Internal communication as we know it will not exist in 15-20 years’ time. As part of a joint effort, internal comms colleagues at Aviva and Nationwide have been predicting the future and considering how IC teams will have to adapt. Here, Laura Low, senior internal communication manager for Aviva, reflects on their discoveries…

4th September 2019

Last year, the internal comms teams at Aviva and Nationwide, for which Aviva provides pensions, started talking independently about what the future of our function might look like. We’d made good progress in changing the way we operate, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t stand still.

When we realised we were having the same conversations internally, we formed an informal working group – and were joined by IoIC. The aim was to get together and talk about how things might change in the workplace and how our roles might evolve. We knew we wanted to create something we could share with the wider internal comms community; we ended our first meeting with lots of ideas and pages of flipchart scribbles – but no clear view of how to move forward.

Our thinking felt a bit generic. It was hard to see what we could do that would make other people sit up and listen.

I started working with [Aviva global channels manager] Ben Keohane and [Nationwide digital channels senior manager] Jon Simons on a more challenging, dynamic and focused approach. We wanted to “scare” people into re-thinking internal comms and what we all need to do as practitioners.

The end of IC is nigh

We presented at IoIC Live 2019 and, in the spirit of being provocative, named our session before we’d clearly worked out what we were going to say. What would stand out and make it clear we wanted to challenge preconceptions?

We agreed on Why internal comms won’t exist in 2035. It seemed to fit and prevented us from losing our nerve and playing it safe.

We did research – podcasts, TED talks, futurist presentations – but, more than anything, we talked. With 40 years of internal comms experience between us, we had learned a lot on the job, experienced a lot of change in the way we communicate and heard a lot about how societal developments are impacting us, now and in the future.

Inspiration was all around us:

  • New communication technologies, such as social, chat, mobile webcasts and collaboration tools
  • Flexible and dynamic working is becoming the norm
  • The impacts of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world
  • Increasing age and social diversity in the workplace

We combined all our observations, and a hundred others, with our research and experience, and came to a pretty clear idea of the key things we needed to focus on:

  • Employee voice
  • Writing and creating vs curating
  • Trust and openness
  • Digital vs face-to-face

Being provocative

We’re not the first people to say the things we’re saying. We’re talking about trends inside and outside of work, based on studies and predictions from people much more informed than us. But we did want everyone to listen this time – to hear those same ideas, but pay attention in a way they hadn’t before.

So, we decided to frame our ideas as “provocations” – statements that would cause a reaction, using more emotive language, creating a sense of urgency and making us all feel a little uncomfortable that we hadn’t sorted this stuff out yet.

The idea that, as comms people, we could be “betraying our employees” or “perpetuating their problems” put an accountability at our door that we don’t always acknowledge. If we want to be recognised and respected for the value we add to the business, then we have to accept that if we’re not doing it right, we’re having a negative effect on the business and, more importantly, on our employees.

We can’t whine that people don’t care about what we do, if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our own impact, both positive and negative.

An image of the future

We made our statements at IoIC Live, with suitably startling images and eye-catching slides, which seemed to get the audience’s attention.

Here’s a summary of our provocations:

  • Stop saying yes to leaders – you’re betraying your employees.
  • We’re working for the wrong people. We should treat employees as our customers, not leaders – just as a TV station or newspaper treats its viewers or readers as its customers.
  • Real communication is two-way or multi-way – if we’re just communicating down, we’re only doing part of the job.
  • Tell leaders what issues their employees are talking about, so we can advise them how to respond. And to do that, we need to listen – properly – to what our employees are saying; not just counting comments or likes, but understanding the real issues.
  • You’re using stats to lie to leaders and perpetuate your employees’ problems. If you’re measuring to prove what you did was awesome – you’re doing measurement wrong. And if you’re sharing stats and reports with senior leaders to prove the value of your comms, you’re doing it wrong.
  • By fully understanding what employees are actually saying, and advising leaders on how to respond, we’ll be trusted advisers.
  • Measure critically – come up with a hypothesis and test it critically with data.

But what does good measurement look like? It’s not a fancy PowerPoint or a dashboard. It follows the structure that we’ve all written in science class in school: Aim. Method. Results. Conclusion.

We’ve all reported back on a campaign and said this article/email got X number of opens or clicks. How many had we predicted/targeted? Were opens or clicks really the outcome we wanted from the communication? Did people even hear the same words we were saying?

If you’re measuring to justify your actions, you’re ignoring your employees’ problems and destroying your opportunities to make improvements

If you want to be a writer, you’re living in the past

We think we have the monopoly on communication skills. We talk about having the skills and understanding the craft. But in a world where everyone is a communicator, how can that be the case?

A significant proportion of our time should be spent coaching and upskilling leaders – getting everyone communicating in an authentic and credible way, not ghostwriting for them.

Let’s curate and identify communications to be shared – user-generated comms that we don’t always have to create ourselves.

It could be said that our role is, in the words of research professor Brené Brown, to “excavate the unsaid” – to surface the things people don’t have the confidence to ask, to create connections and networks within an organisation, listening always.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any centrally created comms. There’s a place for highly skilled writing, especially when it comes to sharing things like financial results or strategy communication.

Remove secrecy and privilege

The Edelman Trust report called 2019 the year of trust at work. We trust our employers more than we trust the government and media.

Why’s this important? How a company treats its employees is one of the best indicators we have of a company’s level of trustworthiness, and if we believe a company is trust worthy, we’ll buy from it!.

The internal and external world will blur so much in the workplace that our internal channels will become public. The single source of information will be the company’s external website, providing complete transparency. What we do internally will be so aligned with external, that we won’t have walls or filters to hide behind. What the board discusses will be public to all employees and they will have a say in all decisions.

Digital can’t replace face-to-face

Here’s the thing no one tells you about digital – it always sacrifices quality for convenience.

Face-to-face communication is the best way to create conversation, leading to increased trust, comprehension and engagement. Don’t be so keen to adopt new technologies that you lose the human factor. To break down barriers and build engagement, face-to-face still wins.

Don’t be driven by technology, but make use of the benefits it offers to solve specific problems. For example, you can’t be in multiple places at once, so use video to reach people that weren’t able to attend your event. Plus, it’ll give people something to refer back to.

If we want to reposition IC within an organisation, and be ready for a future where we write less, blur the lines on internal and external more, use the best channel to create conversations, listen to our employees and excavate the unsaid, we need to focus on doing things differently. Perhaps we also need a name change. Simply the communications team (internal and external)? Employee experience? Communication and culture? The People Team?

Whatever name we go by, we all need to think more seriously about changing the way we approach our internal communication role and prepare for the future.

We want to continue the conversation about how we can start moving the profession forward, so we’re set up for the future and we have a bigger, more positive impact on our employees, and the way we work and communicate. Get in touch if you'd like to join the debate.

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