6 ways COVID-19 has changed internal comms, maybe for good

Date posted: 5 March 2021  |  Posted in: Communication

Hats off to internal comms teams everywhere who have stepped up to the plate in the last year. We all know the challenges of connecting with a workforce who are working remotely, particularly when no 3D face to face comms is possible.

In the internal comms survey I run with my internal comms audits, I’ve added a question asking respondents to rate their agreement with: ‘Communications during the Coronavirus pandemic have been effective’. The % agreeing / strongly agreeing has been high which is brilliant.

With the vaccine rollout gathering pace the light at the end of the tunnel is hopefully getting ever closer, but in the world of internal comms some of the things that have changed are, in my opinion, here to stay.

Increased drumbeat

A consistent rhythm and drumbeat of communications has always been a mantra of mine because in the audits I do for organisations across different sectors, employees always tell me that’s what they want. In times of crisis, this need is amplified and businesses have responded with increased cadence. Quarterly Town Halls have become monthly, monthly leaders calls have become weekly, and so on. I think this increased drumbeat is here to stay as retreating from it will seem like a retrograde step.

Leaders’ visibility

My audits consistently show that connection with leadership remains right at the top of peoples’ lists in terms of what they want from communications. They want to hear about how the business is doing, future plans etc. and what that means for them, but they also want to give feedback, share their day-to-day experiences with customers, and put forward ideas – in other words they want their voice to be heard and they want the leadership team to listen. During a crisis, leaders’ visibility becomes more important than ever and ironically, with no face-to-face communication possible, my impression from the organisations that I’ve been involved with is that leaders, with the help of their IC teams, have been more visible than ever – with Town Halls and Q&A sessions via Zoom / WebEx / Teams, regular videos, initiating and joining in conversations on digital platforms etc. My fervent hope is that this is maintained in the ‘new normal’.

Wellbeing’s share of voice

Let’s be honest – what was the share of voice for wellbeing and related topics before the crisis? In many organisations, not high ( I know there are honourable exceptions out there as I’ve worked with some of them) Often wellbeing was a topic where a committee or working group were the main communicators. But this has changed dramatically with companies recognizing the challenges and potential consequences of constantly working from home with no social interaction or physical leader support, Zoom fatigue, juggles with homeschooling etc. Wellbeing has become a primary key message theme for internal comms teams to ensure colleagues are aware of available support and have a chance to feed back their issues and concerns. I think people have really valued this so it will be here to stay. 

Sharper key messages

When the crisis hit, many organisations had to adapt their strategy and priorities, and quickly share those with their people, with no time for lengthy development. People have engaged with the clarity and simplicity of key messages during the pandemic. In one of my recent audits, the business concerned had set out 4 key priorities for 2020 to carry them through the crisis. Their employee told me that they loved the simplicity and clarity of that message. I think the moral of the story which companies will carry forward is that when you’re looking to align people behind strategy / key priorities, make it a simple, compelling story that people can easily remember and engage with.

Supporting flexible working

Many businesses have historically been afraid of expanding flexible working with concerns over the impact on productivity and collaboration, but the mandatory working from home and availability of platforms such as Microsoft Teams has proved that it can be done, and has accelerated adoption. The accepted view is now that the future of work is ‘hybrid’, where we will work flexibly with a mixture of working at home and in the office, which will gradually become more of a collaboration and team meeting hub. One of the businesses I have worked with in the last year said to its people that their ambition is that ‘every job can be done flexibly unless proven otherwise.’ I developed a communications plan for their flexible working rollout and I suspect IC teams will be doing a lot of work supporting this agenda in the coming year and beyond.

Digital conversation platforms have come into their own

With millions of us working from home, platforms such as Workplace and Yammer have helped to maintain communication, collaboration and connectivity when everyone is working apart. Many organisations have adopted these platforms for the first time during the crisis – I helped my local NHS Trust implement Workplace by Facebook last Summer – and with increased flexible working here to stay, they’re now a key internal comms channel.

And organisations are increasingly using Microsoft Teams or Slack for online conversations (as well as town halls), establishing e.g. ‘General’ channels and using them for company-wide comms. These platforms are built primarily for collaboration and getting work done but I think they will be used more and more as a comms hub, particularly where organisations can’t justify the additional spend of platforms like Workplace. 

And finally… internal comms now front and centre

Internal comms has historically often played second fiddle to External Comms and PR in organisations. I like to think this has changed in recent years as business leaders have increasingly seen the value of internal comms and role it plays in driving employee engagement and experience, but Comms Directors / Heads of Communications are often external comms specialists by trade and that can influence the focus of a combined internal and external communications team.

During the pandemic internal comms has been recognized – in some cases for the first time – as a critical function, ensuring everyone has stayed connected while working remotely. I know many internal comms teams are enjoying this new found role, the respect of stakeholders and the seat at the table that it’s brought. The challenge is now to embed and build on it in the coming years!

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