Internal communication

At a recent training session for marketing and BD assistants, we considered the importance of internal communication – why, how and what?

Why is internal communication important?

Internal communication in a professional service firm (PSF) is important for a number of reasons:

  • Culture – Each firm will have a slightly different corporate or workplace culture. That’s “the way we do things around here” – informal rules for how to behave. Internal communication both preserves the culture and is determined by it. Some firms are formal and closed, others are open and informal – the internal communications style mirrors and reinforces the culture.
  • Cohesion – Internal communication helps build unity, trust and good internal relationships. Everyone can see how they fit into the firm. It helps people align themselves with the firm’s aims, values and views.
  •  Brand – In a service business, each and every member of staff is a brand ambassador and plays a part in delivering a consistent service according to the firm’s brand promise. Internal communication helps people understand their role and enables them to fulfil expectations to support reputation management.
  •  Knowledge sharing – To support cross-selling, everyone needs to know about the firm’s range of services and new developments. Sharing knowledge about the firm’s clients, services and progress (e.g. success stories) enables people to communicate effectively with their clients, contacts and referrers. Sharing best practice raises standards across the firm and forms a valuable part of the training programme.
  •  Employee engagement – Internal communication helps each member of staff connect with the firm’s overall objectives and remain motivated. Good internal communications will be two-way – both from the top down and from the bottom up. Engaged staff will feel empowered to adapt their approach to ensure clients receive the best service.
  •  Silos – Many firms are organised around technical expertise which means that they may operate in isolated silos and need internal communication programmes to build understanding and relationships with those in other teams. Internal communication is vital in supporting matrix structures such as those evident in sector programmes and major projects. It is also important where the firm needs co-ordination – for example in cross-selling, Key Account Management (KAM) and referrer management programmes.
  •  Updates on major developments – When the firm is dealing with major strategic developments or firm-wide campaigns in which there is a high level of interest from external media, it is important that staff know what is happening and what they should do when asked. It helps everyone “sing from the same song sheet”. Internal communication is vital in crisis management situations.
  •  Compliance – Whether it is new rules for Anti-Money Laundering (AML) or GDPR regulations or the promotion of agreed standards and templates, then internal communication will be important both in introducing these procedures and reminding people to comply.
  •  Change management – Most firms have a number of major projects that require a change in attitude or behaviour. They are often supported by training programmes. But internal communication is the glue that connects the planned changes to each individual and supports them through the change cycle and keeps them posted on progress. When people know what is happening and why – and how it is likely to impact them – they are less likely to be resistance, concerned or stressed.

How should internal communication be managed?

Some elements of internal communication are managed centrally – by the Board, the marketing and business development team and the HR team. There should be an agreed plan – adjusted for the different internal stakeholder groups such as partners, fee-earners and support staff – to support the firm’s overall strategy (around the business plan) and any major change management programmes. The plan needs to select the right channels and the right content so that internal communications neither overloads people nor leaves them in the dark.

Other aspects of internal communication are the responsibility of each line manager. Here, their role is to cascade down the information from senior management and feedback information from their staff. Departmental and team meetings will form a part of this and so will the day-to-day communication by team leaders through telephone calls, emails and casual conversations. There’s more about communication in team management here

Some firms have steering groups and committees with a representative selection of technical and support staff and senior and junior members who are responsible for the firm’s internal communications, developing plans and policies and assisting with new initiatives to improve internal communication.

Internal communication should be considered in all management issues – and should take place in a planned and structured way rather than as an afterthought.

To some degree, every member of the firm is responsible for internal communication. Ensuring their views are known to others and that market and client intelligence is fed back to the relevant people.

What are the best methods of internal communication?

There are a vast number of different internal communication methods – and different channels and approaches are emerging all the time. Some of the most popular methods include:

  • Internal audits, polls and surveys – Some firms will use systems to measure staff satisfaction with a range of issues as well as internal communication. These are a vital part of “Best employer” programmes where they are conducted anonymously by third parties. Analytics enable you to see what content on what platform is most popular with different groups and at different times,
  • Away days and staff meetings – Annual or quarterly sessions are arranged, often outside the usual place of work, where senior management outline plans and progress and give staff the opportunity to provide input and ask questions
  • Training sessions and workshops – Whilst face-to-face sessions often achieve the best engagement, technology is increasingly being used to provide e-learning resources that can reach a large number of people very quickly in a consistent way to improve knowledge and capture feedback.
  • Roadshows – Where there is a major change programme, or the launch of a new business plan or critical new service, the senior management team will organise a roadshow around the firm’s offices to provide everyone with a chance to hear the news first hand and to offer feedback.
  • Departmental meetings – Most departments will have regular meetings where developments are discussed and workloads are reviewed. Sometimes these are short meetings at the start of each week. Members of other teams may attend these meetings – or even shadow other departments – to forge stronger internal relationships and cross-referral opportunities.
  • Brown bag lunches – Firms will organise lunch time briefings where staff either bring their own lunches (thus “brown bag”) or provide sandwiches and other refreshments. A regular programme with some variety in the format and presenters is important to maintain interest.
  • Displays – Larger firms will have digital displays in reception areas, lobbies and lifts that convey internal information. I visited a firm in the Midlands recently that had fun signs and noticeboards in the staff canteen and even in the toilets.
  • Intranet – Most firms will have an internal web site containing information about different offices and services, with access to internal information systems such as financial and client databases.
  • Senior partner announcements – One firm arranged for the senior partner to make an informal and short telephone announcement every Friday morning. It became popular and everyone “tuned in” each week. Another firm regularly hosted early evening suppers where board members would update a small group of senior and junior staff and support people on news and hear their views. Other firms employ more of a “Management by Walking About” (MBWA) approach – encouraging senior management to walk around and chat informally to people on a regular basis.
  • Video and audio broadcasts – Larger firms with more internal communications resources will develop videos, podcasts and telephone broadcasts to keep in touch with staff who prefer these media or spend a lot of time out of the office
  • Internal social media – Some firms will use internal collaboration platforms (e.g. Google+ hangouts) and social media (for example, Yammer) to support informal internal communications and collaboration. These also have the benefit of reducing internal emails.
  • Games and competitions – Some firms run innovative awards and competitions to encourage staff to participate in brainstorming, new product development and other initiatives. Many change management and referral programmes are supported by league tables and reward systems. Some firms run teaser campaigns with regular email alerts, screen savers and desk drops (i.e. information or presents left on desk chairs).
  • Socials – Most firms will arrange informal social activities such as drinks receptions, parties, sporting activities and team building events where members of the team and those from other teams come together, network and chat in informal and relaxed situations. Informal contact is an important way for mutual understanding, trust and relationships to form.
  • Coffee machine and water cooler moments – The physical proximity of people in their day-to-day work can also have an impact on internal communications. Americans refer to “water cooler moments” where staff chat briefly and informally – but regularly – to team mates and other colleagues while making and enjoying refreshments.

To avoid staff becoming overloaded with information on different initiatives and departments, and to ensure that messages are reinforced there needs to be planned campaigns that focus attention on particular topics for a specific period of time,

Interaction, prompting action (a Call To Action) and impact needs to be measured in all internal communications.

Aristotle said “Nature abhors a vacuum” so a critical issue in internal communication is to ensure that there are no gaps in people’s knowledge that can be filled by rumour – especially during a period of major change or transition such as during a merger.

Details of future training courses for marketing and business development assistants, executives and managers are here