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Guest Blogger

by Jo Moffatt and Charlotte Dahl

As devastating as the pandemic is, consensus is growing that there has been a silver lining for internal communications. And this silver lining is the dawning of a new age for our profession.

During the crisis IC teams acted quickly and rose to the fore. Helping CEOs come out from behind their desks and engage with their people like never before, with a refreshing authenticity.

We managed (and continue to manage) time critical and ever-changing flows of vital information. Then communicated it as clearly as we could to help our newly dispersed workforces feel connected, feel reassured, feel in control. All essential to productivity, innovation and balance.

We made sure there were the right systems, platforms and feedback mechanisms in place for employee voice. Checking in, asking for regular feedback and placing employees front and centre in the discussions around the workplace – now and into the future.

Through this an energy was created. The big things mattered. People stopped sweating the small stuff.

For previously exclusively office-based folk, working from home has had its benefits; the ability to work more flexibly for one, hopefully consigning the age-old ritual of 9-5 to Room 101 for good. Levels of employee engagement have actually been going up over the last eight to nine months and productivity (when not in full lockdown for home
schooling parents) among many working from home saw an increase. However, for some, anxiety, fear and loneliness are ever present.

Leadership teams have realised their organisations simply can’t grow, prosper or even survive without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce. A challenge made all the greater by the new hybrid model. Internal communication is central to all of this. There is consensus that IC has found its place at the top table. Earned its place (at last).

As we come to terms with this seismic shift, Woodreed and other leaders and thinkers in our profession have been reflecting on what we learnt in 2020. We’re using these learnings to think about what priorities in 2021 should be, as our profession seeks to maintain its new (and rightful) position as strategic partners delivering a business-critical priority.

We’ve grouped this thinking into core themes along with some ideas and areas for you to think about.

Trust

The first, and in Woodreed’s view most important, theme is trust. Trust in your people, your peoples’ trust in you. In the wake of COVID-19, trust in the workplace has literally become a matter of life or death. As Josh Bersin says:

“Reinforcing trust in the wake of COVID-19 is so urgent, companies can’t afford not to take it seriously.”

This imperative has been made all the more critical when you consider that the latest Edelman Trust Barometer places businesses as the only trusted institution1.

Trust begins at the top with leaders infusing their actions with purpose and integrity. Take a masterclass from New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. Her approach during the crisis not only virtually chased the virus from their shores (so far) but has seen trust in her and her government soar. According to a 2020 Colmar Brunton poll2 , 88% of New Zealanders trust their government to make the right decisions about COVID-19 (well above the G7 average of 59%).

Trust is the stuff of which all relationships are made. Every team, client or customer relationship can be improved with greater trust. And without it, there can be no effective leadership, teamwork or positive outcome. Trust in an organisation comes from the behaviour of direct managers and team leaders, as much as the exec. Take a look at the framework for building trust by former commanding officer of the US Navy’s flight demonstration squadron Blue Angels, Captain George Dom. Drawing on years of experience he advises team leaders to regularly ask five questions of themselves and their team. See page 4 of Woodreed’s Trust thought paper.

Trust is the vital underpinning to successful, productive outcomes and to individual wellbeing. But, beware, as David MacLeod, author of the MacLeod report and co-founder of Engage for Success, the UK’s leading authority on employee engagement, says:

“Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. It has to be built.”

Purpose has a new…erm purpose

Internal Communication has been pulling our organisations together. For some, the crisis has brought the unexpected benefit of re-uniting and reengaging their people with their organisation’s purpose.

This has been acutely felt by the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. For them, as Mike Waddington, their Communications Director says:

“The pandemic has brought a singularity of purpose.”

The Trust’s people are reconnecting with why they joined the profession in the first place. As a result, they are offering to do more, offering to solve challenges (that’s employee engagement for you right there). IC, it seems is now knocking on an open door. “It’s like the penny’s finally dropped”, says Mike.

As communicators one of our skills is to tell stories. We should be able to tell the story of our organisation (its purpose) through the stories of our people. But let’s not forget in all this to tell our own story of Internal Communication – our purpose and of the difference our function has made.

How leadership act now is key. They need to lead from the front, showing there is a clear path for recovery. IC should be sat at the top table with leadership so we can help guide this.

Authenticity

Leaders stepped out from their offices and showed us who they really are; kids, pets, partners, footie skills, tastes in home décor, their kitchens, everything. And we loved it! Sarah Hood, Global Head of Engagement at BUPA calls it:

“A new and welcome authenticity.”

So now we’re demanding authenticity right across the board – from the board, to values, purpose, tone of voice, the lot.

It’s happening all over the place. For the BBC, the pandemic has brought about the demise of the corporate tone of voice in internal communication. In its place a refreshing new authenticity.

Similarly, at British Airways. For Drew McMillan, Director of Colleague Communication and Culture:

“The theme of authenticity is really key in our organisation as we move out of the crisis and into recovery. Our people want a new tone, a new honesty and less corporate formality. I can’t wait.”

In contrast working remotely can mean the impromptu nature of office life is lost, ironically giving rise to a more formulaic, planned, even ‘corporate’ approach. Alice Colarusso, Head of Internal Communications at ITV acknowledges how this is at odds with a tone which is the most compassionate, empathetic and human it’s ever been:

“It’s a funny place we find ourselves – as we strive to bring the brand to life, making it feel like telly, when you’re working from your kitchen table.”

Angie Lawrence-Scott, Head of Corporate Comms at Scania GB agrees:

“Authenticity is key. Tell it as it is in order to build trust.”

She’s right. Back to Jacinda Ardern again. In the midst of New Zealand’s outbreak in 2020 Ardern’s strategy and its communication was clear, consistent and 100% authentic. She hopped onto Facebook live having just got her kids to bed to update and reassure her nation’s people. It felt authentic because it was authentic. Lessons we should all take into how we continue to communicate in the workplace. We need to be reminding our leaders that this behaviour is the right behaviour and needs to stay. It’s all too easy to slip back into bad habits.

The New Hybrid and Digital Working Model

The pandemic created a sense of urgency around digital transformation. IBM’s institute for business value3 reported that digital transformation had accelerated at 59% of organisations they surveyed. 65% have been able to complete initiatives that previously encountered resistance.

Executives have become more trusting of what technology can do, and they are pushing ahead with digital transformation. Our hybrid workforce is here to stay, and internal communication has a key role to play in providing bridges between hybrid workers, so no-one feels they are missing out.

While the new flexibility has many advantages, there’s still so much to work through. Workplaces need to make sure opportunities are equitable for those who choose not to go back to the office full time. Social interactions are a worry. Gone are those accidental meetings over a cup of tea, bumping into each other in the lifts. How do we recreate these ‘watercooler moments’?

Here’s one of the ways that ITV is approaching it. Alice Colarusso again:

“Our new channel which pops up breaking news and feelgood engagement items on peoples’ desktops goes a little way to replacing ‘watercooler moments’ and the office branding of internal campaigns.”

How do we take our hallmarks of culture and adapt them digitally? There are ways to do it, but it takes a more intentional, proactive approach. Facebook, for example digitally adapted one of the hallmarks of its culture…food. Famed for the delicious meals cooked for its people onsite, Facebook needed a way to keep food alive from home. So, recipes from their chefs were made available and people shared their own creations.

The challenge will be how you adapt your culture while staying true to your values.

Agility and Creativity Unlocked

Once we’d got over the initial shock (which had inevitable impacts on our productivity) oh my, did we get stuff done?! We expressed our creativity in many ways. We had no option but to try new, more creative approaches to get things done. In doing so we ended up finding better ways of doing things. We realised we had the ability to think laterally, think more creatively, about how to solve challenges.

As we tried new things, we made mistakes along the way. But we became much more forgiving of mistakes, leaders encouraging a new ‘fail fast, learn faster’ organisational mindset we’re hoping will stick. For ITV the changes are here to stay. Head of IC, Alice Colarusso explains:

“We overhauled everything overnight. Our CEO vodcasts catapulted up to 70% of the organisation watching them. We’ll never go back to how we used to do them.”

Employee Voice

Employee voice, as regular readers of Woodreed’s papers know, is one of the four enablers of employee engagement. 2020 saw the breaking down of barriers in so many different ways. As David Manning, Head of Internal Communications and Employee Engagement at the BBC notes:

“Leadership are listening to employee voice – to what people want. We’re now truly redesigning our workplaces around the needs of our people and our business.”

Communication directors have told us of a shift from corporate top-down, one-way “thou shalt do this” to a more honest, two-way, collaborative dialogue to get things done together.

The digital groups we created to connect people in 2020 have helped us to listen to our people. As a result, we’ve gained greater insight. Insight into needs and concerns as well as ideas and solutions. We’ve used this insight to craft the right messages for the right audience and deliver this through the right channels.

DE&I Front and Centre

2020 brought the deep inequalities that exist in society into sharper, even more devastating focus. Whatever stage you are at with your DE&I strategy (and organisations are at very different stages) every organisation has a moral obligation to put DE&I front and centre of their 2021 strategy and beyond. There’s no one size fits all answer – approaches must be personalised for each organisation.

Inclusivity has an even wider meaning now with our newly dispersed workforce included in the definition. As previously mentioned, how to make sure opportunities are equal for those who choose not to go back into the office full time is going to be key.

Internal Communication has a huge amount of power to influence, control, promote and educate about DE&I – keep it up. With Gens Y and Z demanding an authentic, purpose-driven organisation and the business case for a diverse and inclusive workplace well documented, efforts must be intensified, keeping it high up the agenda for good.

Wellbeing Matters 

Wellbeing matters more than ever as our people continue to adjust. Keep reminding your senior leaders that the job is far from done. For some of the exec this is potentially the first time they’ve genuinely been forced to sit up and listen. Leaders beware the wellbeing disconnect, as IBM’s research3 revealed a gaping chasm between what leaders think they are offering their people and how their employees feel:

“Only about half employees say they believe their employer is genuinely concerned about their welfare.”

Small things matter – in all respects. Small things can make a big difference in enhancing wellbeing. Central and North West London NHS Trust went one step further by not just thanking their people but thanking their families for ‘lending them Mum or Dad’. They sent thank you cards to the families, showing such empathy for the toll it was inevitably taking on family life. A small gesture with massive impact.

Conclusion

Full speed ahead internal communication and employee engagement practitioners and professionals. We’ve got our hands full. We’re going to need enthusiasm, energy, ideas and resilience abundance. Let’s take what we’ve learned and make 2021 internal communication’s year. Let’s make the most of our hard fought and deserved position. Mike Waddington again:

“Internal communication has been reborn, it’s been recreated.”

Our role? Well for Inara Pilatti, Head of IC EMEA at Facebook, it’s this:

“To provoke and challenge discussion around what this reimagining might look like. We need to keep giving everyone a voice, creating meaningful experiences at work (wherever your workplace now is), creating a sense of belonging.”

Let’s get to it…

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