Employee engagement and internal communication are not the same thing

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Internal communication was in the spotlight as one of the core disciplines within the communication remit last year. As we’ve moved office teams to work remotely and our frontline teams have been front of mind during the pandemic, our work in internal comms has enjoyed a bit of stardom.

After years of being in the shadow of the big hitters of media and external relations where budgets and resources are often focused, it’s been really encouraging to see business take internal communication seriously and realise its potential. But sometimes it can still be confused with employee engagement, and they are not the same thing.

2020 was a really busy but good year for a lot of people working in internal communication. We’ve been able to show the real difference we can make, helping teams connect, collaborate and raise each other up during an incredibly challenging year. Many a change project that would have taken months if not years to realise, has been pushed through, sometimes a little unceremoniously, at a rapid pace. We’ve just had to adapt and the communications professionals have stepped forward and up to support their businesses.

With this spotlight on internal communication has come a flood of new talent, ideas and resources. Like every crisis, this one has pushed forward new tools, innovations and interest from people working in other areas of communication. Internal communication has been where it’s at, and long may that last beyond this time. Whilst we’re here, enjoying the limelight, it’s important to maintain sight of the fundamentals of what internal comms can do, especially among all the new ideas, initiatives and tools that are being created to help us do our work.

Names and terminology are important so we can share the same understanding. If one of us is talking about internal comms and means employee engagement and the other is talking about internal communication straight, then we won’t be on the same wavelength and may well be setting ourselves up to fail.

So what is the difference between internal communication and employee engagement?

Welch and Jackson, suggest internal communication is: “The strategic management of interaction and relationships between stakeholders within organisations across a number of interrelated dimensions including, internal line manager communication, internal team peer communication and internal corporate communication.”

And MacLeod and Clarke view employee engagement as: “A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being”

Internal communication and employee engagement are not the same.

It’s clear that internal communication has a key role to play in employee engagement, but alone it is not enough to engage employees. Employee engagement goes beyond communication to encompass the very essence of the organisation and how work is done. And critically, internal communication can cover a range of communication within the organisation, including the corporate, line manager, team peer and project peer communication.

Being clear on the roles and responsibilities between internal communication, operational and people teams is really important.

Internal communication is multi-faceted and covers a range of skills and competencies. Employee engagement is often one of those competencies, and an objective and an outcome of good internal communication.

Internal communication has a role to play in each of the four enablers of employee engagement from MacLeod and Clarke’s model of engagement.

  1. The leadership narrative requires internal communication to clearly express and share the story.
  2. Engaging managers need to have the tools and skills to communicate authentically with their people and internal communication can often support this with coaching and providing the right materials to support managers.
  3. Giving employees their voice so that they may be heard has needed to become increasingly intentional as we work remotely. But even when in the office or working alongside each other we help create the culture, provide the platforms and opportunities for people to speak up and be heard.
  4. And lastly, integrity. Our role in internal communication can help remind and prompt everyone of the walk we should all take to be in step with the talk we give in our businesses. If leaders are not authentic and doing as they say, internal communication teams should be able to remind and guide them. So often we hear of internal communication teams being the ‘conscience of the organisation’. We often carry a lot of the corporate memory and are a bridge between employees and leaders. We are able to take a view from different perspectives, and then support the organisation maintain its integrity. That’s all part of our work.

Whilst employee engagement can be a big part of internal communication, it is not the only outcome or scope of work.

We support change and transformation programmes, we’re creative campaign planners, event planners, and relationship builders, we write, we build, and we translate and clarify content for our people. All with a wide remit of objectives in support of the businesses we work in. Everything from reducing the incidence of accidents at work to encouraging making time for health and wellbeing, may be an objective in our remit.

In just about every business objective there’s an action for internal communication. Internal communication can help make it happen, because we are there helping the organisation communicate across teams, within teams, and at a corporate level. And as we all adapt and change for the future communication will be essential to create shared understanding and connections in a rapidly changing work and social environment. Not all of that internal communication will be about engaging employees.

Blog by Katie Marlow who is part of the Redefining Communications collective. Katie is a Chartered PR practitioner and CIPR Fellow with over 20 years’ experience working across different sectors, creating strategies, and delivering campaigns, events, change, and engagement communication projects.

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