When did the way we communicate change?

Several months ago, when companies were thrust into lockdown at relatively short notice there was just enough time to get equipment sorted. Then the next important challenge to tackle was to ensure that everyone had access to some form of central data base, once these considerations had been taken into account, everyone concentrated on “getting the job done”. As no one knew how long this would continue for, there did not seem to be any need to start (re)defining communication strategies. As a result, many companies experienced the rise of usage of a multitude of communication channels both internally and externally. At internal level, staff resorted to methods they already knew, for example by creating WhatsApp groups, Slack channels or even in some cases Facebook groups. They needed to find a quick, efficient way of keeping in touch with colleagues. At an external level, some companies were sufficiently agile to be able to adapt to virtual methods, quickly setting up webinars to stay in touch with their client base and publishing online newsletters to share expertise and maintain interest in their products and services. Others were not able to follow suit, as their staff or internal structures were quite simply not able to adapt so quickly – and anyway “it would only be temporary…. soon everything will be back to normal”…. Several months later, most of us are still not able to attribute a clear definition to what is “normal”, but we have all come to appreciate that it definitely is not the same as it used to be. There is much talk about the “new normal” and this needs to be taken into account with respect to communication, just as is the case for personnel questions and company strategy.

Back to work, but not business as normal

As staff return from holiday and prepare for the challenges of the so-called “rentrée”, it is the right moment to assess how to optimize communication at all levels. With respect to internal communication, the obvious question to ask is: what is the point of this communication? Is to share long-term information, to pass on details of immediate interest or to keep in touch with other colleagues, or are there other reasons which need to be taken into account? It is imperative to carry out an analysis of what is communicated why and how, before deciding which channels should be used in future. In doing so, it is very important to consult staff to find out their opinion, what have they experienced so far, above all what would they change if they were able to decide. Feedback concerning the pre-Covid phase may also be relevant, perhaps communication was already inadequate or inappropriate and in need of re-appraisal, so this situation would provide the ideal opportunity to make a new start and base a new approach on the lessons learned. As with any form of communication, the aspect of sense making should not be underestimated, especially in this continued context of uncertainty and instability.

Welcome digital skills

Much of course also depends on whether the company has been able to define a clear working model for the next weeks and months. The question of how much real contact there will be between staff is extremely relevant in terms of information transfer: should more emphasis be laid on virtual or more conventional channels or would a hybrid model be more appropriate? At all levels, most staff have recently acquired new digital and virtual skills with all the advantages and disadvantages they bring, these should be integrated into the overall concept; the future will be increasingly digital, so it would be a shame to waste this potential. A healthy mixture of virtual and physical meetings will save travelling time for some and generally ensure that meeting agendas are well defined and coordinated on the basis of which medium is best suited to achieve the desired outcome. Zoom and Slack are just two examples of such tried and trusted tools, they can be used to share information via shared screens, Miro boards, etc., but make sure that everyone uses the video option to keep them involved in the meeting and to create a feeling of personal contact. Zoom meetings can be recorded if necessary, polls and break out rooms can be used to discuss options, even the chat function can be used as part of the meeting exchange and subsequently saved. It is definitely a good alternative to physical meetings and can be adapted to formal and less formal requirements. Staff will inevitably have preferences for specific types of meeting, but remember the need to choose the type of meeting on the basis of what should be achieved, whilst of course taking all necessary precautions to abide by current restrictions.

Knowledge is as valuable as gold dust

The question of knowledge sharing and accessing is primordial; once a clear system has been defined for safe guarding information, everyone will need to be encouraged to use the system and it will initially probably be necessary to check that everything is stored in the right folders, as otherwise colleagues will have difficulty finding it! Similarly access rights will have to be clearly defined, as well as what “knowledge” actually means: what exactly must be saved? Cupboards of files will soon be a thing of the past replaced by digitalized folders in cloud storage. Access to this information may be attributed via an Intranet link or direct user access provided all employees have the technical means to do so. Again, the specification will vary depending on each corporate context and level of digital maturity.

More informal exchanges can be organized via chat channels with dedicated groups for specific topics, but email is probably more appropriate for any exchanges which need to remain traceable. Perhaps as a rule of thumb: if you would have previously passed on an information in the coffee corner, then this can also be passed on using a message channel, but if not then choose a more permanent channel. Do not underestimate the overall need for a sense of belonging; many studies have highlighted this basic human need. The HBR noted in December 2019[1], well before the trials of lockdown, “social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA”. Indeed, a Betterup study[2] concluded that this is very closely linked to a need to identify with an employer and feel a sense in what we are doing. All of which will increase productivity and reduce turnover; both of which are good news for employers!

The importance of staying in touch

Encourage your staff to be active on internal networks especially if they are still working remotely, promote the sharing of information gathered from external sources such as webinars and online conferences, as this is a great way to connect and share and simultaneously reminds colleagues that they are still “there”. Perhaps your company already has an Intranet, the ideal platform for such knowledge sharing, which could also be expanded to include less formal content or even amusing videos staff have filmed at home. If you are able to create a sense of community among the users, then it will probably self-regulate and you will not have to worry about inappropriate content being uploaded. Many staff members will be willing to share their experience using online media with their colleagues, they could even create a community of practice to share ideas and encourage colleagues to venture into new media and methods.

So yes, the way we communicate has probably changed, but the aim of it has not: companies need to reach out and keep in touch both internally and externally. In this period of uncertainty, staff need reassurance and clarity; there is little risk of “over” communicating! The choice of channel must be appropriate to the field of activity, once this has been defined, you can set yourself attainable objectives, such as an increase in visitors to the Intranet, a rise in information sharing or increased interest in digital technology.  Remember visual content is also a great way of attracting attention and ensuring reader retention. This is the moment to test new methods internally, for example video messages rather than complicated mails or reports, online training sessions to ensure that new techniques are still acquired, scribing as a new form of meeting report. Once these new skills have been tried, tested and perfected internally, you will be able to use them to add new dimensions to your overall communication strategy. Let yourself be guided by this observation[3]: “effective communication requires more than an exchange of information. When done right, communication fosters understanding, strengthens relationships, improves teamwork and builds trust”.

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[1] HBR 16.12.2019 The value of belonging at work Evan W. Carr, Andrew Reece, Gabrielle Rosen Kellermann & Alexi Robichaux

[2] BetterUp The value of belonging at work: the business case for investing in workplace inclusion

[3] Liz Papadopoulos March 2014