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IS INTERNAL COMMS FIT FOR THE FUTURE?

The daily tasks of today's typical internal communicator may be distant memories in 10 or 15 years' time, replaced with new challenges. Looking ahead, what part of the job will become more imperative and what workplace adjustments are likely to disrupt the IC space?

1st October 2019

If an internal comms professional from, say, 2004 were transported forward in time to an office today, what would they think?

Our time-travelling colleague will spot some differences right away. The office will more likely be open plan than split into cubicles. They might sense a little more scepticism of corporate leaders and institutions in the post-financial crisis workplace. And when their first pay cheque arrives, they’ll understand that wage growth has been sluggish in the intervening years.

Back in 2004, our visitor won’t have heard of the gig economy. They may be surprised to see how far flexible work patterns have moved in 2019,  from the exception towards the norm, with many colleagues hot-desking or working from home.

When it comes to tech, our friend from the past will be familiar with the internet and email, but if you try to explain Slack or Yammer, they may think you are trying to sell them drugs. Twitter and Facebook will also sound like gobbledygook.

Our time traveller will likely arrive equipped with a mobile phone, perhaps of the Nokia or BlackBerry variety. But smartphones as we know them didn’t exist in 2004, and the mobile internet was little more than a gimmick, so our modern world of celeb selfies, commuters with their faces buried in Instagram feeds, and bosses replying to emails from the beach will be alien to them.

All in all, our visitor could be forgiven for feeling a little disorientated.


A glimpse of the future

If that much has changed in 15 years, how will the workplace look 15 years from today?

The first question that comes to mind when we think about turning up at work in 2034 is whether we’ll be turning up at all. Won’t we all have been replaced by machines by then?

We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. If you weren’t up to speed on the first three, they were the ones that brought us the spinning jenny, the Ford Model T, and the computer-controlled factory robot.

The fourth one is happening now, thanks to the internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence. It means that more and more tasks that previously required a person are now being automated.

 

A brighter future for communicators

Internal comms is certainly being disrupted by technology, just like so many other disciplines. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we IC professionals should all throw in the towel and seek new careers. In fact, in a decade or two, we might be in a stronger position than ever.

Research published last year by Accenture finds that AI efforts are by far at their most effective when they involve collaboration between people and machines – rather than machines working alone.

And in a recent study focused on the jobs market in London, Deloitte found that information and comms was the sector facing the lowest risk from automation – safer than education, arts, entertainment, finance, public administration and health. Why? Because communications professionals rely heavily on human skills that can’t easily be automated – not yet, anyway.


Reasons to be cheerful

There are other reasons to be optimistic. Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends report highlights a need for a greater focus on learning at work, as more businesses grapple with digital transformation and automation – suggesting a big role for internal comms to play. At the same time, employee wellbeing and mental health are increasingly on corporate radars, suggesting employers are likely to continue to value effective internal communication.

We can be confident, then, that internal comms won’t have been erased from existence by 2034. But it might well have been redefined. Will anyone still have a job title with “internal communication” in it? Or will IC be part of a team with a mission defined in terms of culture, engagement or wellbeing? How much of the role will involve actual communicating?

We've looked at the key trends IC practitioners should have on their radar – developments either within their skill set or changes to the wider workforce that will impact on IC’s role to engage employees and maintain a positive culture. There are few surprises here – who isn’t aware of artificial intelligence or the ageing population? – but some of these trends may currently be filed in the back of your mind. IC practitioners need to be ahead of the game, anticipating the shifts before they take hold, readying the team to respond to evolving workplace dynamics.

The internal comms function of the future may be hard to recognise, it may be called something else, and it may be working in a very different way to how we work today. But in one form or another, internal comms will still be there, helping people stay connected, engaged and doing their best work.

 

The name of internal comms

What will internal communication be called in 15 or 20 years’ time?

As the line between internal and external comms becomes ever-fuzzier, the two departments will likely become one. Your employees may also be your customers, but are certainly ambassadors beyond the office walls, and they want to hear business-critical news at the same time as the outside world. The need for internal and external comms to collaborate and plan in unison will logically create one combined communication function to cover all audiences.

And as the IC professional’s role further expands – to coach, strategist, curator – actually communicating may become a smaller part of the job; more people across the organisation will become administrators or champions for content for their business area.

The priority for internal communicators will likely be to guard the organisational culture and wellbeing of people; the department name – not to mention the skills needed within the team – will need to reflect that. Perhaps we’ll be part of “communications and culture”. Any other suggestions?

 

Automation

The robots are definitely coming. Whether they will outperform humans remains to be seen, but businesses are prepared to give them a ruddy good go.

So what does this mean for workforces as we know it? Most assume machines are going to put good workers on the job scrapheap, when, in fact, the opposite might be true. A Right Management survey of 19,000 employers found 87 per cent planned to increase or maintain headcount as a result of automation, with many enhancing training programmes to allow employees – real people – to carry out new tasks that complement machines.

But with this advancing digitisation, internal communication will need to work more closely with HR to support employees to take on new skills. Future internal cultures where man and machine work in harmony will require greater insight from employees about how automation can enhance and support their work and enable them to focus on more strategic tasks that only humans can do.

And IC itself will not be immune to the rewards of automation. Bots that can take the tedium out of communicators’ administrative tasks – fielding enquiries, sharing documents – can free up the team’s time to focus on strategic tasks.

 

Future workplaces

The physical workplace is in a continual state of evolution – from cubicles to open plan to collaborative workspaces.

The next phase will need to accommodate an increasing priority for employees: flexibility. Being able to work where and when you like signals you are trusted to get on with work, while helping you to better manage your life commitments. There are benefits for employers too: smaller offices, less technology investment, better retention, lower absenteeism and reduced worker stress.

As more employers realise remote working doesn’t dip performance – in a 2018 Flexjobs survey of 3,100 workers, 65 per cent believed they would be more productive working from home than in an office – and virtual meetings save travel time and costs, being in the office five days a week won’t seem like a necessity. However, this means IC must ensure its comms plans and the organisation’s technology can keep remote workers engaged. The techniques and tools already being used to make sure people on the road or working from home are not missing out on key messages or the emotional and social benefits of being in a team will need to be ramped up.


Check out thought pieces on other trends:

 

Look out for forthcoming insight columns on Voice Online, written by experts in their field, on the future of internal comms, on the following topics: data science, older workforces, millennial managers, artificial intelligence, coaching, employee voice, and employee-led innovation.

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