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How businesses are treading the fine-line between employee support and overstimulation as internal comms steps up to the plate in crisis

If the internal communications function has too often been neglected, under-resourced and under-valued in business, never has it been so painfully highlighted and sharply felt than during the COVID pandemic.

When the country, and indeed the world, went into lockdown leadership teams were forced to quickly reassess, revive and reshape their employee communications to keep operations running and teams connected.

“Over the years less importance has been given to internal communications than external; it’s more under-valued, less strategic, more transactional,” asserts Nick Helsby, founder of PR headhunter Watson Helsby.

“It’s as though employees are considered a totally different audience to other audiences and more value is placed on how to engage externally, but I think that has changed now.”

He adds: “Comms teams have had to become almost like internal advisors to the leadership, equipping them with the ability to communicate more effectively in terms of the narrative, the tools and the knowhow.”

The tools and knowhow have been absolutely key in this journey. For some the years have rolled on and many have done little more than add under-marketed and under-used intranet platforms to encourage employee engagement, while continuing to fire off blanket mailshots, containing untargeted information, to their employees.

Others have developed the knowledge, kept up with new technologies and weighted internal comms with strategic priority. It is these businesses, says Helsby, that have stepped up to the mark with imagination and energy during the crisis.

“It’s about so much more than information relaying,” he adds. “It’s about truly engaging.”


The right fit

Choices abound these days with variations on the same theme of communication and collaboration tools, such as Facebook’s Workplace, Teams and Yammer from Microsoft, Amdoc’s Virtually Together, Slack, Asana and Podio to name but a few.

And with other tools such as polling platforms Slido or Vevox, and a plethora of video conferencing offerings like Google Hangouts, Skype, UberConference, TrueConf or the ubiquitous Zoom, internal communications practitioners and leadership teams have had their work cut out identifying and building the best fit for their organisations.

Added to this is the question of where, among all these new capabilities, is the space for good old-fashioned phone and email?

“There has needed to be a rapid change in technologies and approaches used, for many organisations, for everyday communication with their people,” says CIPD strategy lead, Oli Howard.

A board member at the Institute of Internal Communication, Howard says that email has been a vital tool for internal communications for years and remains so. But for a
lot of the face-to-face interaction such as town halls or one-to-
ones, businesses have needed to invest in alternatives to make it work remotely.

“It’s compressed the adoption of technologies,” he explains. “They’ve had to work out what’s possible, what’s preferable and what are the limitations in terms of security, for example.

“Tech providers have been developing quickly and the comms teams have had to track that, see how their audiences are responding and adjust their approaches accordingly. It’s been a quick process of evolution.”


A learning curve

For residential developer Countryside, which had around 70% of its staff furloughed until the end of May, the situation has been no different.

According to culture transformation director Sian Myers the organisation, along with many others in the heavily site-based industry, has historically been far from the cutting edge of internal communication evolution.

New investment and resources though meant the business was already looking beyond traditional, corporate emails to build more creative internal communications when lockdown struck, she explains, which gave the business the momentum to move quickly.

The company CEO began sending out emails to staff, focusing on personal situations and wellbeing, followed by a Zoom interview, which “was very well received.”

“We’ve been reaching out to people around the business to find out what they want and
need and we’ve responded to that,” says Myers.

“The key has been who the communications come from and we’ve found the content and pitch has been a real strength,” she adds.

The business has continued the flow of ‘check-in’ emails from its leadership teams while Zoom has been used for company road shows, inductions for new starters and a new group engagement forum. An intranet and company microsite have also come into their own for information and resource sharing, not just for work purposes, but also things like activity packs for children and mental wellbeing guidance.

The internal communications team at Countryside sent out hard copy information packs in the early days of lockdown to staff who were ordinarily construction site based and less familiar with its communication technology.

Myers explains that the company had gone from “barely using” Microsoft Teams to relying on it for both social and business meetings on a daily basis.

“It’s been a massive improvement. Colleagues are getting to know each other in a way they didn’t before and it’s been really inspiring. We want to ensure we keep up the momentum on everything we’ve built,” Myers states.

But she points out: “Video meetings can actually be quite draining so it’s important to know what’s right for what situation. The platforms and info sharing won’t replace calls and emails, there is a place for them, and we need to manage the amount people are online and the burnout risk.”

There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution for businesses to keep in contact with employees, whether furloughed, working from home or having returned to the workplace. Exactly how people need communication and information will vary from sector to sector, business to business and indeed person to person.


In the loop

For London hotel group The Dorchester Collection, volume and continuity through its online communication platform have kept staff connected and informed through furlough, remote working and transitioning back to work, with internal communication activity having “quadrupled” according to area director for people and culture, Emma Jayne.

The platform plays host to reward and recognition initiatives which have been “ramped up” in the past few months, with 700 out of 800 employees being furloughed on full pay. More video content has been produced, with the general manager uploading weekly updates offering reassurance and insights. Polling tools have been used to gauge staff sentiment on a number of issues.

Zoom has been deployed too for everything from HIIT classes, coffee mornings with the general manager, wine, cookery and history lessons to more sensitive one-to-one interactions between managers and team members.


Blurred lines

An inevitable side-effect of this new ramping-up of internal communication tools is the blurring of boundaries between work and home. Though necessary to ensure employees remain engaged, valued and protected from isolation, it does nonetheless require a delicate balancing act to ensure employee wellbeing is protected.

“Consistent and two-way communications have really been key,” says Jayne. “Zoom and WhatsApp have been our preferred methods of communication, with every employee getting weekly welfare calls, along with activity on the internal platform.

“Hospitality is a very social industry and the lines can get blurred anyway. Our sense of community has tripled and we now have a clearer understanding of each individual’s situations and pressures,” she explains.

Jayne stresses that division heads keep a close eye on their teams to ensure they are switching off, not sending evening work emails for example, and employees’ situations are considered individually for the most suitable mode of communication, be it phone, video call or email.

“Organisation leaders must manage in a responsible way,” echoes Howard. “Employers are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the culture doesn’t encourage presenteeism, over-work and burnout.

“They should be listening to the individuals in their team and providing flexibility relating to that. Everyone is under different pressure and has different circumstances at home. It’s not one size fits all,” he adds.

Head of internal communications at Barnardo’s, Sara Odams, agrees that “avoiding overwhelm,” when it comes to employee communications is a challenge, but stresses that it can be avoided by having the right digital platform.

“Our digital channels enable us to flag the most important messages. The weekly email captures all the key news that week, and people know if something is posted in news and updates in Workplace then it’s something they should look at. Whereas with the other groups, they can turn notifications off so they aren’t overwhelmed by too much Workplace content.

“You can do everything through Workplace: post stories, comment, video calls, phone calls, chat with team members on separate chat. We do have Zoom but we’ve only used it for a call with over 100 colleagues.

“We try not to push other platforms because Workplace is all encompassing and means it’s easier not to bombard people with too many technologies,”
she explains.

Yet Odams stresses the need to be mindful of the different forms of communication; the importance of a focus on mental health; and the responsibility of leaders to be flexible and talk with their teams to assess what works for them.

“But,” she warns, “I believe there is no substitute for true face-to-face communication. We should be asking if this is a healthy way to work long term.”

Stu Templeton, head of UK at Slack, acknowledges the dangers of the ‘always on’ work culture, but says there are ways to avoid it by using various capabilities in platforms and building the right integrated platform for a business.

He says Slack’s aim is not to replace human physical interaction but he does believe that the future will see a hybrid approach to working.

“The office still has a purpose and will remain a productive space for workshopping ideas, bringing teams together and helping to maintain a culture, but it’s hard to imagine many businesses reverting back fully to old ways,” he adds.

Dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, Josh Bersin, agrees with this sentiment stating that internal communications have entered a new era: “Employee communications is now a mission-critical, CEO-connected effort that has to reach everyone fast, effectively, and accurately.

“Organisational communication in the future will be more frequent, personalised, genuine, and two-way.”

While Howard also agrees that this pandemic has seen a
re-prioritising of internal comms, he warns that not even the most sophisticated of platforms can cover poor practice.

“With any of these things, they only act as extensions of your organisation’s culture. So, if you have one where you listen to your staff, respond to feedback and are honest and transparent, then these tools will be an aid to that, no question.

“If you have one where you are micro-managing people, where knowledge is power and information is held on to at the highest level, where messages are spun and management practices are poor then there is also potential for these tools to amplify that behaviour.

“It’s not a fix for the underlying cultural practices of an organisation. It’s simply a channel through which they run it.”

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