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Embrace the Informal for Effective Internal Communication

4 min

At some point, every internal communicator wonders if employees are understanding their messages, or if it’s in one ear and out the other.

Although technology has made it easier to produce and distribute corporate messages, the question of how effective internal communication is remains somewhat of an enigma. To paraphrase what the communications leader of a global organization once told us, there’s a gap between the information communicators distribute and what employees read, hear, and see.

That is to say, sending out a colorful newsletter isn’t always enough to help employees to understand the information they need to know. To drive the clarity and awareness needed to create an informed workforce, internal communicators need to send messages that reflect today’s communications preferences.

Those preferences are shifting, as the communications nonprofit the IC Kollectif notes in its recently released e-book “Disrupting the Function of IC.” There are some key takeaways from this book that inform how communicators can drive stronger message retention.

Influence of the informal

Ninety percent of internal communications received by an employee doesn’t come from formal internal communications media. It comes from the informal communications held by employees, managers, and C-suite leadership alike. In other words, the information relayed across formal channels gets aggregated through the informal conversations after the initial communication takes place. Takeaways from these informal conversations are filling in the aforementioned gap between what communicators relay through formal communications media and what employees actually comprehend.

Everyone, then, plays their part pushing information through the organization, but some can push harder, faster, and farther than others. Communications from leaders, of course, carry significant weight, but we’re learning so too do informal communications from other employees. Within every organization is a population of employee influencers, a segment that other employees rely on for “what they need to know.” Employee influencers can spread information through the company with an immense virality. Although they only make up 3% of the total employee population, they drive organizational conversations with 85% of the other employees.

Related: Want Transparency? Get Comfortable Having Uncomfortable Conversations

What’s more, these influencers, and non-managerial employees as a whole, are generally viewed as trusted sources of information. That comes from the Edelman Trust Barometer, the index gauging perceptions of trust across the globe. As several communicators note throughout “Disrupting the Function of IC,” the barometer shows the scales of trust are tipping out of favor of those we typically consider figures of authority. In 2017, people are more likely to trust someone “like yourself” than executives as credible spokespersons. Peer credibility sits at 60%, one of the most trusted sources, while CEO credibility is 37%, an all-time low.

What does it mean?

Taken individually, the data tells us employees are more social, more trusted, and more influential than ever. Taken together, this data makes one thing clear: supporting employee conversations is vital to the internal communications function. Not only are they excellent vehicles for circulating company information, they’re already resonating with internal audiences everywhere.

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Brad Whitworth, Hewlett Packard’s Manager of Business and Executive communication, writes for the IC Kollectif that the “primary axis of communications is now horizontal or peer-to-peer.” In other words, that employees are doing more than catching up with colleagues on the latest episode of Stranger Things in their water cooler chats. Employees are having important conversations about work, and those conversations have a significant impact on what other employees know, or perhaps, what they think they know.

Informal communications are often stigmatized as a rumor mill—the source of inaccurate workplace gossip and all the drama that comes with it. But if communicators were supporting these conversations from the start, and stamping out inaccurate information before it spreads, would it still be a rumor mill or just an ordinary mill? When you put colleagues together in the same space, they’re going to share the things they have in common, and work is chief among them. These conversations are inevitable, which means communicators have an important decision to make:

  1. Ignore the network of informal communications already occurring in the organization, or
  2. Recognize these conversations as a communications channel in their own right, and devote resources to supporting them.

If option #2 sounds better for you, then here are some brief tips to get you started:

Identify your influencers

Through your employee influencers, you can reach the large majority of your internal audience in ways formal media can’t. It’s important to not only identify your company influencers, but establish a relationship with them, provide them with accurate information to bring to employee conversations. Many influencers may already be visible in your organization, but to find the ones that aren’t, you’ll need to do some sleuthing. The IC Kollectif has a great two part article series all about identifying employee influencers.

Physical environment matters

Your physical work environment is the backdrop for where informal communications take place. Naturally, how your workspace is arranged will impact how often conversations occur, as well as the types of conversations that take place. Consider this article that discusses how to optimize office space for informal conversations, knowledge transfer, and even employee engagement opportunities.

Gather around digital water coolers

Work doesn’t exist in just the office any more—it’s becoming decentralized as remote and flexible options arise. That’s not to mention deskless populations, who want their voices heard, but often have no channels to make it so. All employees deserve to be included in the conversation, even the ones that are harder to reach. Technology is helping to fill in the gap here with mobile platforms that connect dispersed populations—regardless of location and role—specifically for these employee conversations, improving communication, collaboration, and the strength of the workplace community. Learn more about these platforms, and which is right for your communications needs here.

International communications leader Alejandro Formanchuck writes for the IC Kollectif that employees are on the receiving end of a “redistribution of communications power; someone’s power to raise an issue, set an agenda, send messages and make them circulate and last.” The communicator that supports these conversations recognizes that informal communications are not a replacement for formal communications media, they’re a means of enriching it. By facilitating these discussions, communicators can create a framework for effective internal communication and ultimately a more informed workforce. 

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