While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge the world, one thing is starting to become certain: today’s workplace is changing. While working during the pandemic has been challenging and sometimes difficult to navigate, it has also highlighted the need for many ongoing improvements to make workplaces run more efficiently.
Internal communication in many ways is the lifeblood of an organization. It keeps employees informed and engaged so they can focus on achieving corporate goals. It keeps people connected. It ensures information flows in every direction, and helps to build a cohesive team and positive work environment.
Research by Gallup has shown that 65% of US employees are not engaged at work. It has also found that sales increase by 20% when employees are actively engaged, and profitability increases by 21%.
Internal communications professionals already know why strong employee communication is critical to driving change in the workplace and its overall success, but have often been frustrated in their attempts to take senior leadership along on the journey to improving it and investing in it.
However, the changes to the ways workplaces function during COVID-19 has put a spotlight on internal communication practices and highlighted any deficiencies companies may have experienced in the past, and also an urgent need to develop and implement practical solutions.
Why internal communications are important during the pandemic
Workplaces all over the world were disrupted suddenly as the virus spread. Many workers who had never worked remotely before were suddenly working from home and had to adapt to a new way of work.
Teams have needed to stay connected so they can work on tasks and projects together. Leaders who are used to being able to easily find out what their employees are working on have had to communicate better with everyone working in different places.
All this has been against a background of rapid change for employees in their personal and professional lives as they’ve had to adapt to new ways of life very quickly, including juggling home and work responsibilities simultaneously. And with that rapid change comes the need to communicate with employees quickly, not just to stay on top of their day-to-day work, but also to ensure they are taking the appropriate steps to remain safe, as well as the ability for information silos to develop or for misinformation and rumors to spread.
This type of work environment could easily become dysfunctional without putting good employee communications processes in place to keep employees connected, engaged and productive.
And many companies have responded to the challenge: a recent DeskAlerts survey of internal communications professionals found that 64% believed COVID-19 had significantly changed internal comms within their companies. A further 25% said there were no changes, and the remaining 10% were unsure.
One respondent told us: “we went to monthly company all hands meetings (vs. quarterly), more mental health webinars, more manager training, more listening sessions and more surveys/check-ins to see how they’re feeling.”
The changing face of internal communications during the pandemic
Companies have had to get on the front-foot quickly to overhaul internal communications to ensure their companies function smoothly and efficiently during the pandemic.
Internal communications best practice dictates that when introducing change in the workplace, employees should be kept informed about important information in a timely manner, communication should be clear and concise, and delivered via effective channels.
The pandemic has helped to focus on the benefits of internal communication, changing the way we communicate, what we should communicate and how often we communicate.
1. The digital transformation of internal communications.
As many companies have transferred their employees to remote work, they are finding that they can communicate more quickly and effectively via digital channels. This includes online team/sharing platforms, pop-up messages, desktop tickers, video conferencing, instant messengers, corporate social media and more.
In some companies, not everyone is working remotely. Some may have a combination of staff working from their usual workplace while everyone else is at home. And in other workplaces there is no option to work from home: staff need to remain on site in essential roles like healthcare, or traveling in roles such as transport and freight.
These employees need to be contactable at all times in the event of an emergency such as a positive COVID case in the workplace.
It’s therefore become obvious that companies need to be equipped with communication tools that can reach people quickly no matter where they are.
2. A shift from traditional internal communication methods
Printed newsletters, town hall meetings where the entries organization comes together in person and lengthy email updates may well now be a thing of the past.
These mediums of employee communication were already becoming stagnant and outdated before the pandemic, but getting organizations to ditch them for more practical solutions that get employee attention quickly and deliver the most practical information has not always been easy.
3. An increased focus on timely and factual information
The situation with the pandemic means things are constantly changing. This means that directives, policies and news being shared with employees will change often.
When something important happens, it’s critical to share accurate information about it quickly with employees. If there is a time-lag, people may continue to act in a way contrary to what the company would like. This can include endangering their own health and safety.
When there is no news from management, a void can be created that can be filled with speculation, rumor and misinformation. During the pandemic, there are many conspiracy theories, hoaxes and fake news stories that circulate on social media. It’s important for companies to address these and communicate with staff before they take a foothold.
4. A greater focus on employee wellbeing
Employee health and wellbeing has often been a focus of internal communications, but now more so than ever.
In addition to the coronavirus itself potentially affecting employees and their families, there are a range of other mental health and workplace health issues that could arise during this time. Isolated, stressed and worried employees may be struggling with their mental health and need to access programs and activities that can help them cope. During COVID employee wellness programs are especially important.
There’s also a need for remote employees to ensure they have a safe workplace so they are not injured while working from home, and therefore are needing more information about the appropriate steps to take.
Many organizations are now sending more pulse surveys than they ever have before to determine how employees are feeling and what they may need assistance with.
Leaders are starting to value staff communication more
When I began my own corporate communications career more than 20 years ago, the internal communications function in many organizations did not enjoy the same status as external communications functions such as media relations, government relations, public relations and stakeholder management. Many times it was seen as an afterthought - the final thing that comms teams ticked off a to-do list after they took care of the other functions first.
And it wasn’t just senior leaders like CEOs and executives with this attitude - quite often it would come from the senior communications managers in the company too. It reflected in part traditional hierarchies within organizations where it was decided that employees didn’t need to know everything that was going on. It was also seen by some as somehow not as ‘glamorous’ as other comms functions.
I’ve always maintained that communicating with staff should always be at the center of all communications strategies.
Poor, or no, internal comms leads to:
- lower levels of engagement
- lower morale
- cynicism; and
- resentment when employees of a company feel like they are the last to know something important about their organization.
(They do not like to hear it second-hand from the media, social media, or from someone outside the organization!)
And the bottom line is that your external communications, branding, messaging and client interactions cannot be authentic if your employees are not informed enough to do so.
While internal communications has increasingly been gaining in importance in many organizations over the past two decades, the pandemic has been a catalyst for supporting rapid change in the workplace in this space.
DeskAlerts recently surveyed internal communications professionals and asked if they feel the management of their companies value internal communications more now than they did before the pandemic. The majority of respondents - 76% - said yes.
Leaders are learning that they need to communicate better, in an authentic voice, in a timely manner and in new ways to reach their employees, and many are embracing it enthusiastically.
The legacy of COVID-19 on internal communications
Many people expect when the pandemic is over, life will go back to being the same as it was. This is unrealistic. The pandemic has shown that different ways of working are possible, and many people will be reluctant to give up the flexibility and work/life balance that they’ve experienced since the pandemic began.
Some of the long-term trends in internal communications may be:
- Continued use of digital platforms as remote work becomes the “new normal”
- Employees expecting more communications about morale and mental health via their internal comms channels as they’ve become used to it and find it beneficial
- More targeted and real-time communications. This includes internal comms teams segmenting internal audiences and personalizing the messages they sent people so that irrelevant information is minimized
- An increasing scope of internal communications professionals roles and responsibilities in their organizations - in many cases a ‘seat at the table” they didn’t enjoy before.
Has your organization’s approach to internal communications changed as a result of COVID-19? Share your experiences with us below.