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THE TEST OF TIME: HOW TO PRIORITISE YOUR WORKLOAD

When you’re as busy as an internal comms practitioner – which is very busy, by the way – don’t put in more effort than you need to on tasks that don’t have strategic value. Prioritise your workload and manage your time so that you’re focusing on projects that really mean something.

WORDS: ROB JONES

7th April 2022

“Busybusyverybusy”. That’s how Cosmopolitan, back in 2017, described an internal comms strategist’s typical day. The magazine’s hot take on IC was mostly wide of the mark (do IC practitioners wear headsets and organise birthday cakes?), but the “busybusyverybusy” bit was spot on. And that was pre-pandemic.

Over the past two years, internal communication teams have steered workforces through the uncertainty of Covid-19, and leaders have seen exactly where the function adds value. On the down side, leaders have seen how much internal communicators can do – and for many, that volume of work hasn’t decreased as the need to publish information about the pandemic reduced. The expectation on IC is to keep going at full pelt.

Georgie Agass, head of communications, engagement and fundraising at North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust, believes the demands put on internal comms functions have risen because of their seemingly indefatigable efforts since 2020.

“We haven’t thought about the resources that go with that,” she says. “We are still working at emergency pace after two years. There’s a reason Usain Bolt doesn’t do the 1,500 metres. You can’t run that fast for that length of time.”


What a way to make a living

Busy has become the new normal for internal communication teams.

“I don’t think you can enter into the work we do and hope for a 9-to-5 job,” reflects Keith Riley, internal communications manager – media and content for legal and business services DWF. “We are the crisis team, the ‘share price has plummeted’ team, the ‘I want to launch my new product/benefits package/reward programme ASAP’ team and of course we need to get those messages out. There’s always a story to tell or measure – and because you’re always looking for the next one, you risk getting into a rut of being ‘always on’ and it can bog you down.”

With the reputation of IC on the rise, the number of requests and projects will inevitably also continue to increase. It will therefore be critical for internal communication practitioners to understand how to use their working day wisely – working as efficiently as possible and dedicating an appropriate amount of time to the tasks and campaigns that will add most value or have the greatest impact for your audience.

Your stakeholders will always tell you their objectives are the most important. When thinking about whose message to get out first, don’t just go for whoever shouts the loudest; Keith suggests focusing on wherever there are the fewest boxes ticked in terms of people’s knowledge.

“Internal communicators are a bit like spiders sitting in the middle of a web. You have to pull on all the threads and see which is vibrating most, because that’s where you need to focus your attention.”

IC practitioners must get wise to so-called urgent requests: the “I know it’s last minute...” or “I need this done ASAP” emails. The trick is to buy yourself time, says Keith.

“I have no problem saying, ‘I don’t understand your request.’ Sometimes I’ll pick up the phone and if I sense the other person has a deadline they can’t miss, I will try to juggle some things around. But if someone wants a meeting the next morning that will give clarity, I can ignore it for the rest of the day.”


Make sure you’re connected

Working at break-neck speed to try and get through everything stops you from shifting your balance to projects with true value.

“When you are working at such a pace, you can get a little internally focused,” says Georgie. “Our hospital trust is in an area of London with a vulnerable community and our staff deal with difficult circumstances day in and day out. I want to maintain the integrity of communication as a profession and an important business function. There is a place for feel-good messages, celebrating achievements and sometimes things that are a bit twee, but it’s not appropriate if it doesn’t relate to how things are in the real world.”

Make sure you truly understand your internal audience and their challenges and expectations – then prioritise the messages that have merit and meaning. It’s easy to clear less urgent tasks from your to-do list. It might feel like an accomplishment to spend the morning answering emails and clearing your inbox or drafting content about a social event, but make sure you are putting your weight behind the strategic messages that will resonate and connect colleagues to the organisation’s purpose.

“Our audience includes medics and clinicians who spent seven years qualifying and they work nights,” says Georgie. “They take no prisoners when it comes to fluffy PR if they haven’t seen execs or senior leaders on their ward at two o’clock in the morning. They can be candid in their views – and they might do it publicly.

“Part of prioritising projects in internal communication is about hearing what is being said by your audience.”

Keith agrees: “Internal communicators need to weigh up how people feel now and what they will feel when we give them information.”

So how do you decide where IC should invest its resources? Georgie uses a matrix that plots projects in terms of potential risk to reputation, potential impact against delivery of objectives and the scale of the project, including cost, audience size and shelf life.

“Internal communication needs to focus on projects that have longevity or a positive impact on recruitment or retention,” she says. “It’s not possible for us to provide a comms professional as an integral part of the project delivery team for every programme. But if you provide the right tools, other departments can do it themselves.

“We don’t necessarily make friends with that model, but it’s one that is successfully applied in other functions. HR doesn’t line manage every single person in the organisation. They set the standards and provide the tools to help line managers do it.”


Just say no

Managing your time effectively when you have a hefty workload involves deciding “which bit of the elephant to eat first”, says Georgie – and you can do that with input from the executive team.

“What have they agreed are the business priorities? Work on projects linked to those first. When we explain which project will have the quicker or bigger impact, people are pretty reasonable.

“If anyone wants to challenge me on something I’ve said ‘No’ to – if I’ve misinterpreted the importance – I’m happy to hear that feedback. It’s not always absolute.”
Francis Forte, director of communications for Nicklaus Children’s Health System, says the two key questions to ask when a brief comes in are: who is the audience and what are the goals?

“Talk to your colleague and understand what action they are trying to drive,” she says. “Know the demographics of the audience. Then think through all the different resources and tools you have. Is this a case where you need to take a hands-on approach through the planning process, or do you just need to give direction? It might need a multi-pronged approach – translations or an in-person event.

“That first conversation is key to knowing how much time you need to invest.”

Francis has an 80/20 rule. If the message impacts 80 per cent of staff and requires an urgent or timely response, corporate communication has to get involved. If it is impacting one or two functions, it can probably be handled by the department making the request.

She recalls a recent request to send out a newsletter because the message was something every employee needed to see.

“The request was polite and I understood the need to communicate the message, but 60 per cent of our employee population is patient-facing or doesn’t have access to a desktop. As experts in communications, culture and people, we went back and asked, is email the best approach if it’s that urgent? Can we take the time to try and target our audience another way, rather than send it out system-wide and only reach 40 per cent of people?”

 

When is a 'no' not a no?

Comms Creatives founder Helen Reynolds aims to act in a “No” manner, rather than actually say “No”.

“If a CEO wanted a video, I would often say, ‘I have loads of work on and would love to help you, but can you help me prioritise my other work?’,” says Helen. “Or I might tell them my workload from the strategy we agreed is taking up my time and this new project doesn’t fit into my schedule. They will either ignore my message or they’ll come and see me – and realise that I do have lots of work.

“If you want a healthy work, home and social life, you need to be skilled in the ways to make the person not feel like they’ve had a ‘No’.”

Having the confidence to politely decline or delay requests that either aren’t urgent or don’t have true merit and meaning is key to creating time, headspace and resources to do justice to timely, business-critical communication projects.

Many comms professionals have a sense of duty to do everything given to them, and end up losing ownership over their work, suggests Helen.

“They want to be liked by the people asking for the work. Train yourself to not feel like ‘No’ is a bad thing or failure. ‘No’ is you becoming more strategic. It’s a mindset issue – you’re not being obstructive, but enabling your strategy to have a better chance of working.

“Set standards, which might be uncomfortable if you adhere to them, but will make people respect you. Wanting to be liked is different to being respected. You don’t have friends because they do stuff for you – that’s not what being liked is about.”


Handle with care

Doing the hard yards up front to build relationships helps when you need to assess and plan your workload.

“When you meet stakeholders, set your expectations about how you prioritise work,” says Keith. “Be bold enough to say, ‘I’m not good when things are thrown at me at the last minute’ or ‘A longer lead time works best.’ You can say those things. We’re human.”

Also, show how much you care about your colleagues’ work, Keith advises.

“Internal communicators can’t be apathetic about what others are trying to do. Your role stagnates if people won’t come to you because they don’t believe you will help them. I will always give people the truth – and sometimes that means ‘No’ or ‘Not this time’ – but when you encourage someone in a different way, you keep the door open.”  

At the same time, you can’t bat back every request that doesn’t tick a strategic box and suggest someone does it themselves without any guidance.

Georgie reflects: “When you go to the hairdresser, you might say you’re not sure about the length of your hair and you want to be able to put it up when you go swimming – and you take their advice because they are the experts. People come to internal communication as a professional advisory function because they need help. We can’t have a default response of, ‘Why don’t they know this already?’ That expertise is what you are being paid for, so you have to make time to show people.”

Spreading yourself thinly and not giving yourself enough time to do a good enough job on anything for the output to be, actually, “good enough” is not only detrimental to your projects, but also your wellbeing.

Francis says: “Every day, I put together a to-do list, and I try and tick off as much as I can, but I have children and I need to turn my computer off. For your mental health, you need to break off, walk away and recharge.”

 

Netflix and email

With many people home working, it’s easy to leave your laptop on well into the evening and tackle your inbox while dinner is in the oven.

Helen says: “It’s easy to respond to an email while you’re watching something on Netflix so that you don’t have to deal with it in the morning, but in the morning there’s always more. Organisations push wellbeing programmes – yoga and mindfulness – but they are not always creating boundaries for staff and making sure they know it’s not acceptable to be answering emails after dinner.”

 

33%
Percentage of internal communicators who said they had more than 50 unread emails in their inbox.
IoIC poll 2022

 

Technology sucks in our time and being “always on” can creep up on you.

“I used to be very active on social media,” reflects Keith, “and everyone had access to me on every platform. That’s lovely from a community perspective, but when I started getting work requests through Facebook, I thought it was unhealthy.”

Now, Keith doesn’t connect with colleagues on social media. “It helps to have a healthy divide,” he says. “There’s no shame in saying you like to keep a clear boundary on your personal life.

“If you have passion projects and you’re prepared to do the hours on a Saturday night with a glass of wine because on Monday you’ll feel better for it, then do. But safeguard your family time against little nudges – from the people who see you online and message you, ‘I know it’s late, but…’. Log out of Teams if you have to.”

On this topic, leadership role-modelling helps. Changing the culture won’t happen through a company policy.

“Be brazen about telling people you’ve had a holiday and didn’t check emails,” advises Helen. “The best manager I had would insist, ‘Go and have a break, I don’t want you to be frazzled at the end of the day.’ Because of that, she experienced other people making incorrect assumptions about her work ethic, but they were wrong. She stuck to it. She was looking after the team.”


If it’s good enough for you...

So what counts as a priority project? Helen advises looking at the work coming up and evaluating what is going to be most important from the point of view of getting lots of personal development, how much you will enjoy doing it and what impact it will have on the organisation – and do these to 100 per cent capacity.

“Everything else goes in the 60 per cent pile,” she says. “Be brutal. ‘Good enough’ is fine.

“Pick the tasks that are easy to do and invest your energy in those. I’m not saying be sloppy about everything else, but forgive yourself for having low-priority tasks.

“Use templates. Speed things up to quickly get content out the door. We think comms professionals should put more effort in, but you don’t have to do that for everything.”


Just an imperfect day

Imperfectionism is a skill more internal comms practitioners should learn, adds Helen.

“We have so much work to do that if we try to do it all to the very best of our abilities, we won’t be able to do very much. Our best involves a lot of effort and you are going to burn out if you do everything to a 100 per cent standard.

“We need to demonstrate we can do amazing work, but if you look back on your career, how much of it have people come back to you on to say it’s great? Most of our work gets forgotten, so why break ourselves to make work perfect if it will be forgotten?”

A minor spelling error, an oddly aligned paragraph or a photo cropped awkwardly on the intranet won’t grind the organisation to a halt, so try and cut down on the time you spend sweating the small stuff that most people probably won’t notice.

“If I see a typo in someone else’s live copy, I don’t worry about it,” says Keith. “The main thing is, is the message out there? We are not infallible. Only last week I posted a draft with the annotations still on it. You can always re-upload or send another email if you need to – it’s a great opportunity to inject a little humour too.”

That’s not a licence to not care, he adds.

“We should strive towards typo-less documents or videos with the best sound and graphics – but we are doing it with the best that we’ve got, so let’s not kick ourselves. We’ve done a bloody good job just getting to the point of making a film. With everything that gets thrown at internal communicators, we should be proud we don’t make more mistakes. As we go back into offices, we walk back with a little more authority and space to do things well – but nobody’s perfect.”

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