Internal Communication Trends for 2021

EPISODE 60 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing & communications manager for Visix, Inc.

A new study by Gallagher on internal communication trends gives insights into the changing landscape of reaching employees and keeping them engaged. We take a look at a few of the findings – the good and the bad – and discuss possible reasons for why respondents said what they said. Along the way, we examine what organizations can do in the near future to improve their messaging, and how IC is changing in the coming years.

  • Examine new priorities for internal communication (IC) and employee experience (EX)
  • Hear how IC, HR and the C-suite are using new tools, tech and training
  • Understand the growth of digital, interactive, multisensory and omnichannel comms
  • Consider how new technologies, channels and content will impact IC strategies
  • Learn how to expand measurement beyond reach to evaluate outcomes

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For more IC stats from the study, see our infographic: 30 New IC Statistics

You can also read the most recent Gallagher study here: State of the Sector: The definitive global survey of the internal communication and employee engagement landscape.


Derek DeWitt: The way that internal communications works on the ground has been shifting for a number of years. Obviously, technology has been more and more at the forefront, and the pandemic has pushed all that into the do-it-now category. A lot of companies are investing a lot of money in internet technology and internal communications apps and things like that.

Our last episode, we looked at a Gallup poll that looked at employee engagement trends from the year 2020. And while all that’s kind of interesting, for actual communications professionals focusing on an internal audience, the question might be, what do I do? So, we’re going to talk about another study, this one released by Gallagher. And to help me parse the numbers is Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix. Hi, Deb.

Debbie DeWitt: Howdy.

Derek DeWitt: Howdy, indeed. I like to thank Deb for talking to me today. And, of course, all of you for listening.

Okay, so Gallagher has a new study out. The title’s a bit of a mouthful: State of the Sector 2021 – The Definitive Global Survey of the Internal Communication and Employee Engagement Landscape. It’s 45 pages long. Data and insights from over 800 respondents who are all professional internal communicators from all over the world.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. It’s a fantastic study. I’m kind of a stats nerd anyways, but this has a lot of really valuable information because it doesn’t just present the statistics, but it actually gives a great analysis and even some tips. So, I highly recommend you look at the study itself.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And you can find a link to that in the transcript on the Visix webpage for this podcast episode. In the business world, we’ve got an awful lot of acronyms , so we’ve got two more we’re going to toss around — internal communications, which is IC, and employee experience, which is EX.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Employee experience is the latest buzzword. You know, it’s not brand new. A lot of people have been using it for a couple of years, but it’s really coming into its own now. And these two things are being tied very closely together. I’ve mentioned this before, but IC (internal communications) is working more hand in hand with HR.

And also, what’s fantastic is they’re getting more of a voice in strategic operations. And it may not mean that they’re weighing in on products or, you know, manufacturing processes, obviously, but they are getting more access to C-suite level people to talk about why communications is important, what kind of strategies need to be in place and what kind of results they’re seeing.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. So, the Gallagher study says 66% of IC professionals say that they have increased their influence over senior leadership during the 2020 period of the pandemic.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Yeah. And I guess that number is closer to like 54% for North America, but they did mention that that might be because those people already had a pretty good relationship. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a lower number in North America. It could mean that it just hasn’t increased because it was already in good shape.

Derek DeWitt: You don’t fix what ain’t broken.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly, exactly.

Derek DeWitt: 68% of the people they talked to said that they know for a fact that their recommendations and ideas are reaching the C-suite, and they’re even getting clear mandates from on high, at least from time to time.

Debbie DeWitt: That’s true but what was shocking to me is that 20% said that employee experience isn’t even discussed at the executive level.

Derek DeWitt: So, one in five organizations is just poopooing this whole idea.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, at the senior level. It could still be being discussed with HR, with IC, with other departments, but the C-suite level isn’t directly involved in it.

Derek DeWitt: Right, right. The study goes on to say 37% of the people they spoke to said that there are plans in place for new information and collaboration tools. And yet 27% of them said, there’s no clear strategy for handling digital technology as part of the employee experience. It almost seems to me like it’s well, I guess we need to get all this digital stuff; I don’t know how it works.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, maybe not that basic, but yeah. The digital experience, another nice, you know, I’m sure we’ll be saying DX soon.

Derek DeWitt: DX! Yeah, exactly!

Debbie DeWitt: But the digital experience is very different than the in-office experience. And you’re right, in the face of the pandemic the priority was, hey IT, get these people set up, make sure their work from home is, you know, able to reach our servers, make sure they have Teams or whatever other collaborative platforms they need.

What we’re going to see, hopefully is a shift to budgeting for services, as well as the tech. And the services meaning training for your employees. It doesn’t do any good to have all of these tools if they’re only using the top level. I happen to be a Photoshop user. I use probably 5% of the capabilities of Photoshop. It works for me. It’s what I need. But Photoshop, or me working with Photoshop, is not critical to employee experience and engagement and the success of my organization.

So, when you have digital tools in place, but you don’t actually have a plan in place on how to roll out that experience, make sure people understand the value of it – why they need to use it, how they need to use it. And then really measure the employee’s response to it. Are they happy with it? Are they satisfied with it? Are you using four different platforms because in emergency mode, you rolled out multiple things? You’re using Zoom for video conferencing, Teams for chat, you know, intranet for this and this. This is now the point, I think, going forward, that we’re going to see people collapsing into the most efficient and effective tools that employees have said they like using.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So, when looking ahead to the rest this year, 49% of the people they spoke to said that their focus for engagement of their teams is about values, strategy, and purpose. 41% said that they wanted to improve their overall communication strategy and the tone of voice that they’re using to communicate. And 40% said they wanted to improve digital and/or social channels. So, that’s all in the forties.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And I mean really engaging teams around purpose, strategy, and values; that’s basically we’re reworking our mission statement. The second one is we’re reworking our IC plan. And then the third one is we’re looking at ways to get it out there digitally.

Now in North America, it was slightly different. Without worrying about the numbers, they are definitely still focusing on purpose, strategy and values (or the mission statement). They are looking at improving digital and social channels. But the number one priority was actually improving measuring the impact of their new plans, their new mission and these new tools.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Is this working? If so, we keep it, if not, we change it.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. Which I’m a huge fan of. You know, we talk about ROI measurement all the time. So, they’re really focused on, great, we’ve put these things out there or we have these plans in place, but are they working?

Derek DeWitt: You know, in previous podcasts, we’ve spoken with other people who have mentioned that obviously diversity and inclusion is very important to today’s workforce. Coming across as authentic is important. Having even user-generated content is something that more and more places are starting to play with. We’re starting to go into subscription models for communications and maybe sort of a smorgasbord approach to, I want this one, but not that one; I want this one, but not that one, and so on. And this whole sort of integrated omnichannel, data-driven framework that’s becoming sort of the comprehensive way to do all this.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, these are all huge trends. And they’re not just for say 2021. This is long-term planning. Everybody knows that transparency, authenticity, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) are all large topics that employees…

Derek DeWitt: Another acronym.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Employees care about this stuff. And you know, the user-generated content, and letting employees choose how they’re communicated with and how they communicate with each other, those are both basically giving people their own agency when it comes to communications.

And you mentioned, you know, omnichannel frameworks, data-driven, you know, this is the tech side. But again, we’re talking about, do you have a plan for how you roll those out, how you onboard these processes and technologies, and actually measure the results?

And another trend that came up that I thought was interesting is experiential communications. This is striving to engage all of the senses. Now, that may sound odd.

Derek DeWitt: Smell?

Debbie DeWitt: Sometimes. I mean, we have a blog actually…

Derek DeWitt: I know, I wrote it!

Debbie DeWitt: About how, you know, how you can address those senses. But what it is, this is where storytelling comes in for communications. This is where being able to talk to a screen, able to touch a screen, interact with things. So, this is about interacting. Sometimes it can be as simple as instead of using that Shutterstock photo, you come up with photos that actually evoke the sense of smell.

Derek DeWitt: Like a nice hot cup of coffee.

Debbie DeWitt: Correct.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Really high quality, high-def, you can just, you almost smell it just looking at that picture.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. You do things like that, things that can evoke smell or taste, even just in imagery. You use textures, you know, in the imagery. So, it’s appealing to all the senses because the whole idea is to draw the recipient into it more. So, this is really, we’re talking about digital communications being able to think past just a lot of text and maybe some clip art.

Derek DeWitt: Right. For sure. I think that’s really interesting (obviously, because I wrote that blog).But you know, for a long time now there’s been this push for let’s do 3D. That’s how we’re going to get people to come in and grab them and make them feel like they’re part of the experience. And it’s never really taken off because the technology is not good. And maybe this is the answer to that.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, it’s that and I think, in the future, we’re going to see more AR, more VR.

Derek DeWitt: Oh, for sure, yeah!

Debbie DeWitt: You know, there’s no reason your training can’t happen with a VR headset on, where people are all actually in the same room being trained on something, you know, where they feel physically like they’re all together. Things like that.

Derek DeWitt: Even though they’re not. Even though they’re on different continents.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. They’re all at their desks at home, but using AR and VR, things like that, we’re going to be able to expand on the experiential side of communications.

Derek DeWitt: That’s very interesting. And I think as that expands, like right now, it may just seem like it’s a party trick; as it gets adopted more and used more, I think we’ll begin to see more and more possibilities open up as people become accustomed to it. They’ll start going, oh, well, you know, if this is the situation, then we can also do this and this and this and this. It’s going to just change the way that we do things. 50 years from now, it’ll be normal. And we’ll go, really did you just look at screens once? That’s weird!

Debbie DeWitt: 50 years from now, it won’t even, it will be unrecognizable, is my guess.

Derek DeWitt: Computer-brain interface: that’s all I’m going to say.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, some of the things that were in this study, I don’t have the stats in front of me, but they also talked about there is increasing use of AI because even chat bots are considered AI.

So, I think what we’re looking at is, you know, we all know that technology develops at a faster and faster pace, and we’re going to use that technology as it becomes available. And so, this is one of the reasons that you’re actually seeing more of a focus on short-term planning than long-term planning, because I think COVID taught us all that the best laid plans, dot, dot, dot. You know, so…

Derek DeWitt: That’s true. So, if you come up with your five-year plan and then you’re like, hmm, well now we have to change the whole plan again. And you spend all your time just juggling your items on your list instead of being more agile and more flexible and more able to respond in something more like real time.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. In general, I mean organizations, they might have goals out for five years. But they’re not getting into detailed strategy because they know that the marketplace, the environment, the employee talent pool, the technology, it’s all going to change. So, I think that flexibility has become much more important.

Derek DeWitt: Another thing that pops in my mind is that at each of these different, sort of, communications channels, they’re not all the same thing. Email is not the same as chat, which is not the same as Teams, which is not the same as a phone call…

Debbie DeWitt: Which is not the same as digital signage.

Derek DeWitt: Which is not the same as digital signage. So, they all really do need to have their own goals, their own measurement and metrics methodologies, and their own ways to get feedback and adjust.

Debbie DeWitt: Absolutely. So, this study that we were talking about, 46% of the respondents said they plan on greater investment in digital channels. So that’s not a surprise.

Derek DeWitt: I’m surprised it’s so low, frankly.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, a lot of people already have these things in place.

Derek DeWitt: Ah, that’s true.

Debbie DeWitt: However, only 51% have channel-specific editorial calendars in place. So, if you’re an internal communications person, you’re putting out your messaging, you need to plan that out in advance. And a lot of people aren’t doing that. And it’s gotten even more critical.

It was one thing when you have an intranet to say, oh, I’ll post as things come up or I’ve got a couple of things planned that I can put up. But now that you’re, you’re managing two, three, five, six different channels, you need to have an editorial calendar in place, so that you’re being consistent across the channels, making sure you’re not overburdening people with communications overload.

And also, like you mentioned, there’s a stat of 31% expect a stronger emphasis on employee voice and employee feedback.

So that’s another thing – because you’ve gone digital, there’s a risk that it’s going to become very push focused. What was kind of disappointing is 52%, so over half, said they have no plans to let employees choose the way they receive communications. That’s a bummer.

Derek DeWitt: It’s a bummer and yet I can, I guess I could kind of see (at least at this stage in the game, where we are right now), why they would say this. Because they just don’t have a system in place. I’m having a hard enough time managing two things, let alone six things. And we’re going to let people pick and choose what they want. Well, how is that going to work?

Debbie DeWitt: That’s true. And you know, all statistics, you have to really dig into them. And I don’t have this in front of me, but I would also think that one of the other things could be we have already streamlined down to, we have the Microsoft suite.

Derek DeWitt: Right. That’s what we have. We pay it, we pay a license fee and we’re not paying a bunch of license fees just because you prefer the icons on this one program.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. We have Teams. Or, quite frankly, in the case of Visix, you know, we don’t formally say, which way do you want to be communicated with, but we have several different methods out there and we’re consistent across those vehicles. So, that if someone only checks the intranet, they’re going to see the same thing that someone who only checks the digital signs or someone who only checks email, like you’re going to get it.

So, we’re kind of saying, hey, we’re going to do it in these different places. We’re not formally saying, please tell us which one you prefer. I mean, we do measure interaction, but we instead just say, here are a bunch of different options and we assume you at home will choose the one that you prefer.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And I think that number, as this stuff just becomes more familiar and more second nature, I think we’re going to see that number shift. We’re going to see more places start to go, actually, it isn’t that big a pain in the neck; why not do it?

Debbie DeWitt: Right, and that’s where the employee feedback comes in. I mean, we are actually experimenting with this ourselves. Like I said, we have several channels, but we do surveys and things to say, what do you like, what do you want to see on the intranet?

Our intranet allows comments and peer-to-peer communication. So, for those things, it’s almost more like a social media feeling. Whereas they don’t necessarily want to see that in a Teams chat or in an email because that’s a more social thing. So, you do have to look at what employees are using for what. And then, you know, I have a calendar of what communications go where on what days.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Obviously, if you’re giving people what they want, then they’ll be more engaged. That’s just common sense.

Debbie DeWitt: Which is always the goal.

Derek DeWitt: So, let’s talk about the new kinds of content, because as this stuff gets adopted and spread more and more and more, we’re going to see new kinds of content. It isn’t just… like, we know this with digital signage. Digital signage, a lot of people started off in the early days of just, well, it’s an electric poster, but now it’s a whole new animal. It’s very much its own thing. And I think we’re going to see this with all of these technologies.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And I think when we talk about content, we’re mainly talking about internal. And we’ve discussed this already a little bit, but wellbeing is very much at the top. 70% of people said they’re going to have an increased focus on mental health and employee wellbeing. That makes sense coming out of a year of a pandemic.

Derek DeWitt: Who can have a problem with it? Even if it doesn’t apply to them specifically, no one’s going to go, what a bunch of jerks, saying that they hope I’m okay.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, no. DEI again, diversity equity and inclusion. HR is very focused on this. IC is helping that effort. There’s also a concentration on the new ways of working. You know, we’ve talked about this, it’s not just technology, it’s everything from…

Derek DeWitt: And that’s a moving target. I mean, it’s changing. Things are being adapted, things are changing, new people are coming up with new ideas.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. Is it, hey, we’ve decided we’re only going to have one long meeting every two weeks or are we going to do five-minute meetings three times a week? You know, it’s how late should you be sending emails to your workforce? Or if you’ve got say, like an app on your phone, like Teams or something, how late should you be sending a question to someone?

It’s, you know, it’s developing all of these policies and onboarding the technology and processes that you’re going to need going forward. And I thought really interesting was that 47% of them said they see a need for increased leadership visibility. So, this is getting your C-suite on video, on videoconferences, you know…

Derek DeWitt: Oh, by “visibility”, you mean actually seeing them.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, yeah. Because you need to have your C-suite lead engagement efforts. So, now that people are not necessarily in an office or at a school, wherever the employees are, they’re not seeing those leaders as often and you need to get them out in front of everyone. Because another thing that happens, especially in 2020 with all of this rapid change is, you know, people are generally a little bit shaky when it comes to change, major change. And so, you need that stability. You need that leadership, you need direction. And all of that can come from the top level.

Derek DeWitt: And I’ll also say like, for example, a Zoom meeting with, you know, six different windows there, the big boss’s window is exactly the same size as everybody else’s. Like, it kind of has this weird psychological effect of creating an almost even playing field or even ground for everybody. Everybody has the same size box. Everybody has the same terrible lighting, you know, the same everything. So, it kind of in many ways almost flattens the hierarchy a little bit.

Debbie DeWitt: It can, yeah. And I think this plays into the increased focus on transparency and authenticity. In this survey, internal communicators said, 17% say they’re focusing on presenting a more authentic tone of voice. This is getting rid of the jargon. This is getting rid of marketing to your employees.

Derek DeWitt: New, improved.

Debbie DeWitt: But it’s getting rid of it for your employees. This is about, let’s be transparent, let’s be real. Tell people what’s going on, throw out the jargon, and be very authentic and transparent. And the leadership getting in front of people can help with that because you need the authority and the agency behind you to present this information where people are going to believe it.

Derek DeWitt: Like you said, there’s information coming at me now from a number of different directions, a number of different channels. And by focusing on being a bit more authentic, throwing out the jargon, as you said, it actually is a more efficient way to communicate.

Because if I get a communication that I have to now stop and parse, what are they trying to tell me? They’re just throwing out this HR-speak, this gobbledygook at me. This is a problem. And you’re not being very effective as a communicator. Whereas if you just say, this is it, this is the thing, this is why you should care about it, here’s how you do it. Boom. Thanks for being so clean and clear.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, exactly. And making sure everyone has the same information and the correct information. I mean, people are feeling stressed and they’re feeling a little disconnected. So, getting people together, giving them a reassurance, giving them community. You know, this is going to be more and more important as hybrid offices and work from home culture just expands.

Derek DeWitt: How much do you think organizations actually track channel reach for each way that they’re communicating? How many of them are doing it right now, do you think?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, this is the thing. When it comes to measurement, there are a few things you need to be measuring and reach actually gets the most measurement. This is, I delivered this message to email and there were this many opens, or I posted this on the intranet, got this many comments, or we did a digital signage message with a URL link, and this many people visited the webpage. So that’s reach. And about 50% of people systematically track that, according to this survey.

Derek DeWitt: Well, that’s, that’s way up from a few years ago.

Debbie DeWitt: I was very pleased to see that also people are looking at employee understanding of key topics. And 75% of organizations are tracking that, at least regularly or semi-regularly. Which is great because, you know, just saying, oh, they opened the webpage is one thing, but you need to know, did they understand what I was trying to say? And so that’s a good stat, that there’s that much measurement.

Unfortunately, there are some other things that aren’t being measured as much, like satisfaction with your internal communications. Also, you need to know what’s the end result. You know, everything should have a call to action. I’m saying it again. I’ve said it so many times.

Derek DeWitt: And again, and again, and again. If you don’t have a call to action, how can you measure it?

Debbie DeWitt: Right. So, communications can inform, they can motivate, they can recognize all of these things, but basically, you’re looking for either a behavior change or a business outcome. You know, and even if it’s, we’re focusing on wellbeing, you’re expecting your engagement to go up and productivity to go up and all the other indicators that go with that.

So, if you’re not measuring, are employees satisfied with these communications, and you’re not looking at the actual outcomes, then you’re missing out on very important data.

Derek DeWitt: So again, none of these numbers are a hundred percent. So, what are these internal communicators say are the main things that are impacting their ability to do these measurements?

Debbie DeWitt: There are a lot of challenges that they cited, but 73% said, lack of time and resources. And that’s number one on the list. It’s not a surprise.

Derek DeWitt: It’s not a surprise, no.

Debbie DeWitt: Everybody is being asked to do a little bit more right now.

Derek DeWitt: Or quite a bit more.

Debbie DeWitt: And the fact is just taking on these new digital channels and the new technology and new ways of doing things, and we’ve talked about, you know, making your voice more authentic, looking at new purpose and strategy and values. I mean, these are big items that take a lot of thought, a lot of execution. So, 73% don’t have time or resources because people are investing in technology for communications; it doesn’t mean they’re investing in staff for communications.

Derek DeWitt: That’s true, yeah.

Debbie DeWitt: But the worst stat I saw, maybe in this whole thing, is that 27% said that there’s no interest from the business at all in measuring the results of their communications. Now what they’re probably measuring, my guess, is they’re looking at output. How many messages did you send? How many times did we post? What did you throw out there? So, what they’re not doing is looking at, even as something as simple as reach, which is, well, how many people actually got it and interacted with it?

They’re not looking at; did they understand it? Were they satisfied with it? Are they satisfied overall with our communications? You know, do they like these digital channels? Has there been any result from what you put out there? That’s the thing.

And when they say no interest from the business, what does that mean? Does that mean that they literally have no interest? Or does it mean there’s no interest right now because we don’t have the staff, we don’t have software in place to measure these things (this would all have to be done manually or whatever).

But quite frankly, I will just say it is not that hard to throw together a survey of 10 questions. You don’t want to do it for every message, but if you’re into an important campaign or something, this is where I think it’s very easy to simply send out even a one-question survey of, are you satisfied with how we’re delivering communications and what we’re delivering? Things like that. You can come up with this pretty easily.

Derek DeWitt: Well, if everybody wasn’t working from home, if everybody was actually in the office, that’s the kind of thing you would just throw out, you know, while you’re getting another cup of coffee or making some microwave popcorn and you know, there’s Barbara. And you just might go, hey, what’d you think of the…what’d you think of this thing we did? Oh yeah, I thought it was good, or meh, not so much. And you get that kind of feedback. So, you have to have more formalized channels, because you don’t have that kind of quick back and forth that you do face to face.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And I think you may even be able to say, I’m not sure, but you could say that maybe these two have some relationship, the fact that there’s lack of time and resources?

Derek DeWitt: And no interest.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Where no interest could mean we have no plans, because we don’t have the time and resources.

Derek DeWitt: Sure, sure, sure. So, there’s more work for internal communications professionals, but at the same time, they’re also able to sort of expand how they communicate, what they communicate, what the effect is on their audience. Obviously, a lot of this is technology. That’s where most of the money is going towards, but because more staff isn’t in the budget, fewer people are having to do more. And this can lead to breakdowns in communication, this can lead to burnout, this can lead to a number of issues. So, we’ve got to be a little bit careful and not just throw this stuff out there and hope for the best.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m just going to put in a plug again that this is a fantastic read. If you’re in internal communications or that’s not your title, but you wind up being the one who has to do your internal messaging, I highly recommend you get this report, read through it (and we’ll have a link). But it has a lot of great, like I said, a lot of analysis and a lot of tips and a lot about strategy and how you can work these things in. So, it’s not just telling you what people say they’re going to do, it’s actually helping you, if you hadn’t thought of something that someone else has cited, how you might approach that.

Derek DeWitt: And again, that study is a Gallagher study called State of the sector 2021 (and then there’s a bunch of other words) and you can find a link to that in the transcript on the resources podcast page for this episode.

Well, that’s very interesting stuff. A tiny sliver of that Gallagher study. Thanks for talking to me today, Deb, super, super interesting stuff. It’s a cliché, but it’s a brave new world.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I found it really, really interesting, but then again, I’m a communications nerd. But I highly recommend it for anyone who is in charge of their digital signage content or messaging of any kind in an organization.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you, Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix, for talking to me today. And of course, as always, I’d like to thank all of you out there in the world for listening.

Debbie DeWitt: You’re welcome!