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COVID-19 Has Pushed Us to Recognize the True Value of Internal Communications

July 22nd 2020

In pre-COVID-19 times the messaging of most internal employee communications for office-based companies was notices, updates, culture creation, shout outs. Although this is all useful and important, unless you were at a resource company, unionized environment or did work that was high risk, rarely did the newsletter touch on life or death matters or home life unless talking about life insurance or safety measures within the office setting.  All that changed when COVID-19 hit. 

Now internal communications must cover a more detailed and fluid measure of safety – with changing requirements each week as governments imposes new rules. 

As HR professionals like Kataneh Sherkat, Owner of KasaHR Consulting, explains:

“The HR profession sees internal communications, not just as an important component for promoting culture, values and people practice, but also increasingly as a function of proactive risk management. Companies must get the right information to the right employee at the right time, including when the messaging differs depending on the unique employee situations (i.e. essential workers will get different messaging from those working from home). Employees with more public touch points will get more rigid safety communication. Ultimately in the case of WorksafeBC reviews or lawsuits, internal communications could make all the difference to protect not only customers and employees but the company viability long-term. And this is set against a context where mental health and discrimination are becoming bigger issues: HR will need to work with communications to provide links to tools, courses and support as part of the employer obligation to support.”

Tamara Little, Owner, Coast Communications, views internal comms from the corporate communications side:

“We typically see the value of internal communications as related more to transparency and culture building. It is about leadership telling people about the company or organization, its goals, objectives, successes. Safety messaging was rare outside the resource sector or trades. But now timely and fact-based employee communications is much more vital for every business and organization.”

The reality is that COVID-19 has upped the ante on internal communications with employees. And put safety at the centre of it all. The future of employee communications under the “new normal” before we have a treatment, vaccine and/or herd immunity for COVID-19 is very different, both in approach as well as the actual tools and tactics used.

What has changed? 

  1. Internal comms will often sound like safety training. We are all adapting to physical distancing, handwashing and masks. Each company will have new protocols and procedures and must communicate them over and over to make them the new normal and part of the business culture. These guidelines are also consistently changing as we go through various phases of B.C.’s Restart Plan. 
  2. Leaders must provide guidance in many forms: behavioural (What must we do to keep our clients, employees and stakeholders safe from contracting the virus?), anticipatory (Will we return to our office? What will it look like?) and emotional (Should I be scared? Does anyone care about my wellbeing?) guidance. All three are essential for employees at all levels (including leadership), especially for the emotional guidance, but for many business leaders, this is not a comfortable topic in general. In addition, many business leaders will face the same fears as the rest of us. They are not immune to it.  
  3. Organizations must get it right when they are acting as the “source of truth” on health and safety. When we pass on information about how to be safe during COVID-19 we are supporting a broader public health function, one not to be taken lightly. Organizations must convey the most current and accurate information (often in real time, based on Dr. Bonnie Henry’s latest briefing). Information needs to be fact-based and be focused on educating the end reader versus persuading or pushing a theory. 
  4. People are overwhelmed with information and exhausted by computers. The long missives won’t do it. Employees need video, visuals and content that is compelling and engaging. To spend that extra time online it must be worth it. They need more frequent updates – things are just changing too fast. What company HASN’T sent an email to the full team in the last three months? Likely (hopefully) more than one every few weeks to keep them informed of the changing guidelines.
  5. Employee communication needs to acknowledge the value of our people at all times. After all, simply coming into the office now is a risk to one’s health and safety. We need to ensure people are appreciated for this (especially the essential workers we have all depended on so much in the last months). The standard shout outs and awards are not enough. We have all been in each other’s home offices/kitchens/spare rooms with Zoom and Google Meet. We can’t pretend our employees don’t have personal lives anymore. We now need to be increasingly more sensitive and flexible about their family, their home, their health issues, their family’s health issues and occupation. But it all needs to be done without interfering too much into their personal lives, which could be basis for a lawsuit. 
  6. Communications will also have to be more customized and fluid: Some workers will be in the office, some will #WFH. Some will be laid off then asked to return to work (i.e. furloughed). Some will have had mental health, health or economic challenges (themselves or family) from this pandemic. There won’t be a blanket HR policy directing how everyone works (are staff immunocompromised or living with elders?). Given this, instructions and information must be broken down according to the specific internal stakeholder group or audience and adapted to them. Interestingly, although communicators are very audience-focused, when it comes to internal comms there is often little customization of the message. That has to change.
  7. Data will be our friend as we go more digital. For the next year or perhaps longer for some companies, the traditional in-person communications won’t be as frequent. The watercooler conversations are now either online or in passing. How do we communicate most effectively when we must rely mostly on electronic tools? We’ll need to be measuring and adapting. Use the data to test and test again to see what medium or channel of communication is working best for majority of staff.  Timing of internal communications has changed as well. The online world is faster requiring more frequent hits with small bites. The wrong quick message can be spread across the world faster, which means the pressure to be timely while also error free in communication is stronger than ever. 
  8. A new suite of tools will be needed. Newsletters alone cannot provide the type of safety and appreciation messages employees need right now. We’ll need more infographics, graphics, video, townhalls, Q&As and have to experiment and measure to figure out what works. 

There has never been a time when internal communications and change management have overlapped more. Business leaders can be successful if they are authentic and soliciting feedback along the way to improve. Human Resource professionals can guide us through the process. Communications professionals are talented and great at collaborating with teams like HR, operations, risk management, health and safety, and training to get the message right and get it out there in a timely manner.

The key is to remember that we are all learning and adjusting together. That policies will need to remain fluid as we navigate this unknown path. That we are all trying to make the best of it and whether you are an essential worker, a junior staff member or a CEO, our need for information is important to help you make decisions for work but also for you and your family’s safety.

Communicating with employees has never been so critical, so let’s take this as an opportunity to up our game and give internal communications the attention it has always deserved. 

Tamara Little is the Owner and Chief Client Advisor of Coast Communications and Public Affairs and has almost 20 years in corporate communications. 

Kataneh Sherkat is the founder of KasaHR Consulting. She has supported businesses locally and globally with HR and Business advisory services for over 20 years.