Several years ago, I began an engagement working with a client whose job was to oversee communication to a newly created business unit. At the time, there was a lot on her plate. The new business unit was born out of a restructuring, combining three previously independent organizations. This meant three times the number of newsletters, three times the number of town halls, and three times the number of email messages….but not three times the number of communicators. Within weeks of the restructuring, it was clear she could only possibly satisfy all her stakeholders if she changed how things were done.

At the time, one of her most time consuming activities was maintaining her intranet pages. Part bulletin board, part newspaper, part information warehouse, my client spent nearly a third of her time either writing new intranet content, running it through approvals, or partnering with IT on getting items correctly published. As part of our effort to streamline her team’s work, we conducted an in-depth communication effectiveness survey, with a specific focus on channel analysis. We asked employees which communication vehicles they relied on and for what reasons. When the survey results came in, we were especially curious to see what receivers had to say about the intranet. The results were eye opening. Employees indeed told us they checked the intranet every day. Why? Because that’s where the cafeteria menu was posted. Those articles she pored over? Readers could take ‘em or leave ‘em.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot recently.

Over the last two months, I’ve spent a lot of my time talking with communicators across industries and around the country. We’ve spent dozens of hours discussing the coronavirus, what it has meant for our companies, and its implications for employee communication. While approaches differ wildly, every company I’ve talked with says: 1) they’ve created new channels over the last 10 weeks; and, 2) they’re communicating more than ever before.

We’re all doing more, often with less. For this to be sustainable long term, we have to change how things are done. Something’s gotta give.

As challenging as the last couple months have seemed, it’s been awesome seeing internal communication teams step up and deliver. Thrust into the spotlight, success stories have abounded. I’ve heard examples of CEO home office video series that have become appointment viewing; COVID-19 microsites that were built in weeks and are now indispensable; and company-wide meetings that are more transparent, authentic, and human than any before. When it comes to internal communication, there’s a lot we’re going to want to carry forward in the wake of this experience.

Of course, we can’t simply continue to pile things on. As they saying goes, we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. To maximize popular new channels, we must sunset others.

What does this process look like? While it varies by every organization’s unique starting point, in my experience, these are a few key steps and principles.

  1. When possible, start with a survey. I know survey fatigue is a real concern in many companies, but channel assessments benefit from a baseline of consistent data. Rather than subjectively defining what success looks like with respect to statistics like page views and open rates, by collecting direct survey data, you can start your planning with a clear view of employees’ perceptions of channels’ relevance.
  2. Invite non-communicators into the planning process. When considering which channels deserve investment and which deserve retirement, it’s important to have receivers’ perspective in the room. There’s likely to be nuance to channels’ relevance, necessity or popularity that can’t surface in any hard metrics.
  3. Look for concentrations and deficiencies. There are many good exercises to map communication channels according to characteristics such as written vs. visual; in-person vs. online; top-down vs. bottom-up; and one-way vs. two-way. Retire the least effective channels where needless concentrations exist.
  4. Map impact versus effort. Your “bread & butter” channels are things require little effort but net big results. Other high-impact channels that require high volumes of work should be pursued strategically. Finally, channels that require a lot of attention but have limited impact – for instance, if they’re primarily used to check out what’s for lunch – are primed for a swan song.

Internal communicators have risen to the occasion, but the rate at which we’re working can’t last forever. As we pivot to a “new normal” and the eventuality of a post-pandemic world, we have to not only bring what’s working well forward, but shed ineffective vestiges of the past.