6 steps for building an internal communication strategy

With seemingly endless options for communicating with teammates today, it's more important than ever to build an internal communication strategy.

Kimberlee Meier, Writer
6 November 202014 Min Read

With seemingly endless options for communicating with teammates today, it's more important than ever to build an internal communication strategy.

Messages. Emails. Slack pings. Phone calls. 

There are lots of different channels modern teams use to communicate and collaborate every day. In many ways, modern tech has made it easier and more efficient for us to talk to each other in the workplace. Where teams run into trouble with their internal communications is if they're using all these channels without a strategy.

Studies show that 21% of internal communicators don't have a plan attached to their communications, and 60% of businesses don't know what their long term goals are for their internal communications.

What do these stats mean for businesses? 🤔

Well, put it this way. If you're getting ready to take an overseas vacation, do you have a plan that outlines what planes and trains you're going to catch… or are you winging it, hoping for the best? While some will land in the latter category, the majority of people will want a clear strategy of how they're getting from A to B. It's the same with businesses who want to keep their internal communications running smoothly. With a plan, it's much easier to get where you want to go.

In this piece, we're going to take a deep dive into what an internal communication strategy is, why it's important, and 6 steps to building a strategy that empowers your team to work together with confidence. 

What is an internal communication strategy?

An internal communications strategy is a blueprint for how your team will communicate with each other to keep plans on track and get projects done. You might be scratching your head thinking… But, we already do that! 😕

Not so fast. While many companies believe that the way they communicate is moving their businesses forward, the evidence says otherwise. Research shows that companies have basically left it up to their teams to figure out the best ways to communicate with each other, meaning employees are: 

📝 Increasingly confused about what tasks they should be working on, cutting into their work time

🗣️ Spending time worrying and gossiping about their workload, leading to rumors and toxic workplace environments

😤 Frustrated about a lack of overall direction, leading them to look for another job

Why should you build an internal communication strategy?

Without a clear strategy, poor internal communication can punch a hole in your company's revenue bucket — in lost time and lost employees.

You can save time by communicating efficiently

People spend a great deal of time on email (the average person could climb Everest twice in the time you spend on email each year.) Now, this isn’t a problem when you’re replying to messages, answering customers, and getting work done. The problem happens when you’re spending unnecessary time on it. Here’s an example. 

When Atlantic Media's Chief Technology Officer Tom Cochran began to notice how much time he was spending on emails, it alarmed him. So much so that he started to monitor if everyone in the company was spending as much time as he was buried in their inboxes. He counted his activity; with an average of 511 received and 284 sent emails weekly, Cochran was spending about 1 ½ hours every day just on email. 

The numbers were more alarming for the company as a whole. Cochran found that Atlantic Media was spending an average of $1 million every year in wages for its employees to send emails. 

"A 'free and frictionless' method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet," Cochran says. 

This goes to show: time = money. And internal communication is a great way to either keep cash, or steadily drain it. Cochran's solution was to reorganize how Atlantic Media communicated internally. Redistributing brief emails to different platforms like instant messenger is one idea while collaborating on Google Docs instead of email was another. 

"We have to take a holistic view and see email as one of many channels for collaboration. Adopt a breadth of tools to connect people, teach them the appropriate use of each, and encourage smarter use of the right technology," Cochran says. 

Is this to say email is bad for the workplace? Of course not! Instead, it shows that if information is split across a bunch of different apps, chat tools and email accounts, it can lead to information to be siloed and people to lose time context switching. The best way to move forward, however, isn't to shy away from all of the communication channels your team loves using… it's to use a platform that brings all of your communication channels together under one roof. 

Engagement increases when your team communicates well

Another big part of a winning (or losing) internal communication strategy is how engaged your team is. McKinsey echoes this, saying higher engagement mixed with the right tools can bring your team together and increase their overall impact. 

With an internal communications strategy, your team can work smarter instead of spinning their wheels while messaging each other and finding the information they need. 

How to build an internal communication strategy

  1. Figure out your baseline right now

  2. Pinpoint the goals of your internal communications strategy

  3. Build your internal communication strategy from the ground up

  4. Invest in your tech toolkit

  5. Put it in writing

  6. Assess your top-down communication

Step 1: Figure out your baseline right now

Stop and take a look at how you and your team are communicating and collaborating today. 

What does it look like and what channels are you relying on to talk and work on tasks? Painting a realistic picture of how your team communicates will help you lay the foundation of building a solid internal communication strategy. 

First, analyze all of the ways your team currently communicates:

  • How are your staff checking in and collaborating on tasks? 

  • What channels are they using? 

  • If your team is remote, how are they hosting meetings?

  • Are the communication channels inclusive and accessible to everyone in your team?

  • Does each department have their own way of communicating, or is the entire company communicating in the same way?

If possible, break everything down by departments, locations, and demographics. This will help you see if there are any differences in how people are communicating internally. For example, if your design team is chatting over Slack and hosting meetings on Zoom, yet your finance team spends hours sending emails back and forth, you can see which strategy is working better. 

Which brings us to the next step: reviewing the effectiveness of the communication channels you're currently using. Take a note out of the earlier example of Atlantic Media and collect data on:

  • What communication channels are being used

  • How engaged each employee is with each channel

  • If certain demographics prefer using some channels over others

Collecting this data doesn't have to be a time-consuming task, either. Survey your team directly using a Google Form and ask them what channels they like best, when they use them most, what works most effectively and most importantly—their improvement suggestions!

Step 2. Pinpoint the goals of your internal communication strategy

Now you know the baseline for your internal communication, you need to think ahead to where you want it to be. 

Your data and survey results will paint a clear picture of what communication channels are working well and where employees are spending their time. From that, you can ask hard questions about whether certain channels are helping or hurting your team's productivity. A Bambu data report found company communications aren't working because information is being lost and employees aren't being updated with internal developments. 

So, you need to think about how you can spread information around easier and more importantly⁠—make sure everyone has access to it. Ask yourself: 

  • What problems are you trying to solve by creating an internal communication strategy?

  • What communication channels are currently solving those problems, and what channels are adding to them?

  • What do you want an internal communication strategy to achieve for your company?

  • What tools can your company invest in to make your vision for internal communication a reality?

While this step isn't about building a strategy, it will give you a clear outline of what you want it to look like and what communication problems it will solve. It's crucial to establish these before you start building your strategy as it will give you a point of reference to make sure it will actually help you achieve these goals in the long run. 

Step 3. Build your internal communication strategy from the ground up

Time to put your goals down onto paper. 

Building an internal communication strategy should be multi-pronged: it should help your team as much as it helps your company overall. After all, the more engaged and productive your employees are, the more successful your company is going to be in the long run. So, make sure that your communication strategy reflects this and is inclusive of everyone in the company⁠—not just managers and CEOs. 

For this step, you can use the ol’ trusty S.M.A.R.T method to outline the core part of your strategy. 

  • Specific: What do you want to accomplish? Get specific! 

  • Measurable: How will you measure your goals? 

  • Attainable: Are your goals actually achievable? Be realistic! 

  • Relevant: Are the goals relevant to your overall strategy? (Think back to the point of reference we outlined at the end of step #2)

  • Time-based: Create a timeframe for your company to check these goals off

Then, look at your company’s unique communication needs.

  • What type of content does your team consume? For example, travel managers need to be alerted to SLA warnings, so you must have a system in place that will alert everyone in real-time

  • What type of communication does your team need to engage in to make sure operations run smoothly? Are your team members drafting customer service replies over email? If so, would it be better for them to use a tool that allows them to create and edit a response together, in real-time? 

  • Does your team need to have active, ongoing discussions to meet goals? Are you wasting time in endless meetings that could be solved over a group video call or by collaborating in a Google Doc?

Figuring out answers to your company's specific needs will help you craft a custom internal communication strategy that fits well. And because you've made sure everyone in your team⁠—not just your managers⁠—will be included in the strategy, it gives you a better chance of having more engagement. 

An example of a new way of communicating internally

From McKinsey studies to real-life companies who have worked to tackle their internal communication problems, there is one common thread: tools can help teams communicate better. 

Let's look at an example: editing a draft reply to a customer service email. 

Without an internal communication strategy, this scenario could go a few ways. If your team works in an office, your employees might be popping in and out of each other's cubicles to give advice. If your team works remotely, it will mean they're sending emails back and forth with suggestions on what the customer reply will look like. 

Both of these are time-consuming but necessary in getting a good response back to your customer, right? Well, with the right internal communication strategy in place, your team can collaborate easily without having to leave their office or get lost down an email-thread rabbit hole. For example, using Front, you can share draft emails with other team members and ask them for suggestions. 

Once they have finished marking up suggestions (which you can see in real-time), they will then pass the draft back over to you before you click send. No more office visits or lengthy email threads⁠—just a smarter way to communicate with your teammates. 

Step 4. Invest in your tech toolkit 

You know how you want to communicate, and you've also spent time building a strategy to make it a reality. 

So, the final piece of your internal communication strategy is investing in your tech toolkit so your team can communicate quickly and collaboratively. Particularly now in the wake of a pandemic, companies across the globe are now looking at ways to integrate traditional communication methods like messaging and email with social tools such as Slack and social media. 

Finding the right tools to meet those needs isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, as every team's needs are different. Instead, when looking at tools, ask yourself some key questions like:

  • Can your team send, collaborate, and edit the content it needs using this tool?

  • Does it integrate with channels that our team prefers and we've found to be the most productive?

  • Are employees able to access and search for content easily to save time? 

  • Is it inclusive? Will everyone on your team have a way to share ideas, talk to their teammates and give feedback on projects and tasks?

  • If your company is looking to expand and scale, will the tool be able to come with you or will your needs outgrow it? 

Choosing the right tool or tools will mean the difference between an engaged, collaborative team and one that is disconnected. If you already have success with some internal communication channels, but just find them scattered, try finding a tool that will bring all of them together under one roof. 

That's exactly what Better.com did when they were looking for an omnichannel solution to their communication strategy. 

The online mortgage service knew it needed a tool for collaborating without losing the personal touch with its customers that it needed to be successful. When the company invested in Front, its first task was to create shared inboxes for their team, so every customer email or chat gets triaged to the right inbox. 

From there, emails are assigned or discussed internally in real-time so team members can collaborate on the response. On top of that, if a reply requires the expertise of a Loan Consultant, a team member can prepare a draft for them and then they can review and send. This not only saves time, but it also allows the company's unlicensed teammates to contribute much more than they could otherwise. 

The tool also allows the company to write canned responses and work together on drafts to customers, so they know that they are getting the best customer service possible. 

What sets Better.com's internal communication strategy apart, however, is that they continuously measure their results. As Front is plugged into every part of the company's communication, from live chat to email and messages, it tracks every channel's ROI. 

“Analytics has been the bible for my managers as they're working with their teams and they're looking to understand not only how their agents are working, but what impact they’re having."

Step 5. Put it in writing

At Front we took the questions from Step 4 above and wrote a Guide to Internal Communication with a framework to help teammates understand when they should use what type of communication. It helps you decide what types of questions should be over email, internal discussions in Front, over Slack, or in a face-to-face meeting. With this guidance, people can feel more confident to ask for help, while making sure that important communication doesn’t get lost in the fray. And in turn, we can move more quickly to next steps because it’s easy to work together.

We’d recommend putting specific Do’s and Don’ts for email, Slack, and meetings to help your team understand with concrete examples exactly how they should be communicating.

Step 6: Assess your top-down communication

Building a strong internal communication strategy also means thinking about how your management team is communicating. This one’s pretty simple: do executives set an example of efficient and effective communication? If not, how will you expect the team to follow suit? 

With an internal communication strategy, your team is unstoppable

An internal communication strategy is an important yet often overlooked part of company communications as a whole. 

While it might seem like telling your team to communicate through certain channels like email and Slack is enough, it's hard without a clear strategy on how they should collaborate. If you don't know what communication tools are working best, or if teams have access to the content they need, your internal communication could be hurting⁠—not helping⁠—your team. 

An internal communication strategy isn't just about picking the right tools, either. It's making sure that your team is engaged and working well together. With less than 30% of employees feeling engaged in their work, it's more important than ever to find a way to not only make them feel included and realize how they’re contributing to the success of the company. 

The best way to do it? Find a tool that works best for everyone in your team. If your team can work together in real-time, not only through messages but in other ways such as email drafts and sharing workloads, you’ll be able to accomplish more together. 

And a more collaborative workplace is not only good for your team⁠—it's good for business. 

Written by Kimberlee Meier
Originally Published: 4 June 2020

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