Leadership and employee connectivity under COVID-19

As our lives rapidly change in the coming months, more than ever our employees need clear leadership and connectivity.

By Monique Zytnik

Employee communication now plays a particularly critical role in the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic unfolding around us. Not only is ‘my employer’ is the most trusted institution according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, but the World Health Organisation recognises organisations as a key channel in their WHO communication strategy and has been working with businesses to share key messages and challenge myths and rumours to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Good employee engagement remains the same as before the pandemic. Only the circumstances and technologies have changed around us, giving us both new challenges and substantial opportunities. We can take comfort in this, knowing that best practice can still be applied, and that plenty of resources are available online through Global Communication Summit co-host IABC and other organisations. Fortunately, the intersection between digital, physical and culture is stronger than ever as we move towards a more mature digital employee experience.

Clear, compassionate leadership

Staff want to know they will be led through the changes by someone they trust, someone who understands their concerns. Using a clear, compassionate voice is the key.

With stock markets crashing, trust is your most valuable commodity – build on this through the way you communicate with your employees.

“With stock markets crashing, trust is your most valuable commodity – build on this through the way you communicate with your employees.”

As communicators within our companies, we are responsible for ensuring our leaders are visible, authentic and clear. Our corporate messaging needs to be unambiguous and direct staff to a single source of truth, regardless of the internal communication channels used (e.g. email or employee platforms such as Smarp, Yammer or Slack). With frequent news updates, sign-posting key information by using headings such as ‘what’s new’ and ‘at a glance’ can help employees stay on top of what they need to know.

While it is easy to get caught up in the drafting and re-drafting of content, a clear structure on how you will communicate in these times can save a lot of headaches and give senior leaders reassurance that you have a plan. In addition to the usual suspects in a high level communications strategy (key themes, messages, audiences), I’ve often found it helpful to clearly articulate the content approval process and timeframes to reduce the number of unnecessary fingers in any given pie. Clearly identifying the feedback loops and streamlining data reporting means that these tasks can be allocated to someone to manage, and you can adapt your approach based on up to date information.

Employee connectivity

So what is employee connectivity? It is the idea of connecting employees across the organisation based on their interests and projects and encouraging collaboration for problem solving. This is the cross-silo communication that we talk about, both formal and informal.  Think of the social club, LGBTI+, toastmasters or knitting group, all of which have an online space since the rise of Enterprise Social Networks. We also need to include the business-related groups such as a recruitment taskforce committee or integrity supervisory group that senior executives belong to.

The time of old-school two way communication is long gone, and the command and control approach remains valid to a very limited extent. Internal communications professionals now play the role of strategic advisers (not newsletter editors) and this means facilitating connectivity and knowing how to help others take ownership, while maintaining the clear corporate communication thread of authority. This is a challenge that we’ve seen in the public space where well intentioned people have shared misinformation, causing confusion. Staff need to be able to identify authoritative, company-approved content amidst the information they see.

Employee communication platforms have proven their worth in delivering immediate news to staff on their devices (when remote access or email fails) and opening up the discussion across the company.

Your platform and collaboration space is also one of your biggest listening devices, direct from the source, when it comes to what your staff are really thinking and what concerns them the most. If you are lucky enough to already have a good platform measurement product in place, you’ll be able to track themes and influencers to keep a finger on the pulse of your organisation. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time to do a full scale employee ‘pulse survey’ and relying on anecdotal feedback just isn’t good enough anymore.

Connect on these platforms and encourage your leaders to do so, but let staff take ownership and adapt their usage so it fulfils their needs. Some organisations have already designated Community Managers – staff members who are responsible for making sure conversations are in the right group and the group administrators (staff within the organisation) are trained and equipped to self-manage their groups.

Employee platforms are also great for quickly crowd sourcing solutions and helping employees come up with their own answers about how their team should stay connected during COVID-19 and beyond. It is about working out how to get the answer rather than having the answer.

“It is about working out how to get the answer rather than having the answer.”

Although I love using humour in internal communications, this is a time when I’d be more cautious than ever in using it in corporate communications – in the rapid dissemination of information, the risk is too high. On the flip side, for employee generated content it is great for boosting connectivity, provided staff have a clear code of conduct and good social media guidelines to operate within.

Work with an eye on the future

A recent global Gartner HR survey shows 88 per cent of organisations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to coronavirus. It won’t be long until the home office laptop is no longer perched on the couch but has its own desk and full audio set up with monitors. The way people work has already changed and in the future employers will need to consider how to keep people plugged into the net and engaged when they are not physically sitting in teams in an office (again, the importance of cross-organisational connectivity).

More than ever, it is important that your employees connect with each other and with their manager for support through a range of channels such as video conferencing, collaborative workspaces and messaging tools such as Jabber. Direct support of managers is key – yes, team engagement tips can be helpful, but manager FAQs alone are not enough. This is where your human resources and your learning and development teams can come into play, upskilling managers and staff in best practice for working from home and hot topics such as employee mental health.

The digital employee experience, which goes beyond intranets, needs to significantly improve in most companies – microsites, integration, remote access and tailored messaging are opportunities we can work on, to name a few. Now is the time to consider what your next technology quick win should be.

As communicators we also have an ethical responsibility. Job losses are already happening. Don’t let your internal communication become a PR disaster. Already there are so many examples of unnecessary headaches, from glib videos by a CEO telling employees to get a job in a supermarket, to employees being told to ‘vacate their accommodation immediately’ via snail mail.

In this time of change we and our people will be building new habits. If you keep one eye on the future and be clear where you want to go with employee culture and engagement, you’ll be on the front foot. Habits are hard to break. Continue to shape and adapt your company culture as you move towards the new reality, embedding positive habits you want to see and this will come through in the language and framing you use in your communication with your people.

One thing that is for certain – now is the time for the skilled leaders to shine, employees to connect and communicators to work smart.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik ? on Unsplash

About the author

Monique Zytnik is a senior communications and marketing professional with over 15 years of experience in internal and external relations, including global media relations, brand management and digital communications. She has worked nationally and internationally, in government, corporate, not-for-profit, member-based and start-up sectors, for organisations as diverse as Special Broadcasting Services Australia, ANZ Bank, adjust.com and the Australian Taxation Office.

Business as unusual: CSR, sustainability and coronavirus

Even now, amidst so much uncertainty over the immediate future, people are debating the new solutions that will emerge from this crisis – for global health, but also for the way we work and how we treat the planet. How will the COVID-19 crisis shape employee activism and CSR communications in the near future? What potential consequences could the crisis have for how we tackle the climate crisis? We asked strategic policy advisor and sustainability communications expert Jo Sullivan to explain why governments, businesses and society should be reflecting deeply about the lessons that need to be learnt in order to achieve a sustainable future.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

The last few years has seen a rise in employee activism around climate change, including a walkout by the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice in September 2019, which contributed to Jeff Bezos’ pledge to make Amazon a carbon-neutral company by 2040. How will the COVID-19 crisis impact employee activism going forward?

Jo Sullivan: It’s already becoming hard to remember the world before the crisis. Social distancing starts to feel like social isolation. Some of us have packed days with one online meeting after another. Others are fearful for the future as workplaces face uncertainty, economic loss and massive change. Already shifting from busy office to solitary confinement is a strain for many.

Social media sharing and local community activism have become our go-to tools to face the crisis. Awareness of just how fast norms can change when society listens to the science is a lesson for us all. Employees will expect their own leaders to act just as fast when it comes to other crises affecting humanity, notably the climate emergency and biodiversity extinction.

Adjusting to the current health crisis requires new ways of communication within teams, rapid learning, innovating and taking risks to get the job done, all while managing children, pets and a deep underlying fear for the future. Employees trust their employers most to do the right thing, according to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, and now they rely on their employers for information, leadership and emotional support. This trust will be matched with fierce loyalty. Employees will be more likely to jump on board corporate activism campaigns in the future.

As the crisis unfolds, employees are learning valuable lessons on what really matters. Spending time alone means time for reflection, and also time for personal activism; whether that’s to lend their voice to support emergency workers at the frontline of the crisis, or to reconsider the fast pace with which they used to live their lives before the crisis, when, according to the 2018 Gallup US workplace survey, over two thirds of employees felt disengaged from their employers. After the crisis is over, employees will expect employers to support new levels of activism, a consequence of more awareness and autonomy.

In the current crisis, the focus is on how companies “behave” socially – towards their employees above all, but also in regards to their supply chains, for example. Is this crisis also an opportunity for heightened CSR communications?

Jo Sullivan: The problem with crises is that they affect every aspect of life. Our work life and home life are now blended, bringing compassion and care to the forefront of business interaction. Yet supply chains that are complex, multi-layered and global are under pressure as borders are rebuilt and freight is slowed, creating anxiety and economic cost. Localisation is the golden goose. The empty shelves in the supermarkets have been matched by a boom in farmers’ markets and farm-direct sales.

What does this mean for companies as they step up their communication during the crisis?

  1. Become overt fans of farmers. Identify and support local market producers wherever possible, whether that’s for locally grown crops, produce or added value suppliers. Localisation is back in fashion.
  2. Communicate with care. Marketing and CSR campaigns can be pushy and invasive at the best of times but now to see ads promoting new product ranges or corporate reputation gimmicks are wholly inappropriate. Community care initiatives are needed right now.
  3. Reflect on a new strategy. When the crisis passes, companies should be ready to share new CSR strategies fit for the new era of renaissance and rebuilding. The post COVID-19 economy will put sustainability and community more centre stage.

We’re facing an immediate global health crisis; at the same time, we’re in the middle of a longer-term climate and environmental crisis. What can climate change communicators take from the response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Jo Sullivan: Already disappointed by the failure of the COP 25 climate talks in Madrid in 2019, climate communicators now expect the COP 26 to be postponed. This will give false hope to those opposing a carbon neutral future. The economic crisis following the COVID-19 crisis will require massive investment. The question is: will society choose a climate friendly future, built around a circular economy, clean technologies and respect for the natural world, or will there be pushback for the old ways? I am optimistic that out of this crisis will be a better world.

  1. Birdsong and bumble bees. Many of us are now enjoying clear skies and clean air, birdsong and bees, often for the first time. Local suppliers are stepping up to serve their communities. If post-crisis society remains local and environmentally minded, we can expect more widespread climate engagement.
  2. Conditions are ripe for systemic transformation. Reflecting now on new strategies fit for the post-COVID-19 world and driving them internally should be a priority for climate communicators, so they are prepared to rebuild in the new paradigm.
  3. Keep the pressure on. Given the radical changes we have all made to our daily lives in face of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a realisation among policy makers that bold policy steps are possible against other crises. In December, the EU Green Deal proposed a climate target of 55% CO2 reduction by 2050. Now the expectation is for a target of 55% by 2030. Twenty years sooner than pre-crisis. In the post crisis world, bold action will be expected and accepted.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has been dramatic and unprecedented because the virus affects everyone in society, rich or poor, wherever they live in the world. The response to the climate crisis has in contrast been slow and fragmented. Governments have resisted bold action and instead have been for the most part held back by a ‘business as usual’ mindset. As long as the lockdown continues, we will see more new innovative patterns of business as unusual. This is a time for reflection. It will become a time of renaissance and renewal.

 

About Jo Sullivan

Jo Sullivan is a senior sustainability communication advisor to corporate, NGO and EU institution clients. She founded Conscience Consulting in 2000 and co-founded the Transition500 Alliance in 2014, a global network of sustainability communication consultancies with offices around the world. In 2005, Jo developed the 20-20-20 by 2020 campaign on climate targets for Friends of the Earth Europe and coordinated a 27 EU country programme of advocacy, media and public mobilisation, resulting in a mass protest on Place Schuman, Brussels outside the EU Summit and huge celebration when heads of state agreed the 20-20-20 climate targets.

The first chapter of a global pandemic

 The Asia-Pacific view of COVID-19 Comms

To track the different phases of communications strategy throughout the coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong-based corporate affairs, communications and investor relations search firm Andrews Partnership has held a series of roundtables with communications practitioners from 30 different Asia Pacific organisations. In their most recent meeting, they discussed the latest phase in their current crisis comms strategies – marked by a shift towards business-management issues and preparations for the future.

By Katrina Andrews / Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

The comms journey so far 
We have seen notable shifts in emphasis over the last six weeks of roundtables:

  • Phase 1 (Late January): Our first meeting with the group, at the apex of the crisis, was typified by tireless activity to establish message and channel control. The group was unanimous about the critical success factors at this juncture: implementing a “single source of truth” internally, then working daily to judge the right balance between giving employees too much information and not enough.
  • Phase 2 (Mid-February): In our second meeting, we noted that most companies had established a regular comms process, and were now focusing on fine-tuning — how to involve global teams more; how to move beyond supportive words to staff-positive action (e.g., delivering personal welfare packs to employees’ homes). Isolation policies had also largely hardened, with most companies now enforcing (or strongly encouraging) home-working in affected regions.
  • Phase 3 (Early March): With procedures matured, in the latest session we have noticed a shift in focus again – away from the constant employee-risk management of the early weeks, and towards business-management issues (e.g., client relations, supply chain disruption). There is also a new, notable emphasis on preparing the future – on CSR and outreach in affected regions; and on laying the ground for the day, hopefully soon, when normal office life will be resumed.

New developments in Phase 3

  • Office working slowly becoming available: We heard that several companies are now accommodating some employees’ returning to the office when they feel comfortable, or are preparing to offer such a provision in the next few weeks.
    • Employee sensitivity first: These companies frequently specified that their central focus in this move would be to maintain sensitivity to workforce concerns, with teams and employees allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to take up the offer. To doubly ensure safety, one company is asking teams to pitch their office-working proposal to the company’s global steering committee for COVID-19, to ensure objective rigour around the workplan and provisions.

      “What matters is the way any individual employee feels, and whether or not they themselves personally feel safe to return to the office. We want this return to the office to be very much bottom-up led. It can’t be top down. ” Head of Comms, Technology

    • Creating the space for employees to return: The two standard frameworks for re-implementing office work are workforce segmentation and a graduated return. For example, one company, which in January was forced to rapidly move its Shanghai service-centre operations overseas to allow Chinese staff to self-isolate, is now offering precisely 50% of these employees the chance to return – on the basis that a half-full office will give each employee enough physical space to remain safe from infection. Other companies are following the same procedure, splitting the workforce into nominated “red” and “blue” teams, or “A” and “B” teams.
    • Not forgetting the commute: A constant theme through the crisis is the way it has compelled firms to meet their duty of care to employees outside the office (e.g., sending care packages to people’s homes). One specific instance of this, when considering the return to office working, is the daily commute. At least one company, therefore, is now paying for taxis for those those staff who want to return, to allow them to avoid public transport.
    • Caveat – things may yet change again: This “return to work” policy was not universal across companies in the region. And, of those beginning to roll it out, all stated that they were doing so slowly and with constant reviews, conscious that it might have to be quickly reversed in the event of another outbreak.
  • One eye on Europe: The growing outbreaks of COVID-19 in Europe and the US were frequently cited in this week’s roundtable, and are clearly now a central consideration for many in the region.
    • Asia-Pacific delivering new kinds of value: This shift brings positives – there is now a common feeling that Asia Pacific teams will soon be delivering new value to their organisations, having already created countless resources, FAQs, articles, policies and crisis plans, enabling comms colleagues overseas to respond to outbreaks from a position of strength.

      “I think the playbook from Asia has been quite useful for our colleagues in Europe – because they’re currently at the stage we were at pre-Chinese New Year. So it’s been helpful for them to not only see where you can end up but also where we started, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Head of Comms, Financial Services

    • The centre of control is shifting: However, with this also came a sense (especially for those in companies headquartered in Europe/US) that control over global crisis communications was now shifting out of Asia Pacific and back towards HQ.

      “With the European spread, I see our centre of crisis comms pivoting back to Global HQ now and away from APAC, with all regions continuing to supplement this with local comms based on local government guidelines.” Head of Comms, Professional Services

Current standard policies and procedures

  • Travel: All companies in our group continue to have restrictions on travel – either outright embargos, or bans on all-but-essential trips.
  • Internal events: Large company events have largely been cancelled or postponed. Currently, most have taken action on events until at least 1 April, but some have gone as far as pushing August conferences back to October. All are in a process of constant review on all upcoming events.
  • Client events: Major client conferences have mostly also been postponed, cancelled, or moved to virtual environments.
  • Supply chain meetings: One major global clothing retailer spoke of the challenges of the ‘milestone’ meetings in the cycle of product development, requiring large groups, internal and external, to come together to look at samples, product lines, etc. The company has decided that, through April, those will now all be done virtually.
  • Policies: An example of one events/meeting policy at a professional services firm:
    • Any internal meeting involving 25 or more people from different teams or locations must be moved to a virtual environment.
    • For external events, the cut-off is 100 people. Events involving that number, occurring until the end of March, are under review and subject to cancellation or deferment (if the company is hosting the event), or cancellation of attendance (if the company is only involved in a speaker or delegate role). Various communications have been pre-prepared for these sudden cancellations.
  • Week to week cycles of review: During the peak of the crisis in Jan/Feb, companies talked about daily (or even hourly) monitoring of COVID-19 policies and procedures. We now hear most commonly of these being reviewed on a week-to-week basis in well-established forums.

 

External message management
COVID-19 has created countless external communications demands on practitioners too.

  • Regulators: The regulatory needs around coronovirus have often been onerous – with different jurisdictions requiring different regulatory responses at different stages. One company said that its comms team has had to step up and play an active role in this process during COVID-19, working closely with crisis-management teams and country management to keep regulatory communications consistent with all other messaging.
  • External partners/vendors: We have heard repeatedly of the procedural, financial and legal-liability headaches for those businesses that routinely deal B2B with vendors, suppliers or clients. “A large part of our comms work,” says one retailer, “has been the thousands of external vendors and factories with questions about our business – what our policies are; and what we’re mandating in terms of how we expect to work with them.” The company’s solution has been layered messaging – major comms from head office to the CEOs of external partners; location-specific messaging to external leaders in local sites; and very clear guidance for all their own employees about how to talk to external partners. Everything is translated into multiple languages, to ensure message consistency. “We’ve had a very positive response from our partners, mostly because we’re connecting with them on a different level – not just about business but about the safety of their own workforces as well.”

    “We’re starting to see media enquiries not just from our industry but from HR titles – about what we’ve done and what advice we can offer – and from partner sectors (e.g., aviation, because we do a lot of work in air cargo). I think it’s quite important to take advantage of that — yes in terms of branding, but more in terms of sharing best practice in a time of crisis.” Head of Comms, Technology

  • Media relations: For many companies, the potential media footprint during this period is higher than during normal times. That brings benefits but also risks, they say, especially in highly regulated businesses, and with tensions high and misinformation plentiful. One company says it has now put in a couple of additional layers of approval for any content that goes out to the media, to double-check that the company isn’t inadvertently walking into a reputational hazard.

Channels

  • Email continues to dominate: Although COVID-19 has forced companies to test their virtual environments and other online channels to the limit, email continues to predominate as the core ‘single source of truth’ for most organisations.
  • The return of recorded video: With the limitations of isolation and quarantining, recorded video messages from executives seem to have made something of a fashion comeback, mentioned by several as a way of continuing to establish a sense of the face-to-face through the crisis. One company reports that a recent video on the crisis from its CEO had the highest view-count of any media across the organisation.
  • Rumour mill: One company has introduced a very popular “COVID-19 Rumour Busters” section to its intranet. When deluged during the Q&A section of its quarterly town hall recently – with more questions than could be answered live – the comms team siphoned many of the questions into the Rumour Busters site to answer them, since so many fell into the category of unsubstantiated rumours or potentially dangerous solutions.

    “Everybody looks at things locally, which means that employees are always waiting to see what local management is saying and doing before they react. So it has made more sense for us to start seeing things much more from that grassroots point of view, feeding information to local leaders as a way of driving the right behaviours.” Head of Comms, Transport & Logistics

  • Lessons in morale: Nothing in recent years has tested comms teams’ IT channels quite like COVID-19 and its sudden swathes of remote working. Yet sometimes the traditional channels are what have come to the fore most. With role modelling such a critical factor in employees’ willingness to flex-work or self-isolate, and trust so central to morale during a health scare, one practitioner noted that his biggest learning has been how little influence central communications has on engagement compared to the influence exerted by local leaders – the people employees trust the most and whose behaviour they are most likely to follow. As a result, this company is now planning to do much more COVID-19 communication through line management channels in the coming weeks than it has at any point to date.

About the author

The first recruitment professional ever-listed in PRWeek’s global Power Book 500, Katrina Andrews is the founder of Andrews Partnership, Asia’s leading corporate affairs, communications and investor relations specialist executive search firm. Based in Hong Kong, Katrina previously led the Asia-Pacific operations of a boutique communications recruitment firm as well as for Melcrum, a global specialist in internal communications research.

Coronavirus and Internal Communications

Beyond COVID 19: Is it too early to think beyond the current crisis?

For internal communicators around the world, it is already clear that the COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) epidemic is driving a fundamental shift toward remote working, and therefore toward organizations that are increasingly dependent on virtual as opposed to physical infrastructure. More to the point, the opportunity is emerging for internal communication not only to be seen as a function providing virtual infrastructure but as the key to its effective and value-additive use. But that’s an opportunity that will require initiative and strategic thought to take advantage of, beyond the fire-fighting embedded in a typical major crisis.

The coronavirus crisis is unlikely to cause a revolution for organizations. But in enabling the idea that organizations making use of a virtual infrastructure need to see it as a strategic as well as a technical asset, this crisis can catalyze a much needed evolution.

Before 2020, hesitation about investing in internal communication and the tools that allow it to work was common, be it for organization-wide communication or for more operational team and individual communication tasks. Still, the belief persisted that things could be best done face to face by line managers, and a fair sense that employees would make do with makeshift tools and platforms even as they came to rely on commercial-grade tools like LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram in their private lives. And even among organizations that did invest in modern communication platforms, a lack of awareness and agility in using them to actively support business objectives was not unusual.

The shift toward remote working during the coronavirus crisis is exposing a stark gap between enterprises that offer easy connectivity along with accessible and interactive corporate messaging, and those who insist on “doing things the old fashioned way” and hesitate to invest in technology or make cultural adjustments. Combining easier remote working with more accessible corporate messaging is also seen as helping to keep people productive and focused on current priorities

The added value of new communication tools and added organizational respect during a time of crisis will be helpful to internal communication. However, it is imperative that we as communicators use this crisis, to the extent we can, to build the business case for the right technology and for the role of internal communication as a whole. That means following the numbers and coming up with measures and metrics that reflect the contribution internal comms is making from commercial, operational and organizational perspectives.

To be fair, elements of this crisis challenge the positioning of IC as a strategic value driver. IC’s newfound importance is seen as infrastructural. If things become more difficult from a health perspective for some months, IC activities will intensify in focus on crisis management and public health issues rather than more strategic business topics. But if a business case is documented, IC professionals will be well positioned to emerge from the crisis with the tools they need and with the capability to make a strategic difference to the recovery.

As for companies that hesitated, once they recognize the high value and comparatively minor costs of operating a competitive IC function, embracing modern IC tools and professional communication involvement will likely happen rapidly.

The main thing: IC professionals need to keep an eye out both for opportunities to make a difference during and after this crisis, and to demonstrate their value at this particularly crucial time.  At the risk of being crass, I will state the matter frankly: this is not the time to let a crisis go to waste.

 

Mike Klein is Netherlands-based and is Principal at Changing The Terms (www.changingtheterms.com). He is past chair of IABC EMENA and one of the most active bloggers and speakers on the global internal communication scene. He will lead a panel on Changing the Shape of Internal Communications at the Global Communication Summit: see the programme for more details.

Image: “518432882” by cambodia4kidsorg is licensed under CC BY 2.0