How to improve employee communications with long-lasting results

Five questions experts from VSCO and Mailchimp recommend asking to boost dialogue among your workers

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Whether you’re attempting to boost team performance or rethinking the entire structure of your company, no organizational improvement will ever take hold without a clear, resilient and responsive employee communications policy. The way employees talk to each other internally is, after all, the core of how any business operates.

Even if you’re satisfied with your current communications, your employees might not be. In our 2018 State of Work report, only 31% of workers reported being “very satisfied” with the communication tools they have at their disposal, and a whopping 76% of them wanted more tools to be made available to them in the future.

Katy Shields, the vice president of people and places at photography app company VSCO, and Rachael Maddux, a communications associate at email marketing service Mailchimp, witnessed the importance of evolving employee communications as their companies grew rapidly. In 2019, VSCO expanded its workforce from 100 employees to 135, with plans to add 30 more over the year. Meanwhile, at more than 1,000 employees, Mailchimp has quintupled in size since Maddux joined the Atlanta-based startup in 2014.

employee communications rachel maddux mailchip

“If you expect your company to grow, you need someone to help establish good habits early on, to be there to manage processes and channels as personnel and business needs change.”

Rachael Maddux
Communications associate at MailChimp

If you’re looking to improve employee communications at your organization, start by asking these five questions that Shields and Maddux believe produce effective, long-lasting results.

1. Do you have a communications team?

“If your organization is big enough that your employees can’t all fit in one conference room at one time, you need to hire someone to focus on communications specifically,” Maddux says. “If you expect your company to grow, you need someone to help establish good habits early on, to be there to manage processes and channels as personnel and business needs change.”

Even if it’s just a one-person team at first, she says, it’s just as important to the functioning of your organization as setting a budget. Faking it till you make it when it comes to employee communications will hurt the company in the long run.

“Employee communications is happening with or without your involvement, so you might as well get in there,” Maddux explains. “And don’t wait until it reaches a point of crisis, or even mild discomfort—do it now.”

2. Will your current approach be able to scale?

In VSCO’s early years, the staff gathered every morning at 9 a.m. for a 30-minute stand-up meeting. But as the company grew, that daily schedule became untenable, so Shields’s team needed to adapt their strategy.

“We had to identify what about these stand-ups were uniquely VSCO—what was the value-add we needed to retain?” says Shields. “So we asked employees, ‘What do you get from this? What would you miss if we didn’t have it?’ They told us it was the rapport, the connection it enabled: everyone hearing the same information at the same time.”

In order to maintain that alignment, the company ended up engineering a phased rollback from five days a week, to three, down to its current Wednesdays-and-Fridays iteration.

Meanwhile, Mailchimp early on had been using several different platforms and communication methods, from a companywide email alias anyone could use to team newsletters to separate platforms for work and social chat.

“It was all over the place, and there was no strategy around any of it and no central ownership,” recalls Maddux. “It wasn’t total chaos for the company we were at the time, but thinking about it now gives me the vapors, because it was a beast to scale as we grew.”

Now those communication channels still exist, but they’re more centralized and moderated by her team, ensuring that information is readily available without employees spamming one another in the process.

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3. Is your employee communications policy streamlined and easy to navigate?

Over the past few years, VSCO has been restructuring from a top-down organization to a decentralized decision-making model where, as Shields puts it, “every employee thinks like an owner.” That has required designing a communications system that minimizes the steps workers need to take to access the information they need to make decisions like a CEO.

First stop: standardizing Slack channels—a single place for a team to share messages, tools and files. “When we first got Slack,” Shields recalls, “we did not have a consistent naming methodology—it was the Wild Wild West. I think we had over 1,000 channels. It made it really hard for new hires to get a grip on what they would need to know.”

To fix this, the company did a full taxonomy overhaul, building departments and other keywords into each channel name—like “project,” “team” and a non-work interest-group label, “into”—that made it easier for employees to see at a glance which channels were necessary, which could be joined but muted, and so forth.

4. Should your employees be communicating more—or less?

So you have an internal communications team, a suite of platforms, and established best practices. But what happens when employees just aren’t communicating? Shields’s team has headed off this potential issue at VSCO by normalizing conversation from an employee’s first day.

“We’ve designed an onboarding system to get people really comfortable, where at the Wednesday all-hands, new people have to introduce themselves to the whole company through three photos,” Shields says. “On day one, we’ve lowered the bar to get up and talk to the company, and opened with the expectation that you can truly be yourself with your colleagues. It helps build a self-correcting culture [of communication] that will scale as quickly as we do.”

Mailchimp, meanwhile, initially had the opposite problem: There was too much chatter on the company’s various Slack channels. So Maddux’s team had to change existing behaviors while centralizing and formalizing communications on a structural level.

“It’s really hard to break old habits, even when they’re not serving you anymore,” says Maddux. “Sometimes I felt like a killjoy, telling people they couldn’t just email the whole company about whatever was on their minds. But mostly, the desire to communicate better overpowered the discomfort of change, and everyone knew we needed to make adjustments to keep up with how fast we were growing. Gradually we went from triage mode into a more proactive way of partnering with people to discuss what was working for them, comms-wise, and what wasn’t.”

5. How often are you soliciting (and acting on) employee feedback about communication?

While structure is crucial for the health of any organization’s employee communications, so is integrating feedback and flexibility into that model. The structure needs to be able to adapt to the changing needs of your employees—and you won’t know what those needs are until you ask.

employee communications katy shields VSCO

“You end up building a lot of trust, over prolonged periods of time, when you ask your people about their experiences.”

Katy Shields
Vice president of people and places at VSCO

Mailchimp created a “comms partner” program, in which communications team members work closely with the company’s various departments’ teams on their particular comms needs, from personnel announcements to developing companywide strategy.

“The program has gotten us not only more engagement from department leadership but more ideas and feedback surfacing from managers and individual contributors, and increased cross-functional communications too,” says Maddux.

At VSCO, the feedback is more ongoing. Shields says her team is averaging three or four specific issues a week, from topical focus groups to surveys to informal conversations. “You end up building a lot of trust, over prolonged periods of time, when you ask your people about their experiences,” she says.

Shields cautions leaders to ask only once you’re prepared to do something with what you get. Asking for input and then ignoring it will erode both trust and engagement. “I tried to be very specific in the kind of feedback that we solicit, to ensure that we can then deliver on the expectation that we’re setting,” she explains.

The good news is that implementing these best practices means you’re going to be better equipped to improve employee communications on an ongoing basis. “Now,” Shields says, “we’re very rarely surprised by the feedback we hear.”

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