Clear and open communication is essential to business, but to achieve it an outdated mindset needs to be replaced – hierarchy. Today’s employees want to be seen as equals, to feel valued, and believe their opinions matter. Preventing employees from communicating ‘up the chain’ with hierarchical thinking stunts innovation and creativity. An internal communications strategy which recognizes that every voice matters allows real success to happen.
Definition and types of internal communication
Internal communication refers to ‘’the sharing of information within an organization for business purposes’’ (Business Dictionary). It happens across organizations throughout the day.
Communication takes various forms and flows in different directions:
A one-way communication system is a sure-fire way of creating confusion and missed messages. A multi-directional approach is a blueprint for success.
Top-down communication is a one-way hierarchical system where messages are conveyed by management to employees.
Ensuring everyone receives the right information allows people to do their jobs effectively. Employees need to understand what is going on in the business. Yet three-quarters of employees believe they aren’t receiving all company updates. When people feel left out of the loop, it can lead to disengagement. The result is decreased motivation and lower productivity.
At its most extreme, top-down communication forms part of an autocratic management style. One person at the top makes the decisions which are passed ‘down the chain’ to employees who have no input. According to HubSpot, the only situation where this is appropriate is ‘’when the organization experiences a crisis situation and needs to make important decisions — fast.’’ The Covid pandemic is an example. Lockdowns and restrictions were imposed with little notice. Management needed to inform employees of work from home regulations or new safety policies quickly.
Day-to-day, senior management must communicate with employees, sharing important announcements, organizational changes, and good-news stories. However, it should be part of a more holistic strategy.
Tools for top-down communication
Email is an option for sending mass messages to employees. It’s straightforward and can target a specific audience. However, over a quarter of employees consider email a ‘productivity killer’. One study found that 40% of an employee’s workweek is taken up with emails that don’t add any value to the company. Unless the communication is urgent and time-sensitive, it’s likely to get lost in a crowded inbox.
An intranet is an ideal space to communicate messages down to employees as part of an internal communications strategy. With a corporate portal, management can share company updates or regular announcements. Messages on an intranet can be more detailed and engaging than email.
Ensuring your employees never miss a message is achieved with a few best practices:
- Define a posting schedule.
For example, sharing a quarterly company update or a monthly message from the CEO.
- Keep the intranet updated.
Ensure new content is regularly added.
- Target employees.
Make sure users get information that’s relevant to them. Avoid overload with targeting.
Bottom-up communication is when information and ideas come from employees. It is a democratic system that removes hierarchical barriers so employees are free to contribute regardless of their title. Open communication builds strong connection, employees become more invested and motivated. Allowing employees to get involved in conversations and share ideas leads to innovation and creativity. In fact, PWC found that 60% of innovations come from employees.
However, effective bottom-up communication relies on open culture. Employees must feel safe to contribute and be allowed to fail. Openness to ideas but punishing failure will only cause fear and reluctance to share.
Over-reliance on bottom-up communication in an internal communications strategy can also cause issues. When too many voices are involved in a conversation and no one is taking the lead, there’s discussion but no action. It’s great to have everyone involved but people need leadership. Top-down communication is important to align everyone in an organization. Employees must be working towards a common vision.
Tools for bottom-up communication
While an obvious place for top-down communications, intranet content should also come from everyone. A corporate portal should reflect the culture of the organization. If a bottom-up internal communications strategy is the goal, the intranet should be populated by all. This is achieved by departments and individuals posting announcements and updates. There are endless ideas for engaging content that can be shared across an intranet.
Microsoft Teams is a collaboration platform and the ideal space to facilitate bottom-up communication. Known for its information-sharing functions, Teams can allow ideas to flow from employees to management. However, there’s a danger that with no guidance, employees see Teams as a place to just instant message co-workers.
Key steps to effective bottom-up communication in Teams:
- Ensure all levels of management are in the discussion: remember ‘hierarchy’ is eliminated.
- Clearly define idea-sharing channels: create safe spaces to share ideas.
- Introduce visual tools: integrate idea-sharing apps and tabs.
- Dedicate a ‘prompter’: have someone reignite the channel weekly if conversations die out.
- Create specific conversations per topic: keep ideas together so they’re easily found.
- Encourage engagement: collaboration is all about commenting, like sharing and joining the discussion.
- Define the next steps: ideas should lead to action, assign takes, set a plan.
Lateral communication is defined as ‘’Messages and systems of interaction and feedback between individuals or departments on the same level in an organization’’ (Oxford Reference).
For the majority of organizations collaboration between employees is critical. Staff talking between themselves, brainstorming, or running projects is ultimately what makes a business run. But teamwork is a skill that needs to be nurtured.
Departments must also communicate between themselves. For example, marketing can’t push a new product that the R&D team has developed if they don’t know about it. R&D won’t identify updates if sales and customer success aren’t feeding back customer thoughts.
Lateral communication is fundamental in internal communications but can easily break-down. Individualistic thinking or silos can result in misalignment, miscommunication, and chaos.
Tools to facilitate lateral communication
Email has been the go-to tool for sending communications to colleagues, but it’s being replaced. In a world where people expect instant feedback, email is slow. It’s also not conducive to group discussion and is more time consuming to write because of the formalities expected.
Tools like WhatsApp are useful for reaching people when they are away from their desks especially to send urgent messages, like office closure. However, because people use WhatsApp personally, the lines of what is acceptable to share can be blurred. With no organizational control over the platform, it can leave companies open to legal risks.
For effective lateral communication, employees need to be able to message, jump on a video call, work on documents, and share files. They need to communicate instantly, receive feedback, and store information. Microsoft Teams facilitates this. Managers can create dedicated channels for team discussions. Departments can connect in a joint channel.
One thing to consider though is Teams control. Duplicated channels for two departments to communicate in will cause confusion and members will use neither. Naming is also important. Users need to be able to easily find the team they are looking for. Overcome this with templates designed to simplify Teams creation. Manage the lifecycle to keep Teams clean and archive outdated ones.
However, while lateral communication must be encouraged, it does feed into hierarchical thinking.
Why multi-directional communication is the key to an effective internal communications strategy
Hierarchial thinking is not limited to one communication approach but the idea that information sharing is based on job title. The key to a successful internal comms strategy is ensuring that people can reach out to each other without barriers. This requires a change in mindset and culture. In the physical workplace, companies have started this. Open-plan offices and shared workspaces, open-door policies, and the removal of individual offices. Now the challenge is to bring this to the digital workplace.
This is achieved through the company intranet, Microsoft Teams, and any other digital tool your business might use. Ensure top-down communications get to employees to keep everyone aligned and involved, using the intranet. Facilitate bottom-up communications through the intranet and teams, creating dedicated spaces for sharing. Encourage lateral communication in collaborative platforms like teams. Make sure intranet and Teams are bridged to facilitate information flowing in every direction. Set guidelines for this multi-directional strategy and implement it through a complete digital workplace.
Looking to implement multi-directional communication for your employees via the digital workplace? Reach out to Powell Software and define your digital transformation project today.