By Gail Franks, managing director at Summersault Communications,

Internal communication should not be perceived as an additional extra to a business. Rather, it is an essential tool that can help to shape an organisation, engage employees and drive perceptions.

As long as it is delivered effectively and tailored to the workforce, open and regular communication within a business can generate employee engagement, ensure a tight focus on the goals of the company, foster closer team working, and create an improved working environment and culture. Internal communication should sit firmly within a company’s strategy and remain a constant fixture within the organisation. It should also be measured and evaluated so the return on investment can be monitored. Measuring the impact of internal communications is crucial at a time when every spend needs to be justified.

Looking ahead to 2011, it is likely we will continue to see budgets tightened — as we’ve seen this year. For many businesses cost savings are still required, and many companies see communication as an obvious place to make savings. However, the actual cost of not communicating well with your staff will always come back to bite you. It is in times of financial constraint that internal communication has an even bigger role to play as it should be used to put across more challenging messages, such as changes to the business, restructure or redundancies.

Think about it from an employee’s point of view. There is nothing worse for morale than employees’ first learning about their organisation's difficulties by reading about them in the press or hearing about them from their clients. When nothing is communicated, it is human nature to create our own stories and theories about the situation. Myth becomes fact and this, in turn, leads to bad feeling and doubts about the board's ability to not only manage, but also to control the situation. What’s more, hearsay can create a bad feeling among staff that risks being passed on to other partners, such as customers, clients and suppliers.

Difficult circumstances signal a need for management to step up to the plate and drive the communication, explaining why the changes need to take place and ensuring each employee is informed.

If an organisation regularly fails to communicate in general, then this will have a negative effect on employees and could lead to high attrition and low retention.
Employees, in general, will respond positively to open and continuous communication. In many ways, the manner of the communication is indicative of how a company is run and should be open and honest.

Internal communication is intrinsically linked to trust. It is a vital link between employer and employees and should be an expected constant. The moment communication stops within an organisation staff trust is eroded.

One of the keys to successful internal communication lies in the delivery. It shouldn’t be a one-way process, with the employer talking to employees. Instead, internal communication should seek to engage, with a free flow of information from one party to another. Staff will only really feel involved with the internal communication if they are able to participate in it themselves, and therefore opportunities for input and feedback are essential.

Another important factor to consider is the format of the communication. Companies should not take a one-size-fits-all approach, but tailor it to take into account the range of employees. Businesses should look at their communications strategy in an integrated way, by employing a variety of formats, such as one to one meetings, group briefings, Internet and social media, as well as print. Everyone responds to information in a different way and this should be taken into account, ensuring the most appropriate fit for the structure of the organisation.

To sum up, in order to tackle the challenges 2011 may have in store for us, companies should be mindful that communication is the glue that holds an organisation together, and should be something that remains fundamental, to enable the business and its staff to move forward and be successful.