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.