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REBUILDING THE WORKPLACE AFTER COVID-19

Covid-19 has been an opportunity for organisations and employees to think about what their workplaces could and should look like. As new work environments take shape, wellbeing, transparency and culture must be core building blocks.

WORDS: ROB JONES

25th October 2020

It will be some time – years possibly – before we look back on Covid-19 in the past tense. Even though the more sobering health stats have declined – for now, at least – the implications for life and work as we know it have changed irrevocably. We will probably always wash our hands for longer than we used to, be less tolerant of those who cough indiscreetly and have a box of face masks in a kitchen cupboard or the car glove box.

Covid-19 and the resulting regulations have imposed new ways of working. Lockdown has prompted employees to reflect on how and where they work, and employers are thinking about whether future workplace cultures and processes can take the positives from the crisis to improve performance and engagement.

For every internal communicator, there were two main elements to their response to the crisis: information and guidance; and the emotional narrative – both warranting equal attention, and on a daily basis.

The speed with which official information was published kept IC teams on their toes.

Marie-Claire Rees, internal communications director at GE Healthcare, says the volume of incoming guidance required her team to be “laser focused”.

“We had to prioritise and become extremely nimble and agile, and that resulted in a reduction of both complexity and depth of content. It was speedy, real time and less overproduced, but without losing the message and impact. We used bitesize and frequent picture stories.”

The lesson here for communicators is that some stories don’t need lengthy periods of strategic crafting or laborious approval processes.

“Rather than working on something detailed and complex for three weeks, it was: Bang! Get it out,” says Marie-Claire. “After all, that’s how we consume news outside of the workplace. That seemed to work.”


Access all leaders

Over the past few months, leaders have needed to find a sympathetic voice. In a crisis, it helps if that has always been the tone. Andrea Mattis, global internal communications manager at customer benefits and loyalty specialist Collinson, says the company’s two CEOs have always been accessible.

“They have visibility on our channels,” she says. “They sit in an open office. You can go up to them and ask, how are you? If leaders are disconnected from the rest of the workforce – if they sit in an ivory tower – they can’t acknowledge what others are going through. Leaders need to be able to say they understand it’s a difficult and challenging time, and for people to believe it. Extending your hand and being there for your employees means a lot.”

Covid-19 has forced all leaders to engage with employees in an authentic, down-to-earth way. At Collinson, one example of this was a new Ask Me

Anything series with leaders, preceded by a call-out for questions on Workplace by Facebook.

“We asked our Americas regional lead to record her answers on camera, we trimmed it, put in the logo and up it went online,” says Andrea. “We had so much positive feedback. People said they appreciated her answers about the business, or asked where she got her jumper from. Another time, our CEOs even spoke about their favourite ’90s tracks.”

This merging of personal and work interests in communication helped flatten the structure of organisations during lockdown, forming informal and trusted connections across corporate hierarchies.

Communications specialist Phil Askham, global head of employee communications for HSBC until May, says: “The pandemic has meant that leaders are communicating from their living rooms and home offices about life-and-death issues they have never had to broach before. Also, with the unavoidable impacts of Covid-19 on their business models, leaders have been emboldened to be more transparent in explaining to their workforce the tough decisions they’ve had to make.

“We need to make this part of a new leadership toolkit, where leaders are more open about who they are and share more about the decisions they are making on behalf of their organisation.”

GE Healthcare’s internal comms team also upped the pace of messaging from the top.

“We were doing leader-to-leader calls with 7,500 people every week and sending out tools and guidance after,” says Marie-Claire. “If you’d told me in December, we would be doing those from our homes, every week, with 22 end connection points and I wouldn’t have an IT person sat next to me, I wouldn’t have believed you. And we had such high engagement. That was a huge learning for us.”

Keep piloting and experimenting, advises Phil. “Get leaders on side with that spirit of innovation, rather than wait for the perfect time, as that will never happen. I hope no one is stalling on a decision to roll out a social collaboration tool after this!”


Out of sight, not out of mind

Home-working to the forced extent during lockdown was new for everyone. While most found productivity was not impacted, the transition for some managers, who suddenly didn’t have their teams in their line of sight and had to arrange structured online meetings, may have been difficult.

Collinson promoted flexible working, in agreement with people managers, for some time pre-Covid. Functions that had not previously been easily able to explore that, such as customer service, had to adjust quickly.

“Not everyone was used to flexible working or working from home,” says Andrea. “That has been a big piece of work for us in collaboration with the people development team.

“You have to give managers advice around having virtual meetings, and being aware that not everyone is glued to their laptops in the way they are in the office. We can’t all be online at 9am at home.”

While offices remain at reduced capacity, this ongoing dialogue with managers will continue to be important – making sure they understand both their roles and how their team members will be relying on them.


No place like home?

For many, lockdown was an endurance. Many isolating alone desperately missed human interaction beyond a 16:9 screen. Those with children or other family at home had domestic and home-schooling distractions, often adding hours to the start or end of a typical working day in order to get everything done.

Others may have felt claustrophobic or less motivated, productive or comfortable.

Few organisations, however, will now find it hard to argue there are office-based roles that can no longer be carried out at home for those who wish to do so.

Leaders and managers who previously expressed concerns over what work could or would be done outside of the office, without a boss’s helicopter view, have seen they can and should trust people to be productive and work around other commitments – while, of course, realising the benefits themselves of being able to spend more time at home.

This brings in a new level of expectation from colleagues, says Andrea.

“People are more switched on in terms of what they want. If you aren’t going to allow people to have flexibility as a permanent sustainable thing, and if you aren’t being inclusive in making people feel like they belong, they will walk. Some companies had these issues bubbling along in the background prior to Covid. Now it’s exploded.

“That might be scary for companies that haven’t been having those two-way conversations. It will be really important for IC to coach leaders and get them used to it. That’s why I like Workplace, because a leader or CEO can come into the discussion. People wouldn’t have felt that comfortable talking about these issues by email – for fear of being reprimanded. But there’s a different sense of security on a social network – it’s open and transparent.”


Social climbers

Many organisations have seen their enterprise social network come into its own. Companies that already had technology in place hit the ground at a reasonable pace. Most who didn’t, or at least weren’t using it to maximum effect, found they’d been missing a trick. Getting software installed wasn’t the months-long administrative burden they envisaged, and colleagues, by and large, got to grips with the new tools without in-depth training.

At Collinson, Microsoft Teams was installed in early 2019, while Workplace was being used for live broadcasts and conversations pre-crisis. The latter particularly allowed people to be open at a time when they needed information about infection control and regular updates on safety.

“Without Workplace, it would have been difficult to get messages out to our people, who are all over the world,” says Andrea. “Trying to cut through in email is difficult. It needs to be fresh, have personality and reflect what people are thinking and feeling.”

Within Ennismore, a creator of hospitality brands and experiences, Workplace was well integrated into the business pre-Covid – but for work-based discussions only, rather than social chat. However, this changed during lockdown.

Marcos Eleftheriou, Ennismore’s head of culture and internal communications, says: “There was a fear of people being disconnected and those on furlough were keen to stay in touch. We started to see far more social posts than before – from our chefs giving daily cooking lessons, to our fitness specialists giving tips and so on.

“It was pretty amazing to see the interaction between teams without any intervention by us, and we will encourage that to continue. We have seen a great sense of community on a personal and human level.”


As safe as houses

Safety and health – the number one priority in most organisations anyway – must remain an open discussion. Internal comms teams need to build a picture of where colleagues’ heads are at in the transition back to the workplace, and establish whether the organisation has the ability – or even a duty – to fix points of unease.

“If you’re at a stage when you can start thinking about coming back to the office, that’s great – tick!” says Andrea. “But some people may not want to go back. Some might not feel safe going on public transport and being surrounded by loads of people. Some have childcare and carer needs. Some people have seen the bigger picture and now want more flexibility.”

The basic requirement is that the workplace is not a breeding ground for infection and that appropriate social distancing is observed through workspaces. But those without the shield of their own cars might be more apprehensive about actually getting to their workplace.

Phil considers: “People will need to weigh up the risk of being exposed to other people’s germs on public transport with the benefit of getting back into the office and having a face-to-face experience with colleagues. People managers will also feel a sense of duty to come in if they are asking their teams to do that.”

More than ever before, employers need to ask themselves if the physical workspace is worth the commute.

“It needs to be arranged for collaboration, with places to grow and learn, areas to chill out, and creative spaces,” says Phil.

“Reward the efforts of people coming in to the office. They will be taking a greater risk travelling, and if it’s to come in to a sterile environment where hotdesking has almost stripped the office of its personality, then they might think, what’s the point?”

Marcos adds: “Those who choose to come into the office may want a change of scenery, or better internet for a day. People are searching for a social element. I’m not sure anyone is coming in because they think they can get more work done.

“The main message is that, for those who can, working from home remains our foremost policy and people can choose to pop in if they need to work. We support them in their decision. Aside from that, it will be about how we make sure we don’t have a two-tier culture – how do we bring home and office people together and be inclusive. It has been possible through Zoom during lockdown – but that’s when we were all having the same experience at home. We need to continue that when some of our employees choose to return to the office.”


Recognising the risks

Frontline staff – whether in hotels or shops and banks – with little or no choice about leaving home comforts are more exposed to infection. Leaders should recognise that the risk these employees are accepting may create a division.

“It’s important that the organisation acknowledges and thanks those people putting their bodies on the line for customers,” says Phil. “If that effort is taken for granted, people will get angry. If home-working colleagues don’t understand what frontline staff are doing for the greater good of the group, tensions will arise. Great organisations have pulled together through this shared experience. The big supermarkets have responded particularly well, I think – staying open and managing the safety of customers and employees in a way that has hopefully reinforced pride and loyalty.”

The important lesson is to ask and gather feedback on the various levels and causes of anxiety. Give everyone the experience of being listened to and influencing future working.

“The danger is we generalise and treat our workforce as one unitary mass who think and behave the same,” continues Phil. “This extreme event has exposed differences in all of us – for example, in our adaptability to virtual working and our competences to communicate well on video calls. Some people have thrived in that environment and others felt marginalised.  Some people really long for the side conversations that aren’t easily available in that virtual setting – the check-in after the meeting.”


Creating inclusive cultures

Maintaining the company culture is going to require more effort in the future if colleagues are working from different locations.

“If no one needs to be in the office,” considers Marcos, “how do we keep a culture alive with a dispersed team? How do we help new people experience the culture? I think initially a community like Workplace can help share your culture and values, because it’s authentic and by the team.

“Your culture might need a refresh and that will depend on how you treat people and make it inclusive. That might mean looking at what your policies mean – what is your stance on Black Lives Matter, or how will you continue learning and development and career progression through an agile workforce? The culture may be refocused on your values and how you bring them to life, rather than Friday drinks and summer parties.”

A positive culture will remain when people are invested in the vision and how connected they are to it.

“Our culture is steeped in making sure everyone from the housekeeper to the chief people officer knows the key part they play in the overall vision, and they feel they are contributing something, no matter how big or small. Everyone needs to feel they have ownership. It’s about how you make people feel included, no matter where they are or what their role is. How do you treat everyone fairly and bring them on the journey?”


Tough road to recovery

While the lifting of lockdown restrictions has returned some normality – freedom with face masks – a second wave of infection is not unlikely. Many organisations are looking well into 2021 before welcoming the full complement of employees back into offices.

Added to that, financial recovery will be a Herculean task. A looming recession will bring more tough decisions. Sites will close, jobs will be lost, cost-cutting measures may sap the joy out of work.

Transparency will be critical. If jobs are on the line, employees will want to know that their fates are being assessed on objective criteria. IC needs to get close to other functions and educate about the risk of bias being taken into decisions.

“Internal comms is entitled to offer a view on employee experience and to influence our HR colleagues,” Phil says. “The role of communicator is to be explicit about the basis for cost management and restructures, and to educate, explain and inform in response to this heightened sense of scrutiny on leadership decisions. Internal communication can create a place where fairness matters.”


Maintaining IC’s momentum

Before Covid-19, most internal communicators would have agreed their board understood what they did – though to varying levels of appreciation – but the crisis has heightened leaders’ reliance on IC to steer their messaging and gauge how it will land.

For Marie-Claire at GE Healthcare, the experience has affirmed what she already knew to be true about internal comms.

“I think the critical importance of our function has been exposed,” she says. “Internal comms has been recognised as authoritative, with a calming voice. I also think our view of ourselves, as a broader comms team, has changed.

“Over the crisis, my team has shown a huge amount of agility and nimbleness, there was less siloed working and we found more synergies and true teamwork. The focus was the goal, not ownership. We have to continue that.”

For Marie-Claire’s team, the crisis has brought a change of approach. It’s meant prioritising what tasks are going to make a difference and, frankly, getting tough.

“Over the past few months, we’ve stripped out non-value-adding work, dropped vanity projects and said no to the ‘Could you just?’ and ‘Can you work your magic?’ requests,” says Marie-Claire.

“Before Covid-19, we had been doing extracurricular stuff to be nice, and I think that skewed the view of what we could really do. A topic owner requested everything – the big bang – and we had a lot of toing and froing, and pushing back. Through Covid-19, leaders have realised they can still have the same impact without all that. I’m coaching my team on how to say no. Focusing on where we truly add value is how we will continue to build.”

Phil advocates “more pace and more trust”.

“What frustrates us as a profession is getting great work stopped in its tracks because it needs to be signed off by someone with 100 other things to do in their working day,” he says.

“The whole approval process with leaders can sometimes be very ineffective. If the crisis has driven leaders to have more trust in their comms teams and act more in real time with us, that’s really helpful. Of course, that only lasts if our work is as high quality as we think it is.”

Internal comms teams can keep this new view of the function ever present by continuing to demonstrate where it is having an impact.

“We can’t just do our own PR and talk about the value of IC,” says Marie-Claire. “Showing is better than telling. We are going to get knockbacks, but we have to keep going, and maintaining connections with client groups and showing how we add value.

“If there’s anything good to come out of this pandemic, it’s that our function has weathered well. We have cemented our position. But we can’t just ride the crest of the wave – now we need to do something with it.”

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