Talk amongst yourselves: How internal communications can impact your mission

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I’ve learned many things from my time spent working at a public broadcaster. Some lessons stemmed from positive experiences. Others, well, not so much. For instance, I’ve seen firsthand the disastrous effects resulting from an organization’s decision not to prioritize internal communications. The frustration - seemingly benign - starts off small, simmering gently beneath the surface. But, when not effectively addressed, that simple aggravation turns to overt discontent, then hostility, followed by a lack of motivation and then anger. Finally, before you know it, the work environment is ripe with apathy and low productivity.

Where did we go wrong, the organization then asks, dazed and confused. And while their current situation is messy and complex, the answer is simple: they failed to engage their employees. That inaction cost them the respect and dedication of their staff. Communications consultant Nina Winham knows that picture well, having witnessed similar internal disconnects in her line of work. “When you talk about internal communication, you really mean engagement,” she explains.

Engage and you shall achieve

The benefits of engagement are many. With the overall objective of ensuring that everyone - from staff and volunteers, right up to the board members - is speaking the same language, internal communications are essential. “If people feel motivated, respected and plugged in and feel they are clear about what their works entails, then you get synergy and a willingness to go above and beyond,” Winham says. Establishing a strong internal organizational dialogue also means your staff will trust you, a fundamental criteria for effective leadership and management, offers communications expert, Susan Scott. “Employees often feel that what they say doesn’t matter,” she adds. But, by asking for feedback and making staff feel a part of the team and the big picture, employees will soon learn that your are worth their trust...and commitment.

Of course, the satisfaction of current employees has a direct impact on the motivation of prospective employees and clients. When a person walks into an office and witnesses knowledgeable, committed and satisfied staff, they may say, “this is a great place to work; how can I be a part of it,” says Scott. They will also perceive it to be a successful organization, giving them motivation to donate or get involved in some other way, she adds.

And let’s not forget the important role volunteers play in organizations and how an internal communications strategy can increase their level of satisfaction as well. “You want to involve volunteers because they will feel a part of the organization, become more knowledgeable and more capable of talking about what’s going on,” explains Scott. Of course, some volunteers want to know more, others less. Some would appreciate being invited to meetings, while others are happy to receive newsletters in their inbox. The best approach, Scott concludes, would simply be to ask, ‘what works for you?’

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Along with the many benefits of implementing an internal dialogue, the costs of not communicating properly can weigh heavily. “If you want to produce good products, reduce costs and increase revenues in your company and you don’t engage people, you are pretty much losing one of your key resources right off the top,” says Winham. Likewise, she adds, a lack of communication will probably weaken the very fabric of the organization. “It may not show up tomorrow but it will show up at some point.”

Furthermore, adds Karen Iddon, an HR consultant with expertise in the nonprofit sector, not communicating can create serious risks, such as mixed messages, damaging rumours, and employees not working together on a shared purpose. “In turn, this leads to poor moral, low retention and inefficiencies.”

Organizations should take extra heed, advises Winham. The price of not establishing an internal communication strategy has never been higher than it is today. Many not-for-profits assume that people looking to make a difference or to work in an environment that espouses their value system will inevitably choose a nonprofit workplace. Their reliance on this assumption, moreover, may lead them to take these employees for granted and to place a less-than-worthy focus on management practices, internal communications included.

However, a rising labour crunch is making corporations think more seriously about sustainability and how best to satisfy their employees. Consequently, a greater percentage of for-profit companies are establishing social responsibility programs and other means of making a difference in their respective communities. “In this way, the traditional differentiating factor of why it’s better to work in a nonprofit is being eroded,” concludes Winham. The not-for-profit must necessarily adopt better management techniques to keep up.

Which channel to choose

So, which internal techniques work best? “Much depends on your environment,” says Iddon,. That said, in-person meetings or pre-scheduled town-hall type meetings are absolutely imperative. “The leader of the organization needs to be visible and there is no substitution for face-to-face communication,” Iddon adds. Scott agrees, saying, “Ideally these meetings should take place fairly regularly as it gives people a chance to get together, talk about issues, hear information, ask questions and get feedback.” If your organization is spread geographically, Iddon suggests having people phone in with simultaneous video or webcasts.

The YWCA Durham, boasting approximately 80 staff members and 75 volunteers each year, knows only too well the importance of such face-to-face engagements. “Members of the management team meet on a regular basis and department directors and managers each hold regular staff meetings,” says Eva Martin Blythe, executive director.

Then there are internal newsletters. The YWCA publishes an internal newsletter and distributes it to all current and former staff, among others. With its ability to build organizational branding, encourage workplace culture and communicate key messages, the newsletter can play a strong role in internal communications strategies. “In the current world of e-mail overload,” explains Iddon, “paper-based newsletters have a real place in capturing people’s hearts.” As for content, the document should be informative and serious, yet fun to read. “And it should be stamped with your organization’s look and feel,” she adds.

At the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada’s national office, a monthly internal newsletter also helps keep the staff of 40 in the know. Due to their smaller size, communications initiatives need not be complex or on a large scale in order to meet the internal dialogue needs. Nevertheless, says assistant director of communications, Heather Rourke, a strategy that ensures employees remain informed about the various issues at the centre of the organization’s work is vital to their mission. “You really have to be aware of what other people are doing in related areas to help move your agenda forward,” she offers.

Balance is key

That said, the organization is constantly trying to balance the need to inform with the need not to burden or overwhelm unnecessarily. After all, Rourke explains, time is a precious commodity. “With the sheer volume of e-mails and meetings that people already have to deal with, we want to make sure that we’re providing people with information that’s timely and useful and that stands out enough so that they are able to see and absorb it.” Consequently, the office newsletter consists of a short series of bullets explaining the key priorities of the organization’s varied departments over a four- to six-week period. Should a staff member be interested in more detail, they can inquire further at their own discretion.

Be seen and heard

Other effective internal communication techniques are e-bulletins, suggestion boxes, an intranet, and employee recognition programs. In addition, taking the time, even on an ad hoc basis, to meet with staff members will lead to positive results. “Opportunities for people to interact in a relaxed social atmosphere - such as lunch with staff, regular pub nights - are also tremendously important,” says Iddon. And for those who claim their lack of resources or funding make it difficult to prioritize internal communications, many of those options can be organized with a low overhead. “Start with something simple,” says Scott. “Communicate in whatever way you can.”

And be sure to keep in mind that effective communication is a two-way street. “The critical piece for me is not to make assumptions, but to find out what people need,” says Rourke. The best approach is to ask employees what they’d like to be offered - whether they’d prefer more or less e-mails, more or less meetings, and what kind of meetings or e-mails they’d appreciate. The feedback you solicit, Rourke adds, will help you modify and develop your communication plans, ensuring the information you provide is relevant and valuable.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance print and broadcast journalist living in Toronto.

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