COVID-19 and the changing landscape of Internal Communications
On Wednesday 3rd June 2020, Hanson Search CEO Alice Weightman and Senior Consultant Jenny Waters hosted a webinar discussing the impact that COVID-19 has had on the perception of internal communications and the importance of effective communications by the C-suite.
Alongside an international panel of internal communications experts, we explored the current challenges faced by leaders and practitioners, discussed who is getting it right, and how much of this newly emerged importance on internal communications and employee engagement is here to stay.
Featuring our expert panel:
- Rupert Young, Senior Partner at Brunswick Gulf, UAE
- Kerry Irwin, Director of Communications EMEAR at Tetra Pak, Germany
- Sarah Howe, Independent Director of Communications & Board Adviser, UK
- Jenny Waters (Chair), Senior Consultant, Hanson Search
Read on for everything you missed from our webinar...
Jenny Waters (JW): The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to massive shifts in the way that communications has been practiced across all industries and sectors. We've seen communications teams working 24/7 to manage the internal message for brands, counsel senior leaders, support employees and boost morale. However, the situation has created a whole new set of challenges for leaders and internal communications practitioners, and we'll be examining some of these more closely today.
Q1, JW: I think we'd all agree that as much as internal communications was on the rise pre-pandemic, the discipline was still undervalued and under-resourced in many organisations. How do you think the COVID-19 experience has evolved and improved the reputation of internal communications?
Kerry Irwin (KI): I think it's fair to say that when I came into Tetra Pak, the internal communications function barely existed within our regions. It was very basic. We've built that up over the past year and a half, but in the last three months it's gone on a tremendous curve, skyrocketing to the top. For the most part, the entire focus was on internal communications over the last three months. We’ve had very few resources. We're very lean. It's basically me and two others covering the entire EMEA region, so we had to be smart about what we do. We've had to learn new technologies to support us, and probably like everyone in those first few days we were like deer in headlights.
Our initial approach was simple. We sat down and said, 'OK, now is the time for us to be human.' It's really about being human leaders. It's about the employees and their safety, and there's no other focus. There's nothing else to talk about except having leaders provide that reassurance and thanking people for what they are doing. The response to that has been extraordinary. It's been an interesting learning experience to see how our leaders have changed and adapted during this time and I hope that at least some of that will continue on for good after this settles down.
Rupert Young (RY): Here in the UAE and in emerging markets, internal communications was like an orphan child, sort of shunted between different departments. I don't think anybody realised what an important discipline it was. I think it's risen up. And what is particularly interesting is that it's become the starting point for communications over the last few months. In the past we'd be thinking about other audiences as priority, but actually employees have become the starting point for the conversation. To some extent, if you haven't got your employees with you, you haven't got an ability to move forward with your business plan and strategy.
The other thing that's happened is that internal comms has moved from being a mechanism for transferring information, where people were broadcasted at, and often not very interesting topics, to having senior leaders actually engaging with people and making information much more relevant and interesting. As a result they are finding a much closer engagement and enjoying communications with their employees more than ever before.
There's no road back from this. I think employee communications has earned its place alongside government relations, investor relations, media relations, and it will increasingly become a proper function in corporations with professionals running it. People will now expect more open, honest and direct communication with their leaders.
Sarah Howe (SH): It's all centred around being human in your communications. Throughout my career, I have always been passionate about the fact that there is far too much corporate speak, far too much broadcasting of one-way dialogue and not proper engagement. As communicators, we often say, 'Well, leaders don't listen to us as much as they should,' and 'We don't have a place at the boardroom table.' Leaders often think that they know best, especially in terms of communications. Whereas with this challenge, they have looked at it and thought, 'Wow, we need guidance and support and we need to discuss how we approach this thing because we're dealing with human beings.'
I've been on some McKinsey webinars recently and they're talking about this role now of the Chief Empathy Officer and the fact that in all of the communications we've been engaging with employees, it's absolutely communicating as human beings, as people, on a person-to-person basis.
Leaders have also realised that the stakes are really high here if they get it wrong. We've all seen instances of organisations around the globe who haven't got it quite right and they've been caught out on it. So, for many reasons, leaders have wanted the support of their communications specialists to help them through this very difficult time.
I do hope it continues. I think that a lot of the positive steps forward will continue but I'm also conscious that old habits die hard. Whilst we can all be positive about how this horrendous situation has enabled us to communicate better and with greater empathy, the jury's out in terms of just how much of it stays.
JW: COVID-19 has opened the eyes of leaders. This isn't a crisis that's purely facing businesses, it's employees that are worried about their jobs, their health, and their families. Understandably, they've needed information and reassurance from their employers. This has forced leaders to be visible and put their employees first - above strategy, customers and profit. And leaders have had to communicate with their employees, keep them updated, and use the appropriate cadence and tone and empathy.
Q2, JW: How important is that human-to-human element? And building on some audience questions: how do we ensure that the brilliant internal communications that's happening now is retained post-pandemic?
SH: We've got to be braver, as communications experts. In consultancy, you have the privilege of advising people on what they need to hear as opposed to what they want to hear. And I've noticed that when I'm in an in-house environment I still behave like that, I tell them what they need to hear, which sometimes is really hard. I think that we as communicators have to keep on giving the best advice, the advice that needs to be given, which can be quite challenging especially in-house.
RY: This is a very scary time for senior business leaders. They are running businesses that have significant issues and it's lonely. They need help and support and I think they've found that in communicating to their employees. They've found a two-way dialogue that has allowed people to connect better and be more supportive. That collaboration is going to help CEOs through this.
Internal comms needs to be a muscle that gets strengthened over the coming years. It's going to take years for us to get through this particular crisis and there's going to be plenty of time to exercise that muscle. I don't think we're through the scary times yet. The smarter CEOs are going to draw down on their advisers to help them articulate what it is they need to say at the right times. They need to find the relevant content, engage, talk with rather than at, and keep doing things face to face, fast and regularly.
KI: From my experience in the last few months, we took this on proactively and stepped up to make sure that our leaders were doing this from the beginning. We've received so much feedback from employees saying thank you. It's been a really interesting learning curve, especially for leadership. All of our leaders had to step up and take this role on and show the way, show empathy, provide that reassurance. They didn't need to have all the answers but they had to show what we were doing to make our employees safe. By doing that, it kept people working, motivated, inspired and engaged. We've never seen the level of employee engagement that we've seen in the last three months. It's been an eye-opening experience for our leaders on the power of what internal communications can do.
SH: In global organisations, it's also been a real coordination job for the internal communicators and specialists because you've got all the different layers of leadership and you need to understand what kinds of messaging the employees need at these times from which of their leaders and managers. Employees want to hear slightly different things from different people, for example, it's nice to hear your manager tell you that your job is safe, but it's more reassuring to hear the CEO tell you that your job is safe.
In the past, internal comms has worked differently. Leadership would say, 'Here's the message, it's your job to communicate it.' To which the answer is, 'No, I will help you with the content and messaging, then you'll communicate it.'
Q3, JW: Even if those layers of management are aligned in messaging, do you think at the moment that there is a danger in over-communicating?
RY: Probably not, as long as it's thoughtful, clever communications. Employees need a lot of reassurance right now. They want to feel a part of the solution and engaged. I don't think you can over-communicate. Within normal bounds, the more communication is probably the better. More active engagement and communications is also hugely welcomed.
SH: I agree, you can't over-communicate at the moment. It's more about the tone, and the empathy, openness and transparency. And it's all about doing it in bite-sized chunks. For example, we had to move very quickly to work from home - the week before lockdown. And I should say this is an organisation that isn't used to working flexibly or from home. The main message we put out very quickly was simple, ‘We trust you to do the right thing. We know you do great jobs, and we'll work through it together.’ It's about focusing on bite-sized, minimal communications, but doing it regularly and consistently.
RY: Employees are looking to their senior leaders to be honest about what's happening. Video communications are helping with that. You can't hide behind email anymore. That honesty is what's most appreciated. Everybody is watching and reading about other companies in exactly the same situations, so I don't think you can hide behind platitudes anymore.
KI: Initially, we had bite-sized communications and one area was important information for employees, meaning what they need to know to do their work. That meant setting up a place on the intranet where they could easily find that information, such as tips for working from home, improved technology, how to get equipment from offices, policies, support for people who still had to travel for work, etc.
We then had our leadership contribute to that by doing weekly videos on their iPhones, to make their communications feel really down to earth and provide that reassurance while also providing that need to know information to continue working. Then we slowly started to drip back in stories about business, because we are still in business and functioning and signing deals. And then we brought in stories about employees themselves and what they're doing on the front lines and that's where a lot of the engagement came in. Our employees were proud to be doing their jobs and keeping food on people's tables.
Q4, JW: The majority of conversations that we've been having in recent weeks have been with a forward-looking theme and with a focus on returning to work. And as lockdowns start to ease and restarting businesses includes myriad complexities and risks. It's a minefield for organisations of all sizes combining concerns of customers, suppliers, staff, and of course the perception of the general public.
Talking about your own businesses and clients, what's the message going to be around returning to work and what's the approach that you're taking?
KI: We are just starting to pilot that in a few markets. We've looked at it as a process, whereas lockdown needed to happen quickly. This is a process that involves a lot of looking at how our offices are set up and interactions in the offices, for instance, how conference rooms are used and our open-seating layout. We've had to look at how all of that works in every office and reassure people about their behaviour and mindset. You can't go back to the office and do things the way you did before. You need to have them think consciously all the time about their behaviour.
We're not going back to offices 100% yet. We're starting at 20%, maybe working up to 50% by the end of the year. It will be based on whether we can ensure that people feel safe to come back to the office. And it's not mandatory. A lot of people still have kids who are out of school, and they've been working effectively from home, so it will be a long process.
RY: From our perspective, we've had different offices throughout the world going through this at different times. Here in the middle east, we're in this wonderful position to be able to learn from our offices in the far-east who are two or three months ahead of us. We're also lucky as a consultancy we're used to working remotely, so it hasn't been a huge issue for us and it's been remarkably efficient.
Two points are worth mentioning, and the first one is about managing expectations. As businesses begin to think about returning to offices, it has to be done as a phased, careful process, and it's incumbent on them to help manage expectations. And second, there are two sides to this. There's the operational side of security and hygiene and sanitation and who's going to sit where, but there is also the behavioural piece. Things are going to be very different.
One-size-fits-all is not appropriate here. Every company will have to do it their own way which means it can't be overly programmed and we're going to have to rely on common sense and people taking responsibility. For leaders, that's going to be a lot about listening and taking time to do things carefully and slowly. Leaders should also be mindful that if they are jumping back to the office, juniors may feel that they should be back too. It's important to not put too much pressure on people in these early phases.
SH: The one thing that runs through this whole challenging time is the dialogue with employees and keeping that going constantly at all levels. That might mean a lot of surveys, pulse-surveys, and feedback sessions, because there is a tendency to treat all of your employees as one group of people. But with this, you are looking at a completely different type of segmentation. You have some people for whom it's pretty straight-forward to go back to the office, but then you have some people who are looking after children or homeschooling and maybe with a grandparent living with them. On top of that, there are different levels of anxiety that different individuals feel.
What's vital is honesty. None of us have all the answers and we don't know what's going to work. We have to do it with calmness and lack of urgency. There is no rush. Most people who can work from home are working efficiently and very little productivity is being lost.
What are the tools to measure success of internal communications?
RY: There's the anecdotal success, ‘do you feel your business is doing the right thing?’, and the feedback mechanism within business should help you to gauge that. You should be able to take the pulse quickly and understand how things are going. The main tool that I think would be useful here is instant surveying, where you can tap within 24-48 hours a response on the whole programme, comfort levels, etc.
You can use basic survey technology, like SurveyMonkey, if you're a smaller company or more advanced tools for larger companies. You could even work with a proper polling company. It depends on what you're trying to achieve.
KI: We use software when we do internal communications that tracks how people engage with it, for instance, how many people open, read, click links, and how long they spend on it. We can also track how they interact with the videos we send. And we get a lot of comments and feedback. Then surveys, as Rupert said, which we can do in our software as simply as emoji-style or more formal question-style. We also monitor usage of our hashtags that employees are using on their personal social media.
SH: Surveys are great, but often when you're in a group setting you bounce ideas of one another so focus grouping is critical to the feedback loop which you can do on a zoom or conference call. Also in terms of measuring success, it goes back to your core business objectives. Have these been met? Looking at all the core metrics when you're looking at overall internal communications success in the big picture.
For those CEOs who don't give internal comms a seat at the table, how does internal comms maintain its position in the future?
RY: Other than the fact that the smartest leaders will intuitively have understood that internal comms has become an incredibly important part of their armoury for managing business, I think that the results from surveys and other feedback on internal communications should allow a greater understanding at the executive level of some of the issues going on in the business. If that system works well, that should allow internal comms a seat at the table.
SH: It's also important for CEOs, boards, and leaders to have their communications teams putting in front of them examples of best practice from other organisations. Many leaders are in large organisations for a long period of time so they can become insular and less curious about what's going on in other organisations. We can open their eyes to what else is possible.