Chapter 1: Timing

Image of businesswoman looking in telescope standing a top of rockLet’s Start with Timing: How Far Out Should You Plan?

There’s no question that most organizations are holding off making firm long-term plans much beyond the first two quarters of 2021. Instead, build a flexible long-term strategic outlook balanced with shorter, more reactive bursts of tactical planning. For example, KONE America’s communication team operates on a week to week basis, constantly evaluating and revising as needed. And while IBM is looking a year and a half out, they are maintaining tremendous flexibility so they can change almost on the fly.

Chapter 2: Strategies to Include

Carolina giving the thumbs up

The five strategies that should be in your 2021 plan include:

  1. Look well beyond the intranet and email.
  2. Use the latest communications apps to automate and streamline content publishing, curation and content flow.
  3. Leverage modern analytics to make data-driven communication decisions.
  4. Take an agile approach for flexibility and quick reactions.
  5. Think “virtual first”.

Using the intranet or digital workplace portal as the single-source-of-truth for employees is a great way to report on constantly changing policies and news. But let’s face it, today’s intranets, despite the best intentions and efforts companies have spent redesigning them and promoting them, aren’t the main place employees go for information. 

Employees simply don’t start their day by checking out the latest news on their intranet home page, or for that matter, even visiting the intranet often or regularly.

A far more effective approach is to put your content where employees do spend most of their day, rather than try to pull them to where your content is on the intranet. 

To meet employees where they are, and where employees are spending their time, you need to look no further than Microsoft Teams.  Teams is where 91% of employees in large companies are living in video meetings, messaging and collaborating on content.  To get employees to engage with your communications, put it in these places where they’ll see it most often, and with the least effort. 

Automate, Automate, Automate: Content Publishing, Content Curation and Content Flow 

Employee communications teams are under tremendous focus and pressure to get every-changing, mission-critical content out to employees fast and frequently. Yet most teams have not added resources, but are simply working harder and longer.

To maintain this increase in demand, but reduce your content publishing efforts, employee communicators need to adopt more of the content production and publishing approaches that their marketing colleagues have been using for a while. 

This starts by using a new breed of apps that have rapidly arrived on the employee communication scene in the very recent few years. These employee communications apps enable automated publishing, broadcasting, curation (to battle fragmentation) and search optimization.

In 2019, 75% of businesses are using some form of marketing automation. Marcom has embraced apps that let them publish to many channels with a single click, saving a ton of time while significantly increasing reach and audience engagement. And many of these apps have become major technology players, such as Salesforce, Hubspot and Marketo.

Employee communications and HR now have a new breed of apps built specifically for their needs that take the employee-directed content created by internal comms, HR, IT, facilities, and company leadership and automate the way this content is created, published, curated, analyzed and optimized.

These apps not only improve communications effectiveness and employee engagement, but save the comms shop a ton of time. 

The result: not only are your employees far more likely to see the right content, but your department will be able to handle an increased workload without adding staff or burning out.

Employees will come to rely on up-to-date, valuable information coming from their employer they can trust. And that will result in a significant boost in engagement, not to mention increased productivity for you, your team, and your employees.

Leverage modern analytics to make data-driven communication decisions.

Paula Angelo, VP of Internal and CEO Communications at The Hartford,  thinks that going into 2021 employee communications should be just as data-driven in managing how they create and distribute communications to employees as marketers are to their customers. 

This becomes not only possible, but easy with the advances in content analytics specifically for employee communicators. As employee communication apps continue to expand the ability to capture and analyze user behavior and usage data, communicators can now craft messaging based on employee behavior and interactions with those messages. By using technology to give communicators the ability to hone in on the messaging that elicits better employee interactions, communicators can drive higher employee engagement levels and trust. The better the data available to communicators through advanced analytics, the more effective their communications.

Adopt an Agile Approach - It’s not just for IT

While the Agile approach to project management and planning has been widely used in IT for years, it’s quickly being adapted by other teams - specifically employee and HR communications - to increase flexibility and speed during these times of unprecedented change and uncertainty. While some communicators are borrowing aspects of Agile strategies to be faster and more reactive, other companies like The Hartford have formally adopted the Agile Approach for managing their entire communications function. And it has paid off big-time.

Paula Agile

A recent study by McKinsey found that teams using Agile out-performed traditional teams during the pandemic, especially in their ability to react and adapt. Referring to the companies in the report, McKinsey said, “almost all of their Agile business units responded better than their non-agile units to the shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic by measures of customer satisfaction, employee engagement, or operational performance”.

If you aren’t using Agile, don’t worry. McKinsey says. “We believe the changes that some companies have already been making during the pandemic can give them a leg up in honing their agile practices for an uncertain future. Now they should reflect on what helped them and sustainably embed those practices for the long term.”

Think Virtual-First

The final strategy you should consider is virtual-first. This approach is another win for The Hartford when it became evident they were moving nearly half their employees to virtual work in 2019, before the pandemic hit. When nearly everyone went virtual in March 2020 they were ready.  While they already had plans to do more in 2020 for their robust virtual workforce, COVID shifted their pandemic communications not just to a digital transformation, but to a virtual-first strategy rather than virtual as a follow on to those working in the office. 

For example, because they had been shifting events that had been planned as on-premise with a virtual component to 100% virtual from the get-go, they could plan and hold an event much faster and without all the complications associated with on-premise event planning - such as no travel schedule to coordinate for the executives or worries about booking venues. And they saw significant cost savings, as virtual events cost much less to hold, eliminating travel, hotel and other expenses.

With these strategies firmly in place, you should be able to answer the question of what to include in your plan. Now, let’s talk about what you might want to leave behind.

Additional Resources:

Communications Goes Agile:  3 Tips for Teams

Webinar: Employee Comms & the Pandemic: Navigating the Road Ahead

Microsoft 365 Communications App


Chapter 3: Strategies NOT to Include

4 Strategies Not to Include in Your 2021 Communications Plan

  1. Don’t continue legacy ways of doing things simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.  The work world has changed. Your communications need to change with it. And now is the time for that change.
  2. Don’t focus on quantity, at the expense of quality (of your communications). Less is more - especially when leveraging new tools and data.
  3. Don’t send general or company-wide communications blasts unless it’s truly applicable to all employees. Targeting is much more effective.
  4. Don’t rely on your gut in this New Normal - use data to drive decisions and confirm effectiveness.

Ditch Legacy Practices that Aren’t Relevant

Sara Messina, Head of Employee Engagement Communications at Mayo Clinic shared that she is already talking about changes to Mayo Clinic’s processes in light of the changes brought on by the pandemic.

COVID has made employee communications significantly more central, turned the spotlight on communicators, and turned up the pressure to deliver, and Sara is enthusiastic. When it comes to rethinking communications and the way they operate, Sara says “This is the fun part! Communicators get to engineer a future state for the way we work that is agile and focused and will lead to higher engagement. We can be intentional, keeping the good things and shed the legacy practices that aren’t serving us well any more.”

She reiterated her advice by reminding us that while it’s comforting to have consistency, it’s important to not to be tentative about making permanent changes to the way things were always done. And this doesn’t just mean for employee communications. The Mayo Clinic has committed, for example, to having at least 20% of patient clinical appointments be virtual in light of the success that they’ve had with this practice during the past six months. For employee communications, they’re looking at the many COVID-adapted practices which could be used well after the pandemic passes.

IBM’s Case Study: Quality, not Quantity

Carolina Mata, Head of IBMer Communications, admits that at some point she lost a battle, but not the war, over the quantity of communications vs. the quality of communications. Her concern over the burnout and meeting fatigue of IBMers, as well as the communications department, has her pivoting to a communications strategy that emphasizes quality over quantity. For example, the new IBM CEO shifted away from a weekly message to one that is reserved for when there is something to say. 

Don’t Blast, Target

Along similar lines, a common theme from so many senior employee communications executives is to know your audience, and don’t treat them as a captive audience. That means understanding where and when to best reach them with key information - rather than blast out high volume, generic messaging. 

Think quality over quantity. Targeted over generic. Less if more. Instead of company-wide emails or intranet news stories, consider targeted messaging in Teams or Yammer. Instead of daily updates, think weekly digests. Instead of weekly meetings, consider a monthly check-in with the option to add frequency if the situation warrants.


Don’t use the same techniques over and over unless you have the data to prove effectiveness

According to an article by Impact Marketing, email fatigue is a state that occurs when people get tired of receiving email. With consumers, they ignore emails, and often delete them without opening, or unsubscribe.  

COVID-19 caused a 49% increase in email volume since the start of the pandemic. It’s pretty clear that email has been the preferred choice of communicators and marketers alike this year.

And while unlike consumers, your employees are a captive audience, that doesn’t mean they will always open your emails - even if they contain important company-wide announcements. If you’re blasting them too frequently, or with content that is too general, too generic, not only will  your messages lose their impact, but it’s likely employees will simply ignore them altogether.

The only way to ensure your employees remain engaged is to use data analytics to track your metrics - and know what your employees are opening, reading and acting on. The same goes for any other source you use frequently, such as the attendance of Town Halls, the number of respondents to a pulse survey, etc. If you see a drop-off in open rates, responses rates or engagement, make sure you know what to do.


How COVID-19 Has Impacted Business: A 6-Month Retrospective


Chapter 4: A Good Comms App

Carolina giving the thumbs upWhat to Look for When Choosing an Employee Communications App

With your plan firmly in place, the next step should be to consider one of the apps designed specifically for employee communications.

Not all apps are the same.  Ideally, they will save you time and effort. But buy the wrong solution for your situation and it might even add to your workload rather than reducing it, or confuse employees rather than engage them. 

Here are the key items to consider when shopping for a new app, including those you'll want to include, and pitfalls to avoid. 

Look for these four key features

When considering employee communications apps, there are four key feature areas that all apps should provide - features that make your communications more effective and engaging, increase awareness and access to content, and save you time to produce and distribute content.

  • Easy content distribution: Communications apps can help to streamline your processes and overcome the limitations of your existing solutions. A good app should provide you with better ways to distribute your content, including the ability to publish to multiple channels with just a few steps, eliminating the need to recreate/publish the same message in multiple channels. Another way this feature helps is to assist you in updating distribution lists.
  • Content curation allows you to pull together content from multiple sources and display it on a single resource page.  The advantage of automation means that as soon as content is created, no matter the source, it will appear on the curated page without any manual intervention. The result is that it ensures content is always up -to-date and no one has to monitor new content, copy and paste, or keep track of  publishing schedules.  Ideally, the app should be able to curate content from both internal and external content sources. 
  • Content promotion is a feature that enables employee communications to push their own content directly onto intranet sites, Teams and Yammer feeds. This includes ones that are under the control of, or managed by, other departments, groups or work teams. This enables the employee communications function to get their content seen well beyond their own channels, without requiring any manual effort by the owners of these other sites/channels.
  • Analytics: The lynchpin of these apps is their ability to provide content owners with data that provides insights into the effectiveness of content, and user’s behavior when engaging with the content. The range of available data should be broad enough for insights, but also provide guidance on what to do with that data.

Your IT Department Will Need to Sign Off

If you are on Microsoft 365 already, buying an app that's not on the Microsoft365 platform can be more trouble than it’s worth - especially in terms of security, compliance, and new user log-ins. Using an app that runs in Microsoft365 makes it easier for your IT, Legal or InfoSec personnel to sign off on the app in terms of security, ownership or risk because the app uses all the security and authentication already in place from Microsoft. 

The App Should Be Intuitive to Use

One of the main reasons NOT to buy new software is the learning curve for content managers and end users, and any changes to security and/or authentication required of  users. 

When considering your options, ask your communications app vendor how they handle new customer onboarding and what, if any, changes would be required by end users.  There should be a comprehensive pre-installation process to ensure that all issues are addressed and the necessary support to help train your team on the use of the new app. Ideally, it should take two to four weeks to get your communications team up to speed.

For end users there should be nothing required, no training or orientation. The app should be intuitive enough to just work.

Don’t Overlook the Importance of Advisory Counsel and Support

A good app vendor provides tutorials, a knowledge base and dedicated support staff. It is critical to make sure you get questions answered quickly. The last thing you want is the CEO needing an emergency communication to be sent in an hour and you need help with the app.

You've Got Opportunities to Innovate

After many years of focus on intranets as the primary digital transformation tool of choice for employee communications, a significant level of innovation has poured into this space in the past few years, providing significant opportunities to transform the way in which employee communications is managed and operated. Add to this the nature of these new apps - being very flexible, easy to procure and deploy, and far less costly and complex than new intranet software or large enterprise software solution - and employee communicators have many options and opportunities from which to choose.

With these points in mind, buying a new employee communication app should be far easier than buying a new intranet platform.

Chapter 5: Get Started

Get Started: Improve Employee Communications, Boost Engagement, and Save Time

Your goal for 2021 is to make sure that you can have some breathing time in your day. With the pandemic and workplace situation changing constantly, you’ll need time to be able to brainstorm, think and contemplate what you want your employees to remember when they look back a year from now. 

When planning for 2021, make sure you have the right tools in your toolbox, including agile processes, automation and analytics. Plan smartly, and stay flexible in your thinking and reactions. And finally, consider buying one of the new employee communications apps to help you along.

With the right plan, you’ll be able to meet the demand for communications for the long haul.

Contact Velaku