Reflections on 18 months of pandemic curveballs

Jobs provide self-esteem, purpose, satisfaction, and a social network. For employees, the pandemic had an impact on all these. Add in the steep learning curve as we all came to grips with new ways of working and serving customers. And the social justice conversations and activism of 2020. For communicators, it's been quite a ride since March 2020.

A ride which has highlighted the importance and value of employee engagement.

For businesses the pandemic accelerated existing trends, including mass hybrid working, sustainability, taking a stand on social issues, and a focus on inclusion and wellbeing. But it happened at such pace, that it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve learnt about communicating in this new world.

I work for an agency, so I have a particular point of view, but I wanted to get the view from inside organisations. So, I spoke to four communicators (thank you to Kay Broadie, Esther Buck, Jody Lewis, and Steven Immergut). Here's what we discussed.

“People want a sense of togetherness, and of community. They want more than the information.”

Communication is only one part of the equation. Connection and conversation are harder. But this is what employees want and the business needs.

We now realise that posting a leadership blog or a business update is not the communication. It’s the opening salvo in a conversation. No matter how brilliant that blog or post is, we need to get better at having the resulting conversations. And for those without any way to host these conversations, they need to find one.

“Think about it like you are selling something.”

Communicators are selling the story of the business they work for. We are helping employees to understand the role they play and where the business is trying to get to. So they are proud of what the business does. So they feel a sense of purpose in what they do every day. So they can deliver the customer service and products your brand promises. Heady returns, indeed.

“Keep it fresh. People tire and get busy”

You’re selling something. Remember that the most important tool in a marketer’s kit bag (beyond a great product) is novelty. There are diminishing returns for a live Q&A, an all-hands Town Hall, a leadership vlog. Mix it up. Introduce left field speakers. Gamify. Make it unmissable.

“We expected too much of broadcast channels and now line managers need to do more heavy lifting”

The world of work has changed. There is more hybrid working, asynchronous working, autonomy, and agility. Line managers as communicators and interpreters are even more critical. Managers need the capability, time, and messages to inform, inspire and connect.

“Leadership needs to keep prioritising communication”

The pandemic highlighted the value of internal communications. Leaders who needed to change how and what they communicated appreciated the guidance and advice from communicators. But, as the pandemic fades, we need to watch out that leaders don’t return to their safety zones, and that we continue to prioritise good communication, and apply what was great about crisis ways of working and communicating.

“Consider your audience as people who have agency as opposed to being passive receptors”

We also need to be explicit in our expectations of employees to stay informed. We need to provide great content and make it easy to navigate, but employees need to engage with it.

“You represent the audience, so if for you it doesn't pass the sniff test look at what you're doing again.”

It’s not about channels, it’s about quality of content. If you get the quality of the content right, the audience will find it. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for people to find great content, then listen to the response and adapt as you go.

“Reduce the volume, a lot, and give more space for the articles that are most important”

Large organisations are complex. There is lots of content that could get out there if every single stakeholder got the exposure they want. Be clear that your role is not to accommodate every message, but to help employees focus on what matters. You’ll have some difficult conversations, but your audience will thank you.

If you’re told that you’re rigid and inflexible – you’re on the right lines to make things easy for your audience. Think of it as a challenge. How can you join messaging and create content that is worth putting out there (see point above)?

“Clear processes and ownership can help you to help you streamline communications”

In large, complex organisations, having clarity over who owns which messages can help to avoid a common situation where employees hear the same message from multiple different sources, all with a slightly different perspective. Be clear on your own rules of engagement and who owns what by business unit, function, or region.

“You need to have a journalistic mindset. Don't take the stories you receive but go out and find those that are interesting.”

Every organisation will have hundreds of interesting stories. They won't tick all the boxes but will say a lot about the kind of business you are, and the business you want to be. And look outside the business as well. Bring in interesting people from outside the business to talk about a range of topics. Your audience will find the time if the story or speaker is compelling and relevant.


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