Where do we go next?

As we return to work it will not be the hand sanitisers, the one-way corridors and the closed-off seating that will be troubling staff; it will be whether their box in the company organogram is about to have a red cross taped over it.


Marc Wright, simplycommunicate founder & consultant

Marc started his career in television. He wrote and produced the drama 20 Steps to Better Business for the BBC, and his passion for the way organisations work led him to run a series of agencies including Crown and MCA which was sold to WPP in 2001. He is author of the Gower Handbook of Internal Communications and is a former President of IABC EMENA. He founded simplycommunicate in 2005.

It’s gone pretty well: phase one of internal communication in large organisations in response to the pandemic. But the next stage is going to be much harder as IC and leadership make a common mistake that will have devasting effects on morale, engagement and productivity in the latter part of this year.

But first let’s celebrate what IC has done right:

  • IC has stepped up the task and become a key player in keeping staff informed during the start of lockdown – working on a daily basis with HR Directors.
  • CEOs have shown that they care about staff welfare. Communications to staff have been put before external comms, PR and even advertising for the first time in many large organisations.
  • IC has used digital not just to broadcast key information; many are using social channels to gauge the mood, concerns and well-being of staff, whether working in the field, at home or on furlough.

But what has been achieved in this first phase is unfortunately the easy part. During an emergency of the scale of Covid-19, organisations pull together to fight a common cause. Innovation has accelerated at a pace faster than any of us digital evangelists expected. Even productivity has gone up as we united around a common purpose of protecting our livelihoods.

So what’s the problem?

Over the summer the senior teams of large organisations have foregone their villas and yachts and have spent the months on Zoom calls with McKinsey and Deloitte hammering out a recovery strategy to survive in a world beset by Covid. They have had a terrible time counting up the cost of the pandemic on markets, turnover, profits, bonuses and share options.

Each organisation will have a different new strategy to survive and thrive. But there will be a couple of common themes: fewer offices and fewer employees.

Many of us in the IC community have done the dress rehearsal for these kind of changes with the credit crunch of 2008-10. The comms task to keep companies afloat had to mitigate two years of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD).  Yet the FUD factor this time around is going to be deeper, harder, and longer as we enter the second wave of the pandemic in Europe before we even start to consider the self-inflicted economic sanctions of Brexit in the UK.

Change is in the air. And that change will mean restructuring on a massive scale – not just for the builders of cars and the hunters of fish, but for bankers, retailers, manufacturers, marketeers and advertisers.

Dysfunctional communications 

We are all familiar with the Kubler Ross change curve and how morale plummets before it improves. As we return to work it will not be the hand sanitisers, the one-way corridors and the closed-off seating that will be troubling staff; it will be whether their box in the company organogram is about to have a red cross taped over it.

By the autumn the C-Suite will have started to come through the worst part of their own personal change curves; new targets, new bonus schemes (based on efficiencies) and their positions confirmed in the new structure devised by brilliant, but ruthless management consultants. As an IC practitioner don’t count on being informed of developments during this stage as your boss is probably too busy building their own lifeboat.

As we return to work it will not be the hand sanitisers, the one-way corridors and the closed-off seating that will be troubling staff; it will be whether their box in the company organogram is about to have a red cross taped over it.

The next months will be focussed on middle management, to get them bought into the new deal so they will shoulder the responsibilities for making it happen. This is the time that IC is given a partial version of the plan (and discover by accident that 25% of your own staff are about to be sacrificed to it).

Our task this autumn will be to inform and engage the 80% of staff around the new strategy, while management translates the consultancy-speak into slimmer teams and increased workloads.

And this is when organisational communication goes bad.

Because senior staff are heading up the positive stage of the change curve they will use language that reflects their acceptance and embracing of a new tomorrow. Like Boris Johnson talking about the sunny uplands of Brexit, oven-ready deals, and a prosperous future, your leaders (on whom you depend for messaging) will use such terms as:

  • Winning
  • Bright prospects
  • The New Normal
  • Fit for the Future

Yet the majority of staff you will be engaging with will be coming off furlough or returning to their offices with trepidation and concerns. They will hear:

  • Job-cutting
  • Reduced prospects for wage increases
  • Deferred promotions
  • Nostalgia for the past

Unless we engage with colleagues at the point where they are on the change curve they just will not hear us.

Much has been learnt about the power of confirmational bias in communications: the way that we seek out people who agree with us on Twitter and Facebook rather than engage with new and distasteful ideas. The same behaviour applies to internal communications. In order to engage anyone with the ‘new normal” whatever that is, we need to match where they are, demonstrate empathy, make the logical case, but employ the emotional drivers before we try and sell them the future.

Otherwise, we will lose the alignment we won in phase one of the pandemic and see morale, productivity, profits, and well-being caught for months in the painful churn at the bottom of the change curve.

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