At this week’s Comma Exchange meeting we heard from Sarah McPake, Head of Talent, Insights and Inclusion at TSB Bank.  Our invite to Sarah was very purposeful.  For the last four years she has been working in HR roles but previously she was in internal communications both agency side and inhouse, where her remit included employee engagement, Employer Brand and Culture.  Our conversations in the Comma Exchange have led us to talk about the need and the opportunity for HR and Internal Communications to work more closely together (intensified by our experiences with COVID and a greater focus on the Employee Experience).  So, a conversation with someone who has experience from both angles and is highly respected in both fields seemed like an excellent idea.

Sarah started by talking about where internal communicators sit in an organisation. There are pros and cons to different structures. When internal communications sits within HR, and is a direct accountability of the HRD, it’s much simpler to work closely together; but it can be more challenging to make sure internal communications serves the business not just HR. When it sits within a separate communications function or elsewhere it is easier to achieve a more joined up approach across audiences and channels, but more effort is required to join up with HR to support their goals, and coach them in effective communications.

We spent the rest of the time talking about the major trends and challenges she is seeing in HR around the increases in expectation on leaders and line managers; changes in ways of working; the enormous growth in the diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging agenda and the opportunity for HR to have a strong understanding of the strategic narrative. We then discussed and shared as a group how Internal Communications might be able to support HR in these areas based on our own experiences. 

Expectations on Leadership

There’s a lot going on! That’s always the case, but navigating the immediate impacts and planning for the longer term implications of Covid, both for our organisations and the people who work for them, have made things more pressured than even. And leaders and line managers risk being overwhelmed. In Sarah’s experience leaders want to do more, but balancing delivery against strategy with leading (most often disparate) teams alongside developing their own capabilities, we’re hearing more regularly that they’re feeling stretched.  HR and communications are both making asks and providing support to leaders in how they lead and communicate, and joining up to do is in integrated way makes it much easier for leaders to understand expectations and to act on it – a simple air traffic control plan can be a big win.

In addition, workforce analytics are improving. HR is developing more and deeper insights from additional employee surveys, feedback channels (e.g. 180 / 360 reviews), and other data sources. Communicators should get close to these insights as they are key to helping leaders prioritise what matters. And support HR to use these insights to tell a clear story so they feel useful rather than overwhelming. 

Ways of Working

Sarah explained that current changes in ways of working and planning for the “next normal” is a key topic for HR teams. It’s work that brings together IT, Property/Estates and HR, to make sure that working environments, tools and behaviours support productive, healthy and attractive ways of working. This is a big change agenda, and communicators can add value in landing the change successfully.

Diversity, equality, inclusion, belonging

For many diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging are huge topics on the corporate agenda right now. It’s important to note that successful strategies will be business led, supported by HR rather than the other way round. The work HR are doing includes supporting leaders to feel confident and comfortable leading diversity and inclusion, and equipping line managers with the language and resources to have constructive conversations with their teams. They are also reviewing and challenging process and policy across the whole employee lifecycle to test that all touchpoints are inclusive and support the building of diverse teams. 

There has also been a realisation that measurable diversity is a much bigger topic than gender balance. So, teams are working hard to gather data across other characteristics, within GDPR, and use that to better understand workforce and prioritise actions. This has made the agenda enormously broad and is ever-evolving. Nuances of intersectionality and understanding that everyone has multiple and overlapping identities, and the experiences of discrimination overlap and combine to make it a challenging topic. And listening to employees and using their experiences and stories to shape the agenda is key. 

Strategic narrative

Closing the gap between customer and employee narrative is another important area where we are increasingly seeing internal information played out in the media.  Sarah said HR are often not equipped to look at the big picture and this is an area where Internal Communications can play a key role – coaching HR, listening to employees and creating stories from the internal narrative that play into the external narrative and vice versa.

The Exchange shared their thoughts and ideas on all these topics.

Give clarity to leaders 

  • Have a joint HR & Comms framework

Communications and HR setting out really clearly what they expect of leaders from a communications, engagement and development perspective and setting out what leaders can expect from the organisation in training and support.

Create a culture of being frank and open about past survey results

Depending on the spirit of openness it will be obvious who is doing it well and who is really struggling.  If internal communications can encourage that conversation leadership teams will often be willing to learn from their peers across functions and geographies.  Many of them are data driven – going back to the data can be good for getting them more engaged when they realise the impact they can make through visibility.

Create regular joint meetings

  • Introducing a monthly forum run by HR and IC, headed up by a Leadership Team member to deliver the key messages, not just broadcast messaging, but putting context around it. Leaders should not undervalue the impact of their voice and visibility – just 5 – 10 mins of a leader’s time in a month will help them achieve so much more. 

Create discussion forums just for line leaders

  • Setting up platforms for discussions across leaders and encourage joint working. For example setting up a Yammer group just for leaders to ask questions of each other, share ideas.

Engage line managers in the use of new technology early on

  • Letting leaders be at the forefront of technology.  Testing new digital channels with them so they are engaged in new ways of communication and collaboration from the beginning

Upskill line managers in communication, giving feedback and listening skills.

  • Communications specialists can contribute to training, perhaps run the training themselves or, at the very least, provide coaching to line managers to help them apply what they have learned from a theoretical perspective into their day to day operations.

The messages to leaders include learning to listen, knowing what tone to use, how much to say, when to say it, how to take on feedback, what to say when you don’t know – it’s a skillset in its own right. For Internal Communicators, this is their career, for line managers it is just a subset of skills they are expected to have to get.  An important one but nevertheless a subset and many leaders need all the help them can get.  Looking at what is covered in leadership development with regard to internal communications and to give their input from there is a good place to start.

  • As a communicator, find out what communications content is in your leadership development curriculum. You can play an important role in shaping that content and providing ongoing coaching on embedding those communication skills. 
  • Develop the D & I language that can be used and how it is to be used in HR practices and communications, training and coaching where necessary.
  • Break D & I topics down into workstreams, spreading them over the life cycle touchpoints for employees from attraction to retention and exit, making sure each workstream knows what the other is doing and asking ‘does this make a cohesive narrative’?
  • Recruit a D & I champion from the Leadership Team for each key area eg wellbeing so, for example, at every townhall meeting that leader speaks on their topic.  HR and Internal Communications can put together the plan but it should be seen as being owned by the business.
  • Listen to employee voice.  Black Lives Matter has shown that employee-led change are the best changes. Internal Communications working with HR in collaboration with employees is a must.
  • Make sure what you are doing is consistent with what people are experiencing by listening to what they tell you.  Just to have a policy isn’t enough – whatever the topic.
  • Balance intel by getting someone in from the outside to give more perspectives on reality and to provide an insight into what other companies are doing.
  • Build on positive people stories. Internal Communicators are good at spotting potentially impactful stories that can be leveraged and used in employer and customer branding.  

In summary, we hope you have found this blog useful – both in terms of some of the major challenges being faced by HR as shared by Sarah and how we, as internal communicators, may be able to further support.  Interestingly, many in the Exchange reported that they are already finding themselves working more closely with HR.  This can only be a good thing.  What’s your experience?  Already doing it? Wanting to do more?

For Comma Partners, please email virginia.hicks@commapartners.com or call 07900057725

Published: 1st April 2020

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