Employee Communications ~ 15 min

Upward Communication: how to improve it and increase employee engagement

Communication Team, Experts in Internal Communication, Sociabble
Communication Team Experts in Internal Communication

Upward communication is often overlooked, but it’s an absolutely necessary component of a strong internal communication program—without it, there is no true discourse. Learn how to improve the two-way flow of information and increase employee engagement.

Upward communication makes the difference between a communication strategy that is a conversation, as opposed to one that’s simply a broadcast. The strongest programs account for multiple information streams flowing in multiple directions, and they leave room for employee feedback, idea sharing, and the addressing of concerns.

But what is the best way to incorporate an element of upward communication into your existing program? In this blog post, we’ll explain what upward communication is, how to use it to your organization’s advantage, and we’ll show you some upward communication examples.

What is the difference between upward and downward communication?

Upward and downward comms are opposite sides of effective communication. But because they’re opposites doesn’t mean they don’t work well together.

Quite the opposite in fact, as they enhance communication and complete the conversation when used in tandem.

Upward Communication

Upward communication is the process by which company employees communicate and share their thoughts and feedback with higher level management.

This can take many forms, whether it’s bold new ideas, concerns about procedures, alerts about changes in the industry. Or simply things that might be useful to pass on to the whole company.

Upward communication also plays an important role in the culture of the company, as it gives the employees an actual voice and paradigm for sharing their thoughts.

Organizations that incorporate upward communication effectively are generally better able to serve the needs of their employees, increasing engagement and satisfaction levels.

Downward Communication

This is the other side of the coin, and it includes information coming down from leaders and managers. Often this involves instructions, requests, and direct orders without the option to offer feedback.

Downward communication focuses on a transfer of information from upper management down to the employees. This is a more traditional form of communication and management, but historically it’s also the most important.

Downward communication is directive in nature, as it allows upper management to instruct employees on particular company matters.

what is upward communication vs downward communication

Why is upward communication important?

The main purpose of upward communication is to allow employees to give their feedback directly to authority figures within the company, whereas downward communication is instructional—it is a one-way channel for giving directives to lower-level employees.

But you can see the problem: if the directives are incorrect, or faulty in some way, or if employees aren’t clear on their meaning, there’s no way to provide feedback to top management.

That’s why it matters, and here are some of the other advantages it provides.

Advantages of upward communication

In general, upward communication helps to build a positive work environment and foster company culture. And at the end of the day, when an employee is free to express their ideas, and those ideas are valued, they will be more engaged because they have a better workplace experience.

Disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year (Forbes), so it’s important to keep employees as engaged with company news and information as possible.

Specifically, upward communication enhances:

  • Trust and transparency.

Giving a voice to employees means that they can express themselves without fearing any backlash. Upward communication can instill a sense of mutual trust between upper management, lower management, and employees.

  • Innovation and productivity.

Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work (Forbes). Also, giving a voice to frontline workers can be highly valuable in terms of customer feedback, best practices, suggestions, and overall creativity.

  • Employee retention.

96% of employees believe showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention (Forbes). An employee that works in a company where their opinions are likely to be heard and considered is more likely to stay.

  • Employee recognition.

This makes employees feel better about their roles and their workplace, since they realize that upper management recognizes their input, and makes changes according to their suggestions.

  • Inclusion and sense of purpose.

Upward communication connects people, including frontline workers, and employees feel like they’re part of a team. Working with the same meaning and sense of objectives creates bonds and a sense of team spirit, all of which leads to a more inclusive environment.

  • Relationship with managers.

Managers can definitely benefit from feedback from their teams in terms of self-improvement and adjustments. It benefits a sense of common identity in general.

  • Silo removal.

More upward communication and collaboration means fewer silos, as people can gather around cross-cutting issues, without having to depend on hierarchical levels or departments.

  • Workplace culture alignment.

In the US, 63% of genZ employees say it is very or extremely important to work for an employer that shares their values (Ernst & Young), so it’s critical to know what those values are and to then align company culture around them.

upward communication quote

What are the obstacles to upward communication?

Just like there are advantages to upward communication, there are also obstacles that stand in the way and prevent the information flow from taking an upward trajectory.

These can be dealt with, if confronted properly. But if left unchecked, they will prove a hindrance.

They include:

  • Autocratic leadership

…that puts in place a work culture that does not encourage upward communication. A mindset based on hierarchy that does not value frontline workers.

  • Manager “unpreparedness

…when managers just aren’t properly prepared to handle upcoming information. Also, not knowing how to respond, for example, to resistance or negative feedback.

  • General fear of speaking out

…not knowing who employees are speaking to, or if they are using the right channel. No visibility on the audience they are speaking to, or on the usage of the messages they are giving. Perhaps even a fear of negative consequences for their everyday jobs. 

  • Lack of dedicated coms channel

…within the communication structure. Employees may want to speak up, but they need to have access to the right tool. A tool that allows them to give the right feedback to the right person. A tool that makes them sure they will be heard.

Edenred encountered this challenge with its intranet prior to embarking on the development of an ambitious and sustainable project.

  • Lack of follow up

…as part of the communication plan. Employees give feedback, and then what? After all, what’s more frustrating than sharing a comment, an opinion, a suggestion, and then realizing that nothing happened? If upward communication is not valued and there is no visibility on the results or actions put in place, employees will not be motivated to continue giving their opinions.

upward communication icon

What are the main forms of upward communication?

When it comes to directing information upward, there are a number of forms that communication can take.

These are a few of the more commonly used tools that companies utilize to illicit information from employees and direct it toward management:

Employee surveys

Of course there are ENPS and global employee satisfaction polls, but it’s very useful to put in place more local and tactical surveys. And afterwards, it’s important to then communicate the results and the actions that are going to be put in place because of what was learned.

Suggestion boxes

Maybe a little bit old fashioned, but still effective. Some companies ensure an old-school suggestion box greets every employee coming in the door. It’s an excellent way of communicating the strong message that their input matters.

But if a shoebox at the door sounds a little too outdated, there are ways to make online virtual boxes, too. It’s a great way to encourage innovation at a company. And it can be even more effective with a bit of structure, i.e. employees suggest ideas and then vote collectively for the best ones.

Focus groups

During focus groups, employees can discuss reoccurring issues at the departmental level, or company officials can use these sessions to ask employees how they would feel about a new policy. Naturally, this can be done online too, as long as you use the right collaboration tool so that everyone can freely express their thoughts.

Feedback reports

These are especially good for managers, so that they can adjust their behaviors, improve crucial skills, and adapt their managerial style to their teams’ needs. Performance reports of upper management could take place at the same time as employee performance reviews, to demonstrate that everyone can learn and grow—even top management.

Unprompted communication

Sometimes an idea pops up and we need to share it immediately, before the bulb switches off. It’s important to have a tool that allows people to share thoughts even when they’re online or working remotely, to take the place of the classic water cooler chat or coffee break.

How to improve upward communication in 10 easy steps

So what does it take to actually foster upward communication, and get ideas and feedback flowing up to management? Here are tips and strategies that can help make it happen:

1. Build a culture of open communication

One effective way to accomplish this is to use an employee communication tool that allows people to readily share their ideas. Mid-management and supervisors who interact with low and mid-level employees should be involved, and open the lines to two-way communication.

And to build a culture where upward communication is considered the norm, managers should encourage digital open-door policies that invite employees to join discussions or offer suggestions without fear.

With a tool like Sociabble, for example, sharing ideas company-wide is easy. The platform puts humans at the center of the experience, encouraging ideas and chats with an approach that’s more holistic than simple “internal comms.” We even call it “Employee Communication,” rather than “Internal Communication” for this reason.

2. Personalize communication

It’s important that employees understand who they are talking to, and in what context the message is being received. The relevance of the message is key. If you are asking for ideas for improving a manufacturing process, it doesn’t make sense to ask the sales team or marketing team. You want to speak directly to the production unit. Which means targeting and filtering is important.

With Sociabble, you can readily segment audiences and target employees, by region, department, level, language… essentially any criteria you want. Employee newsletters that are dynamic and personalized add a nice finishing touch, and added platform notifications ensure that important news is being read.

employee newsletter platform for upward communication

3. Encourage employee generated content

One of the best ways to show your employees the importance of upward communication, and encourage them to speak up, is by allowing them to create and share their own content within the organization.

Consider implementing communication solutions where managers are not the only ones driving the conversation. Instead, encourage employees at every level to create and publish their own stories and share them with the company.

Sometimes, however, employees find that it’s easier to share a video than write out content. This can be especially true of frontline workers, who often are not at a desk station and rely on mobile devices.

Luckily, Sociabble Enterprise Video makes this simple by empowering employees to create, edit, and post their own video content, be it an instructional seminar on a new production technique, a virtual tour of new facilities, or just a fun greeting for new employees.

user generated video

4. Recognize and value employees

Employees that give feedback are engaged employees. They want things to improve and in turn to do better, to move forward together. So it’s important to recognize this effort in terms of time and energy, and to award praise in a way that everyone can see.

With Sociabble, it’s possible to offer badges, awards, and even peer-to-peer recognition to reward employees. This last feature allows employees to give kudos to their colleagues for their help, or a job well done. This kind of recognition serves to energize relationships at work and strengthen the bonds between colleagues.

 5. Create channels for employees to express themselves

If you want your employees to engage in upward communication, consider creating communication channels designated for your employees to ask questions, comment on leadership announcements, engage with one another, and provide their feedback. When you do so, your employees will understand that you are putting in the effort to make sure their thoughts are heard, and they’ll have an easy way to share them.

With Sociabble, for example, employees can easily express themselves, even instantly, thanks to its chat feature. It allows for live broadcasts, employee tagging, sharing of files, and even real-time language translation.

6. Put in place tactical surveys

Many companies used bottom-up surveys during the pandemic to ensure that employees working from home had what they needed to accomplish their tasks. The importance of surveys has become even more evident during the events of the past few years.

But now, employers are realizing that they can be used to tackle other challenges as well. An upward communication example: gathering concrete feedback on a very specific topic that really concerns only one specific team or a sector.

To accomplish this, Sociabble has a built-in survey feature with templates that makes it easy to target a very specific audience or mainstream segment, to address both local and global audiences, to ask customizable questions, and to use multiple languages, all with just a few clicks.

employee survey for upward communication

7. Encourage authenticity from leaders

More and more, we see leaders engage in company-wide conversations. Transparency, proximity, and authenticity are key. Employees tend to replicate the communication patterns of their leaders in a company. If they see that leaders are sincere and open to conversation, they will not be afraid to speak up and share their opinions.

Within the employee platform Sociabble, there are collected features that allow managers and employees to stay in close contact. Managerial communication becomes easier, as the platform allows managers to transmit current information via chat, to collect feedback from employees thanks to surveys, and to set up more personalized and fun moments, even at a distance, thanks to the “Live” functionality.

8. Give employees a tool so they can contribute to innovation and other key topics

It’s essential that employees not only submit their ideas and give feedback, but also participate in final decisions. This is particularly true for CSR projects, where employees can see their values put into action.

For example, a 2021 Deloitte survey of 8,200 Gen Z employees in 45 countries found that almost half (49%) decided where to work based on their personal ethics.

With Sociabble’s built-in “Support My Cause” feature, it’s easy for employees to suggest CSR ideas, vote and get involved with a project they like. The whole selection process becomes transparent and gives employees a voice in launching concrete initiatives.

But it can also be adapted to innovation topics, social events, and any other key decision in which employees want to play an active role.

CSR platform that help upward communication

9. Support managers

It’s a fact: managers play the most important role in driving upward communication in the workplace. Therefore, the first step in building such a culture is to get the managers’ buy-in. However, many managers still don’t want or don’t know how to encourage their employees’ share of voice. So they need to be encouraged, and most importantly, to have the right tool to do so.

Deprived of traditional communication channels such as the face-to-face team meeting or simply the informal coffee break, managers have had to acquire new managerial skills. For example, active listening, the ability to encourage dialogue from a distance, empathy, and caring. Not to mention the digital skills needed to use the new communication tools.

With Sociabble, it’s possible to create a specific peer2peer channel dedicated to managers. This channel encourages exchanges between peers, by sharing best practice in terms of managing employees in the field. Informal exchanges are obviously encouraged.

10. Measure and share results

It is essential that after any upward communication actions, concrete measures are put in place, results are shared, decisions are explained, and a path forward is laid out. This is how employees can see their contribution and understand where the company is headed.

With Sociabble, you will have access to complete analytics, giving tangible value to the engagement of your teams, through concrete indicators such as number of likes, comments—you can even monitor the tone of a content piece via this feature.

Sociabble for effective upward communication

Looking for the perfect digital tool to improve upward communication and employee engagement at your company?

Sociabble is an Employee Advocacy, Social Selling and Employee Communication solution designed to help companies create a workforce that’s informed, engaged, and influential.

In short: it gives you the digital tools you need to accomplish everything that was described above. Through an online platform and mobile app, it empowers employees to get the crucial information they need, and to share feedback in an upward direction as well.

We work with industry leaders like Coca-Cola CCEP, Group Renault, Primark, and L’Occitane, improving communication and engagement among their workforce. You can sign up here for a free Sociabble demo.

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