:
- Motivation is the fuel of productivity and organizations will need to understand what motivates their employees - as individuals. Quit with your broad-brush approaches and start to personalize the Employee Experience (EX).
- Help your leaders see the ROI of your people. An effective EX should see a reduction in turnover and sickness, and a rise in productivity. If you don't bang the drum for this, it will be all about cuts, cuts, cuts, and a reliance on finding new customers. (And EX has a more compelling ROI than the customer experience.)
- Sometimes you have to spend a little to get a lot. So, fight for budget, and for the importance of non-work activities which give people reasons above and beyond their salaries to stay at the organization. Book clubs, charitable activities, social gatherings (in-person or virtual), etc. can go a long way to enhancing that work-family feel.
People are likely to be cautious about changing jobs; so, which would you rather: have a bunch of employees who feel stuck in their current organization, or a bunch who are motivated, productive, and aligned to the core purpose?
Your ‘people approach’ will be a massive contributing factor to organizational success in 2021.
Zora Artis, CEO Artis Advisory, Director IABC APAC Region, Vice-Chair IABC World Conference 2021.
I recently interviewed an executive corporate affairs leader of a Fortune 500 company and asked about the significance of IC during 2020. His response will not surprise, “For a while, nothing else mattered …If you’re in an organization that treated IC as secondary to external then if COVID-19 hasn’t changed that nothing is going to change it.”
So, what can do as IC professionals in 2021 to build on the capital we have earned? Here are a few recommendations to focus on.
- Insight and impact. You can fall into the trap of getting lost in data, or perhaps just measuring for effectiveness of IC activity (your output). Use the data to prove your worth by identifying employee insights and evaluating the impact of IC activity as it relates to business strategy and purpose. Think like a data scientist to identify patterns and extract insight and think like a behavioral scientist to understand the human biases that influence individual and team decision-making, and employee behavior.
- Alignment matters. Why? Simple, it equates to performance and the sustainability of organizations, and internal communicators are fundamental enablers of alignment to organizational purpose, values, and strategy. IC has a role in sense-making, crafting the organizational narrative, and making it real for employees. As the above mentioned executive said, “We have proven time and again that when you can answer that ‘what’s in it for me’ or ‘why should I care’ question then they’ll pay attention.”
- Intentional cut-through. Combine smarts with creativity to cut through the clutter and deliver the right message at the right time to the right people in the right way. This takes into account a number of parameters – knowing your audiences (i.e. what makes them tick, communication preferences, pain points, what they engage with); leveraging cross-functional stakeholder relationships for buy-in, advocacy, and amplification; knowing when not to send out stuff and back yourself on that decision; and be creative when developing ideas and how you deliver to break through the wall of noise.
Let's not fall back to "normal" but rather seize the opportunity we have created as strategic advisors, creators and doers to unlock the value of our people – aligning with organizational purpose, business strategy, and each other.
Geri Rhoades is the founder and creator of 2-Minute Communicator, an on-demand video resource that teaches managers specific and usable communication skills.
One of our most important challenges will be our decisions of what and how we communicate. The shared experience of weathering through a pandemic has made empathy not only possible, but a must. The significance of this requires more thoughtful and authentic content.
In order to help the business recover, we will need to talk about things that aren’t as severe as COVID. However, we’ll need to find new ways to make those messages relevant.
We will be tempted to communicate as we did in the past. Communicate a lot. Communicate often. This will simply create noise that will be deemed unimportant to most, no matter how creative you get with the subject.
Nothing will be as significant as a pandemic that touched each and every one of us in one way or another.
Empathy will need to drive creativity or your messages will fall flat or trigger negative reactions. I was in the hospital today and noticed a COVID sign, in both English and Spanish, and the title was Remember the Three Ws. Wear, Wash, Wait. However, translated into Spanish the words didn’t start with W. They were a mix of other letters. My response was ‘how thoughtless’. The creativity negated the empathy they were going for in translating in the first place.
Our listeners will expect empathy and vote more swiftly than ever before with the delete button as to whether what we’re communicating is important and whether they believe us or not.
Naomi Jones is Communications Director at SUEZ, a company whose workforce saw itself elevated to ‘key worker’ status at the start of the pandemic.
No matter how visible your CEO was this year or how highly rated your COVID bulletins, it is critical to refocus on three things in 2021. Firstly, returning to a more holistic employee engagement led approach, secondly, empowering our managers outside of the senior leadership team, and thirdly, focussing more on in-house visual content abilities.
To understand why this shift is necessary, it is important to look at the psychology of what people are feeling right now. This article by the Harvard Business Review, If You Feel Like You're Regressing, You're Not Alone, describes how in order to help people out of regression and into the recovery phase they need purpose.
Giving employees this, in the form of organizational clarity, company purpose and crucially, what their role is in actioning these, is what we should be focussing on right now.
Manager to employee engagement is also important for this shift from crisis and regression to recovery. Yet we still do not invest enough in equipping our managers to be good communicators.
We must spend a larger proportion of our time coaching managers, hosting key message training sessions, and equipping managers with the internal comms principles we know and take for granted, such as understanding your audiences and the outcomes you want to achieve.
Employee-centric communications: The key to workplace engagement
Lastly, on a more practical note, visual mediums are more important now than ever. If you have a mid-sized team and can afford to restructure, make sure a visual content manager looking after videography and photography and who understands visual storytelling is part of your team. I now have two in-house videographers and photographers and I have never looked back.
If you have a small team or don’t have the resource, remember we have collectively gotten used to lesser quality footage from phones and webinars. The main thing is making it a priority.
Thierry Garnier, Head of Internal Communications, Senior Communication Advisor
In 2020, IC professionals performed magic to ensure important information reached employees, while still fostering a sense of belonging as well as conveying goals and values. For leaders, it’s been a true test in many aspects, including communication. The crisis pressurized them to simplify their messaging, to adopt a direct tone of voice, to demonstrate greater-than-usual attention to people.
While organizations opted for easy-to-implement-quickly broadcast solutions, leadership communication evolved from formal/corporate to authentic/empathetic.
Leaders started to speak less to the heads, more to the hearts - this is great news as everything that engages the heart will increase in terms of importance. More than ever, IC professionals were invited at the executive table, allowed to step up and show added value in supporting leaders’ effort to build on more caring and authentic communication.
So, let’s bottle what worked well and seize the opportunity of a well-recognized contribution of IC to bring the function closer to the executive table, and address the upcoming transformation challenges!
In 2021, the crisis mode will not vanish immediately, though the prospect of life-after COVID-19 will soon bring back the longer-term perspective on the communications priority list. As the COVID situation improves, companies must give employees the desire to return to the workplace.
In the longer term, they need to re-engage employees in a more purpose-driven endeavor to accelerate the transformation beyond the crisis, with a more people-centric agenda.
Their challenges are to re-energize employees coming back to work, to recreate a sense of community grounded on a meaningful company narrative, and to engage people to deal with permanent transformation.
For Internal Communicators, this is an opportunity to come closer to the executive table and position themselves as sparring partners to executives and business leaders, taking on their role of strategic communication advisors to the leadership.
Jonas Bladt Hansen, founder of Inversus, advisor and professional speaker
“You are the rock stars of communication”. I still remember Joss Mathieson saying this at a Poppulo event for internal communicators in London back in 2019. I thought this was a bold statement back then. For 2021, however, I believe this works quite well as a metaphor. Because just like the music business, we ourselves are facing some pivotal changes in 2021.
We have to create new venues – for everyone.
During 2020 many organizations learned that their communication channels weren’t sufficient to cope with a situation like COVID-19. Connecting non-desk workers has been a constant discussion – and many had not invested in connecting everyone before the pandemic hit. Thus, in 2021 many of us will be creating new online-venues where there is access for everyone.
In other words, we have to create new digital channels where people can meet, share knowledge, and engage with each other. The future venue will be a hybrid between the physical and digital space, as working from home will become a new normal in many organizations.
We will be helping employees and managers become rock stars.
Creating attractive venues is one thing; another thing is to find the right people to be on stage. We’re not always the best performers, because we don’t know the audience well enough. Context is critical if you want to build trust.
Instead, we should be focusing on facilitating communication and amplify inspiring stories people are sharing in our new venues to strengthen the corporate culture and maintain a strong sense of belonging.
Mental health will become an important focus area in the coming year, and I believe we will play a significant role in connecting people.
Furthermore, we will have to help and sometimes push our leaders out on stage in these new venues. Most of them are now practicing remote leadership, and not all of them are comfortable with this, which brings me to my last point.
Creating engaging events for a hybrid world
Just like Gary Barlow invented the “Home sessions” during COVID-19, we will have to come up with new and engaging ways to communicate. Many of the events we once planned are no longer possible. We have to move to one of the other new digital venues. And it would end in disaster if we simply replicate our physical events into these new venues.
It is exciting and frightening at the same time. Exciting because it forces us to experiment with new formats. Frightening because there will be a risk of failure. But if you think of the risk of failure as an opportunity to learn, I hope it will encourage you to develop some inspiring new ways of communicating in 2021.