In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, there’s a new awareness in many organizations of the crucial role that internal communication plays in ensuring the health of a company—both literally and figuratively. Comms is therefore entering the new year in a much stronger strategic position. The following article summarizes this and other internal communication trends that we think will have the greatest impact in 2021.

Trend #1: Internal communication will keep its seat at the decision-making table

Internal communicators have long known that effective communication is not only critical to driving change in the workplace. It also plays a major role in the overall success of a company. However, many IC colleagues have been frustrated in their attempts to convince decision makers to invest in internal communication.

The picture will be different in 2021.

With the coronavirus crisis far from over, many executives have finally realized the true value of effective communication that reaches the right people at the right time.

For example: 

  • Communication is a key factor in preparing employees for lockdowns and reopenings. 
  • Important information such as hygiene measures or guidelines following positive tests. 

In addition to all the operational steps, it’s also important to provide employees with transparent and up-to-date communication. This will keep their motivation high and give them the opportunity to exchange and share stories and experiences.

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2021 will again be a year of major change, despite the desire for a return to normality and consistency. Most companies are already going through some sort of transformational processes and expect this to continue into 2021: the switch to home office; the realignment of entire industries (automotive, travel, hospitality); or changes in corporate culture because of dispersed employees.

It’s now all the more important to provide people with comprehensive information in order to minimize uncertainty and worry. Everyone needs to be “on board,” or else change will be hard to manage in 2021.

Therefore, internal communication needs to reflect the strategic priorities that mitigate the pain points associated with change. This step will play a decisive role in the success of transformation processes. But it is only possible if internal communication has a fixed seat at the table of decision makers.

Trend #2: Making leaders better communicators

Before getting to the actual trend, imagine the following scenario: You’re experiencing strong turbulence on a transatlantic flight. Everybody is nervous and unsure about what exactly is happening. In such a situation, who do you want to tell you that everything will be fine: the cabin crew or the pilot? It’s for this very reason that it's the pilots who always speak directly to the passengers. Only they really know what’s going on, and their words are the most trusted by the passengers.

In crisis situations, people want to know the truth. And they want to hear it in a calm and thoughtful manner from the people sitting behind the wheel: “Everything is going to be okay.” Imagine the chaos if a pilot shouted into the microphone in a panicky voice that we’re in for a bumpy ride and that everyone should fasten their seat belts and say a prayer, but that we’ll all be fine? 

In 2021, an important trend is to empower managers to communicate better, more authentically, and more empathetically. 

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 2020, CEOs ranked last in the question of who’s doing an outstanding job meeting the demands placed on them by the pandemic. As a communication professional, one of your main tasks is to advise leadership on how to communicate better. Given the variety of their own challenges, problems, and personal worries, it would be fatal if managers were to get caught up in the maelstrom of misinformation or simply parrot the voices of others.

Communicators can help the people "behind the wheel"

Communication professionals know way better what crisis communication is all about. They are the cabin crew, so to speak, and close to the passengers (employees). They have to use their knowledge to help the people behind the wheel do a better job of being the empathetic and trustworthy sources of information that employees expect them to be. There is no way around it, because employees simply want to hear from the pilots. If executives want to build or maintain trust, they must be present and devote more time and attention to their employees.

How do you make managers better communicators?

Not every leader is a born communicator. But there are some simple things that everyone needs to include in their daily communication tasks. We've put together some ideas on how to start training managers in leadership communication in a post-COVID-19 world:

  • Fast, transparent communication: Make sure that managers are ready and prepared to share important messages. It's best to work together with leadership to develop a schedule for regular communication and a good template for ad-hoc communication.
  • Clear, simple messages: Discuss the style of communication with leaders. Especially in a crisis, clear but empathetic language is of great importance. 
  • Agree on the degree of transparency: Trust is never more important than in a crisis. The ways in which information needs to be communicated to employees, and how it should be shared, must be well thought out by all stakeholders. Too much information can create confusion; too little makes people suspicious. 
  • Radiate optimism with every message: Make sure that managers emphasize one thing above all else: Positive developments, optimistic outlooks, and a little emotion every now and then helps make communication more human.
  • Highlight special stories: Appreciation can go a long way. Above all, it can increase hope and motivation. Find special stories in your company that should also be publicly acknowledged by the CEO in their next video message. Or put these people directly in the spotlight with an interview.

How can communicators keep their seat at the table?

If leaders facing crises can learn to strengthen their communication skills, then their words and deeds will provide comfort, create long-term trust, and be remembered long after the crisis has passed. When communicators help turn leaders into strong, communicative personalities, they are much more likely to get a permanent seat at the table of decision makers.

An illustration showing an example of a CEO blog in an employee app
Digital tools such as employee apps or modern intranets offer a variety of opportunities for leadership to interact with their distributed workforce. In addition to videos or town halls, digital suggestion boxes or anonymous "Ask me anything" formats are also possible.

Trend #3: Internal communication needs more systematic measurement

It’s nothing new that internal communication teams need to measure the success and impact of their efforts. Those who can prove the positive effect of their own work have a better chance of keeping the rising significance of internal communication alive.

In 2021, measuring internal communications will become even more important. You need to take the next step here and measure from beginning to end. This covers many areas, from obvious key metrics such as reach and interaction, to user behavior and habits, and employee mood. Much of this information can be ascertained with surveys and extensive feedback loops.

A tip that we would like to give you in this context: Take a look at the analytics efforts of marketing departments. They examine a wide range of key metrics in order to analyze exactly how potential buyers behave, where they visit most frequently, what their greatest interests are, or the devices they use and the paths they take in interacting with a brand.

What can you take away from this for internal communication? In marketing, of course, meticulous measurements are taken to achieve certain goals, like generated leads, pipeline, or website visitors. Internal communications teams have to find similarly valuable goals.

Measuring impact in internal communication

Take a look at your goals and concept for internal communication. If you can already determine key metrics, record them in a dashboard or spreadsheet. Whatever works for you and your team. This will be your starting point for all future analytics measures. Determine exactly which key metrics you need to prove the success and impact of your communication efforts.

The following are some ideas for topics that are crucial in IC measurement:

  • Employee satisfaction: Conduct regular surveys. These can be short pulse surveys or longer questionnaires. The topics of the surveys can of course vary and depend entirely on your objectives.
  • User behavior in digital tools: Similar to marketing, you can measure which pages are visited particularly often, which news stories have the highest interaction rates, or which process queries (vacation requests, etc.) are used most often. Finally, you can use the collected data to create a user journey that will help you establish future developments and ideas. Of course, all this only works if your digital tool supports these analytics methods.
  • Collect feedback: If you want to measure how well employees have understood and supported the company's goals or the new changes to important processes, then get direct feedback! This can also be done via surveys, but it's much easier with functions such as likes or comments. Call for active feedback and set a good example together with top management. In marketing you would call this community management. In the end, it's all about listening.

Other essential metrics include:

  • The reach of your communication efforts (Who is really reading this?)
  • Interaction (How active is everyone?)
  • The success of campaigns (Should we do this again?)
An illustration showing the Analytics Dashboard of the Staffbase intranet.
Modern intranets and mobile solutions such as employee apps usually come with extensive options for measuring key performance indicators and presenting them in clear dashboards.

For better internal communication, 2021 will be a year of statistics 

As you can see, 2021 will focus on numbers and analytics, and that’s a good thing. Only with these metrics can you prove that your strategies and concepts really work. And if they don't, then you can act immediately. Your marketing colleagues can certainly provide further tips. In the end, however, the motto should be: goodbye gut feeling, hello real data. And that's only possible with the right technology. Which brings us to the next trend.

Trend #4: Using the right technology to make internal communication more human 

This is a bold idea. What’s the right technology for internal communication? And how can technology of all things make communication more human? 

It’s clear that digital channels are important in the here and now. Discussions are already moving towards artificial intelligence, bots, and machine learning. That's all well and good (and certainly part of the future for internal comms).

But if we’re being honest, the IC landscape is not quite there yet. Very often (at least before the pandemic), formats such as notices, letters, or even printed employee newspapers were the way to go. However, these aren’t future-proof options for the many daily communication tasks ahead. Digitization is unstoppable and only accelerated by the coronavirus crisis.

This is hardly surprising, as it’s more important than ever to reach every employee in a company. What has always been one of the greatest challenges for communicators was exaggerated by the pandemic. No one is going to put their entire budget and resources into instruments and methods that can’t really solve this issue.

Individual, custom-fit communication is the be-all and end-all

When we talk about “the right technology” what we mean are solutions designed and developed for extensive daily communication tasks. 

And what we mean by “more human” are the possibilities that these solutions offer to address employees on a personal level and design messages more individually. For example, does the technology allow sending a personalized greeting message for a work anniversary, based on an automated algorithm? Can the tool play out messages based on relevance so that each employee only gets what they really need? How much individual branding is possible with the tool so that it can reflect your organization’s brand identity and thus create trust?

An illustration showing an employee journey path, including video, department homepage, and static content.
The right technology enables the mapping of individual employee journeys. Content and messages are sent at the right moment for each employee.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to choose the right technology for your employees. Their needs should definitely be at the center of any communications software decision. But jumping from printed employee newspapers directly to artificial intelligence seems as ill-advised as simply making Microsoft Teams available for everyone just because it seems like the easy option.

The right technology has been developed both for daily communication tasks and moments that matter. Modern platforms like employee experience intranets and employee apps make the step from analog to digital easy, and they even work together.

Trend #5: Internal communication must become even more relevant to target groups

Employees want to be informed more and more. The Edelman Trust Barometer has shown that employers expect to be updated regularly on COVID-19, with 63% asking for daily information and 20% even wanting communications several times a day.

Edelman 2020
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, when asked the question of who is doing an outstanding job meeting the demands placed on them by the pandemic, CEOs ranked last.

This is of course a two-way street: companies should also take great interest in keeping employees informed. Transparent communication not only creates trust, but it also increases productivity. Employees who are well informed and up-to-date can concentrate more fully on their daily work.

This willingness to inform and communicate naturally turns into the complete opposite when employees are flooded with news. An information overflow is usually the point when employees will start getting annoyed and stop engaging, a situation dreaded by all communicators.

Especially in 2021, targeted, relevant communication based on the information needs of specific target groups within your organization is therefore indispensable.

Do you know your whole audience?

If the answer is “no” or “not really,” then you first need to define the target groups in your company: Who needs what, how, and when? You should not only know exactly which departments, teams, locations, and countries require targeted communication, but also understand the views, challenges, and perspectives of your employees. 

Especially in large companies, it’s very difficult to tailor communication to individuals. It therefore makes sense to create different employee personas. There are various models and possibilities on how to do this. Again, you can ask your marketing colleagues about how they define the different buyer personas in order to ideally address target groups.

Possible starting points for the creation of personas are, for example:

  • Skills and qualifications
  • Job Tasks
  • Interests and values
  • Goals, motivation, pain points
  • Demographic data (age, location, country, language, company affiliation, last promotion, etc.)

The best way to collect data is through extensive feedback loops, surveys, interviews, and your existing systems. This way, you'll base personas in your company on reality and not stereotypical characteristics.

After creating the first personas it’s important to validate them through further interviews or surveys. And of course analytics, as discussed, are especially important here, so you can define exactly whether the targeted communication efforts are the right ones for your company’s personas and target groups.

An illustration showing how different employee personas require internal communication on different devices.
One part of the persona analysis can be to link the different demographic information such as work location with the daily challenges of employees. The communication needs of each persona can then be better determined.

Trend #6: Internal communication must be more authentic, relevant, and direct

Staffbase CEO Martin Böhringer set this trend at the VOICES Conference for Internal Communication and Employee Experience.

The greater the distance to your employees, the more authentic, relevant, and direct you have to get with internal communications.”

—Martin Böhringer, Staffbase CEO

Ultimately, this is in some way a summary of all the points we've listed here: Internal communication must be authentic and take individual needs into account, allow for emotion, and be available to everyone. So, IC is no longer merely a corporate newsroom, but an enabler of active communication for people on all levels of the company. This starts with leadership, but it's important for all employees.

2021 will be the year in which you should literally give every employee a voice. It doesn't get more authentic.

We at Staffbase have already taken this challenge literally and created a video contest for our annual team event—all virtual of course. Every employee had the opportunity to submit a self-made video. The goal was to explain, in whatever way, why we love our customers—which was the motto of the 2020 Staffbase Camp. The results were some wonderful and very individual videos, all of which have one thing in common: They authentically reflect what employees think, feel, and want to share with one another.

An illustration of an example how companies can encourage the internal communication trend of employee-created video.
Call for the Video Challenge for the Staffbase Camp in our own employee app. The final results were a complete success.

Maybe a similar opportunity will arise in your company in 2021? We can certainly say that it was great to hear the real "voices" of our colleagues and see their creative ideas.

Trend #7: Rich Media: Just do it!

And since we were just writing about authentic storytelling: 2021 is the perfect time to try out rich media formats like videos or podcasts. If you're already using these formats, that's great! But how long does it take you to shoot a video message? If the answer is more than a day, we would like to encourage you to "just do it" and not spend too much time on the perfect cut, the greatest setting, or flawless scripts.

In 2021, we're sure there won't be a lot of time to plan the perfect video. So we simply encourage you to be authentic and "keep it real." Just get out your smartphone or camera and press record. Don’t worry too much about the bad lighting or the sweater you're wearing. It’s all about real people.

If you can, think of promoting strong messages in this order:

Video before audio before image before text.

You can explain more complex topics way better in a video or podcast, with people exchanging ideas as they do in a real conversation.

Authenticity and speed: an unbeatable combination

Another advantage is the speed at which these messages can reach employees. Just sit down in front of your computer, record a short video, and make it available to everyone. As trend #2 points out, a little coaching and a few good examples can help leadership to create authentic messages for their employees via video or other dynamic formats.

Here's an example of a quickly produced video series directly from Staffbase: CEO Martin Böhringer's Weekly Check-In. Once a week, Martin sends a quick update from his home office via a short video message. He simply sits in front of his laptop camera and talks briefly about the most important topics of the past or coming week.

A screen shot showing one example of video usage In internal communication: the CEO check-in.
By the way, Martin's beautiful wallpaper is always a popular topic of conversation in the comments.

So, if 2020 was the year to react to the unexpected, 2021 will be the year to be bold and to try new things. Use your newly gained seat at the table of decision makers to finally make a case for your ideas. We're sure that your employees will appreciate your authenticity. And with any luck, the "just do it" mentality will inspire more and more employees to share their stories and become active participants in your company culture.

We wish you all the best for 2021. Stay healthy.

Read more about employee communication best practices: