How COVID-19 is forcing CEOs to rethink the importance of internal communications

A subtle but very important outcome thus far from this horrible pandemic is just how critical employee behavior, trust and engagement are not only to organizations and business but to society in general. Maintaining a level of confidence in the workforce is essential to productivity, innovation and balance. Unfortunately, for decades, the strategic mechanism designed to influence and drive operational success has been internal communications.

In the past, internal communications mainly consisted of newsletters, summer picnics and Friday casual days. It was a C-Suite level function intertwined with corporate decision-making to hold together the organization from an employer brand, culture and overall health standpoint. In today’s COVID-19 reality, CEOs are now dealing with the consequences of antiquated internal systems, irrelevant content, cumbersome models, and disengaged people.

The pandemic is leading executives to realize that companies can’t grow, prosper or even survive without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce. We are finding that internal communications is evolving to a new level, where the focus is accelerating decision making, challenging people’s knowledge, and providing information that leaders, managers and employees utilize to frame arguments, illustrate situations, make decisions and launch initiatives. Working in a virtual environment is opening up avenues of innovation, ideation and more interesting managerial techniques. However, it is also causing anxiety, fear and loneliness. In this unprecedented time, internal communications systems, methods, content, cadence, feedback, tone and frequency can make a difference.

With all the complexities of today’s society, we are faced with constant clutter and information overload. As communications professionals, we wrestle with similar complexities in our day-to-day roles. In a time when information is abundant, competitive advantage lies in our ability to affect the behaviors, attitudes and actions of our employees through relevant, authentic and contextual information and dialogue. The end result is a workforce that can make decisions quickly, accurately and consistent with the business strategy – a workforce that, on the whole, believes in the purpose, values and goals of the organization.

As organizations evolve quickly due to COVID-19, the true transformation of internal communications, from necessary function to critical organizational priority, and from a disciplined process to a philosophy, is underway. Put succinctly, organizational effectiveness is defined as an institution’s ability to operate profitably, functionally, socially, strategically, innovatively and humanely. A management model focused on improving organizational effectiveness must bring together the right mix of communications, leadership and team-building to create an openness and an exchange that is fostered by the right technologies and the right skill sets. What’s more, organizational effectiveness is a behavioral-based model, embedded in a belief that sharing the right information with the right people will result in the ability to make decisions for the organization. As communicators, we must serve as the “invisible hand,” guiding employee behavior based on organizational priorities and strategies intertwined with people’s view of reality and need for purpose.

As CEOs continue to elevate internal communications, we, as practitioners, must be able to articulate our priorities and roles to organizational leadership. This involves defining the scope of our roles and responsibilities within our organizations, and how our function will ultimately help improve organizational effectiveness.

We have observed the following as it relates to internal communications, organizational confidence, and CEO enlightenment as a result of COVID-19:

  • Although the CEO ultimately drives organizational stability and culture, internal communications must help shape and guide CEO actions and decisions so that they are clearly understood, actively engaged, properly discussed and debated.
  • Internal communications must be funded, led and measured like any other corporate function…management and communication are inextricably linked. Communication must be viewed as an important component of a company’s management model. It can no longer be viewed as a separate and distinct function.
  • Internal communications must consist of facts and empathy…this isn’t about balance. It’s about sensing how the workforce is feeling and operating at any given moment and providing the proper narrative that respects the need for information and context, prudence and sensitivity.
  • It’s a game of analysis and insight…data now pervades business including marketing and communications.From an internal perspective, understanding employee information habits, concerns, interests and perceptions is important to ensuring relevance and meaning.
  • In a virtual working environment, connectivity is the glue that bonds emotions and attitudes. From video, webcasts, conference calls and phone calls, reaching out and conversing with people trumps social and digital. Never substitute social for personal!
  • Make it “important.”Someone once said if it’s not important then it’s not worth doing. Half the battle in organizational effectiveness rests with leadership’s ability to be disciplined and committed to its goals, strategies and purpose. Adopt a philosophy for how to manage, how to communicate, and how to operate and stick with it.
  • View employees as a public constituency, not a captive audience. We are seeing some leaders still treating employees as a captive audience and, to a lesser extent, a necessary activity. The result can often be compared to viewing employees as the least common denominator − spoon feeding them information vs. engaging them in the facts and potential decisions to generate a strong dialogue, discussion and debate. Other leaders are involving employees in the facts being provided by experts, recognizing that employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and being actively involved in their communities and the world around them. The latter tend to be organizations with strategic internal communications processes operating with a workforce that is seen as a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and, ultimately, organizational success. This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication.
  • Discover versus sell. The classic mistake most management and communicators make today is the belief that they need to “sell” employees on everything – from a new benefits program to the corporate strategy. But people “smell the sell” and turn off to the very thing that is being endorsed. The right approach is to base communication on a “discover” model − one that allows people to find the answer or truth themselves. In the era of COVID-19, leaders have embraced this new type of thinking and approach. It means a provocative tone, a more authentic method of discussion and debate, and a more pragmatic view of human behavior.
  • Time to re-invest. Leaders recognize they need to reinvest in internal communications and provide their businesses with the most effective risk mitigation solution in their business model.
  • “When am I going back?” “What will it look like?” “What’s my value?”…These are the questions on employee’s minds today as they continue to search for meaning and contentment amid a new reality. Keep these questions in mind in your management and internal communications efforts consistently and respectfully and the results will be significant.

A New Frontier

A glimpse at a post-COVID-19 future reveals that strategic internal communications can and will facilitate a culture of learning, where:

  • Internal platforms are more important than external channels
  • Budgets reflect the complexity of human interaction and performance
  • Agility and flexibility become the dominant outcomes of a highly engaged workforce
  • Data and insight drives decisions
  • Content is based on fact and emotion – not rhetoric and themes

This new frontier represents a brave new world for the internal communications function, presenting us with a unique challenge and opportunity to make the quantum leap from necessary function to critical organizational priority.

COVID-19 has been a powerful and sad experience for all of us. The loss of life and impact on society continues to be unimaginable. Perhaps what we can glean from this experience is a deeper and more enlightened comprehension of the human condition and, with it, the means to prevent and overcome what may come ahead.

Stay safe and healthy!

Gary


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