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Now What? Communicating in the Weird, New Organizational Normal

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Short weeks ago, most communication teams were busy working on their Q1 town halls, investor road shows and product launches.

These days, as COVID-19 roars across the globe, most of us aren’t getting a lot of sleep. Days are spent on conference calls, best practice webinars and calling in every favor possible from designers, web programmers, translators, freelance writers and anyone else who can help us get ahead of this thing.

In most places, non-essential workers are home, including more than 100,000 from Google alone. The lucky ones have pay but all are marinating in a non-stop deluge of headlines, government announcements and social media content, much of which is creating an additional challenge of rampant misinformation.

While consumers and regulators hold their breath, employers are looking for ways to maintain employee engagement, manage rising anxiety and keep things ticking along for weeks or months. Welcome to the weird, new normal. Communication professionals need strategies and tools for building trust, creating structure and protecting brands, while keeping up with a very fluid situation.

Start with trust

Internal and external stakeholders are looking for authoritative information. An Edelman survey found that 63% of employees trust their employer more than they trust government or news sources for information about COVID-19. This is a great opportunity to leverage senior leadership teams.

Credit: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Coronavirus Special Report

Armed with information from credible sources, such as the World Health Organization and local health authorities, executives can work to build trust several ways.

First, they need to assure employees, customers and other stakeholders that the organization is strong and working through a comprehensive response plan. McKinsey calls this “bounded optimism,” and from the inside it may not look as organized as all that, but stakeholders need to feel connected to a process that will help them navigate through uncertainty.

Another key role for executives is recognizing the extraordinary effort and resources that are being marshaled to deal with COVID-19. From frontline employees to loyal customers to entire industries retooling to save lives, there is no shortage of people to recognize. Recognition does more than raise spirits; it demonstrates generosity, which builds trust.

Executives also need to make sure they are providing regular updates. When it comes to understanding organizational strategies, nearly three-quarters (73%) of employees want to hear organizational messages directly from the CEO or other senior leaders.

But it’s not enough to load up your executives with facts and stats and turn them loose on a video conference. We also need to work with them to help frame the information. With so much competition from questionable information sources, it’s important that leaders are able to pull accurate information together into a narrative that gives it context and shared meaning across stakeholder groups. Storytelling is a great tool to help executives frame complex information.

The most important role for executives is listening. In times of crisis, many organizations unleash a barrage of one-way messages outlining new ways of doing business. While there is an obvious need to provide direction, MITSloan finds that trust can only be built when employees and customers feel heard through dialogue and action.

Key tools for building trust include internal resources such as intranets, blogs and video, along with customer-facing platforms such as websites and social media channels. What matters is finding a way for stakeholders to be heard and answered. That can be an open forum, such as a Slack channel or an email account (remember to check it several times a day). And don’t dismiss good, old-fashioned email. Almost half of employees prefer their COVID-19 updates by email.

Create structure

Whether your employees are working from home, on the front lines or are on lay-off, absolutely nothing is normal. Routines are gone, co-workers are absent, times are lonely.

In this weird, new normal, the ways we enact and measure engagement are going to be radically different, but it will be no less important. Indeed, keeping employees connected with the purpose and meaning of their work is essential for emotional resilience and mental wellness.

Our secret weapon here is helping frontline managers create structure and communicate the personal information employees crave. While employees look to the C-suite for organizational information, the same study shows they overwhelmingly rely on their immediate supervisor when it comes to understanding the personal implications of change.

One way frontline managers can create structure and support engagement is to build new rituals or transpose existing workplace rituals into the new environment. They can celebrate birthdays by email, do a virtual pizza party on WebEx, set up a WhatsApp group or Slack channel where employees can swap stories and share fun content.

A key ritual should be a daily update. According to Edelman, 63% of employees want employer updates at least daily, and 20% want them more frequently than that. The ritual of a daily check-in creates additional structure, which can reduce anxiety and build shared identity. Plus, it’s easy to do with a simple conference call.

Remember, your frontline managers need support of their own. Consider setting up a place on your intranet with resources to help them lead effectively through this situation. The University of Alberta, for example, has a website dedicated to helping managers and supervisors access news and information.

Protect the brand

Protecting our customer brand and employer brand is something that’s easy to overlook in the pandemonium of a crisis. A few simple things can help protect and strengthen your brand, without appearing to take advantage of the situation.

A great place to start is by telling stories. Invite your leaders and employees to share on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook how the organization is coming together to support staff, customers and communities.

For example, you can demonstrate how you are working to keep employees safe or how the company is supporting them during work interruptions. Starbucks has set up a web page showcasing its COVID-19 response for employees and the community.

If they are authentic and generous, all of these stories will gently build your brand through the course of the crisis.

As the pandemic unfolds in ways nobody predicted, communicators have an opportunity to invest in trust, engagement and branding to keep us productive during the slow times and ready to bounce back when COVID-19 moves along.

Elizabeth Williams

Elizabeth Williams, ABC, FRSA is a founding partner of the Academy of Business Communications, an employee communication training and consulting firm. For more than 20 years, she has worked with global brands including Aon, ADP, Toyota, Hilton, TELUS, Rogers Communications, 3Com, Compass Group and Bank of Montreal to help them have better conversations with employees and customers. Elizabeth is also an adjunct college professor and frequent industry speaker and guest blogger. She is a Gold Quill Award winner, proud IABC volunteer and past IABC World Conference speaker. She is quite fond of cheese.

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