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Jun 10, 2020

Approx. 10 min. read

11 Comms Experts on Their Priorities as Employees Return to The Workplace

The notorious virus curve is finally flattening or even going down. Countries, cities, and businesses are gradually reopening after weeks of...

The notorious virus curve is finally flattening or even going down. Countries, cities, and businesses are gradually reopening after weeks of lockdown. Regardless of where you are based or what stage of quarantine your organization is going through, this "back to new normal" transition is key for the future of your team. Employee communications naturally play a central role in this transformative process.

🎧 Tune in to the Comms Shift podcast with Priya Bates. In this episode, we review a  framework that helps IC professionals take a more strategic approach to their work.

Previously, we have covered how COVID-19 is changing the internal communications function. The pandemic has impacted the employee experience irreversibly. A recent Gartner study shows that 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-COVID-19. The digital transformation used to be one of those abstract buzz words. Now, it's an absolute imperative to ensure business continuity.

Experts agree that the future of work is happening now, and comms professionals have a whole new level of responsibilities landing on their shoulders. They have to navigate the change, align and engage their entire workforce, ensure the flow of relevant and timely safety updates. They need to support their leaders and line managers in their roles while also ensuring that IC has a strategic impact on business. The list goes on, and can be overwhelming if priorities are not clear.

To help us all make sense of this post-COVID pack of responsibilities, I reached out to 11 communication experts with one question:

What are the top priorities for internal comms professionals now when employees are returning to the workplace? 🤔

Both in-house professionals and consultants have contributed their unique perspectives to this article. I want to thank them personally for their time and knowledge. I genuinely hope that their advice will help you adjust and optimize your comms strategy to post-pandemic reality.

Without further ado, let's dive straight in!👇

Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Communications at Nottingham Trent University

At the moment, it’s about ensuring that people are safe and reassuring them about the measures we are taking as an employer. It’s also about re-engaging people with their teams and a very different type of “new normal”.

As communicators, we need to understand that people will still be anxious, and many people will feel insecure with family circumstances changing because of the economic environment. We have work to do culturally as more of us than ever before have experienced a different kind of work pattern. It will be interesting to see how that shifts how we operate as businesses with, potentially, more home working and flexibility in the future.

Emma Leech-internal-communication-Nottingham-Trent-University

Karen Dempster, Co-founder of Fit2Communicate

We need to pause, take a step back, and think big picture in terms of what COVID-19 has meant for how we work, think, and communicate. The shifts in mindset and ways of working will require new ways of communicating — whether it is increasingly demonstrating care and empathy, building purpose-led organisations or creating channels strategies that maximise digital channels and support virtual working. 

We, as IC professionals, need to embrace new ways of thinking and potentially learn new skills so we can coach leaders, enable managers, and bring value to organisations as we move forward. Finally, we need to reflect on all the great things IC teams have achieved during this period. We can learn from what went less well, but we must celebrate the power of IC, particularly when we join with other functions to collectively make a difference to the employee experience.

Karen Dempster-digital communication-remote work

Nishita Andrea Ganatra, Global Internal Communications Partner/Advisor at Royal HaskoningDHV

What’s really important for internal communication professionals is making sure employees are confident to get back to work without having a fear of contracting the virus whilst at work. It isn’t simple in some businesses, especially when employees interact with customers on a regular basis. 

I feel clear communication on how the company is going to operate moving forward, and the mitigation of risks is the key. What is the company doing to ensure its employees and customers are safe? How will they adhere to social distancing and government guidelines? Getting regular updates from line managers and senior leaders has had a positive response on employees.

Nishita Ganatra-COVID-19-workplace-communication

Harry Gasiorski, Head of HR Office at Royal Mail

I think for me, it's about really using the pandemic and 'forced' home working to really change the dialogue with employees on more innovative ways of working in the future. For once, all stakeholders seem to be supportive of a more flexible approach to how and where you work.

Harry Gasiorski-Royal-Mail-employe-dialogue

Monique Zytnik, Communication specialist at Zytnik Consulting

As countries, cities, and states all take a slightly different approach to easing lockdowns, so will organisations. Internal communicators need to be in tune with their people and places, working closely with HR, health and safety policy teams and senior leaders to communicate clearly with staff. Every situation is different. Everyone has been affected in different ways, and we know that things are far from being stable. 

Listening, responding, and keeping employees connected is key. Some may need a forum to talk openly about their experiences, while others will prefer to process things in private. They will have varying levels of concern about their own health risks and will be establishing new workplace habits. Front-line managers continue to play an important role as they settle their staff back in. They will also have their own concerns, so they may need some prompting and support to communicate effectively.

Above all, employees need to feel that they are returning to a physically and mentally safe workplace.

Monique Zytnik-employee-communications-COVID-19

Liliana Biro, Senior Internal Communications Professional

Internal communications professionals have to learn from the experiences of these times and reorganise the strategy they work around. The first thing I’d mention is to be more sensible about the dynamic of the business. Operational and business plans might change, leadership teams require more direct support, and employees have to be asked more frequently about how they feel. 

The second thing is to be more proactive than reactive: keep the comms channels and methods that worked well during the pandemic, and have a plan for new potential crisis situations. 

The third is to be a leader in driving cooperation between the different internal functions, such as HR, Facilities and Health&Safety, and communicate more about wellbeing and hygiene in the office, during visits and business trips, and at home. Last but not least, comms people need to show up more: get involved and show that you care!

Liliana Biro-Employee-Communications-1

Guilherme Santana, Head of Digital Transformation Change Management & Communications at DHL Supply Chain

As associates are now returning to the workplace, we need to take into account a few aspects. The logistics of their return to work considering the new set of rules in place, e.g., social distancing. Strong and easy-to-access communications, on-boarding/“reboarding” employees with ease and potential refresh training are important. Manage the change aspect in case we are dealing with temporary or long-term changes in the ways of working. As well as their well-being, dealing with absenteeism, and concerns about returning to the work environment.

Guilherme Santana DHL employee communications

Jill Leake, Founder of JL Communications Consulting

Take stock with a Comms Audit. Now is the perfect time for comms professionals to pause and reset by understanding how their employees are really feeling. 

Use your employee voice to understand and develop new opportunities for engagement, e.g., if your business direction and purpose have changed, do your employees understand why and what it means for them? Have new channels been successful, and how do they integrate with or replace current channel architecture? 

Whilst your employees will feel valued by being asked their views, do provide timely feedback to show that you have listened. Be sure to include a review of line managers as a channel, especially in a world where remote working will increase. Supported with the right tools and development, they will be your greatest advocates, translating purpose, direction, and vision in a way that is relatable and engaging to the individuals across your business.

Jill Leake Internal Communications COVID-19

Alejandro Alonso, Social Communication Expert at Zeitgeist Communications

At first, the only goal was prevention: the communications of protocols and more protocols. However, it has begun to trickle down the need to address post-pandemic scenarios. Now, concepts like sustainability, engagement, commitment, business strategy, health and safety, need to be redefined. 

IC professionals face the challenge of helping companies redefine their narrative in a way it makes sense. Rationality as a means of generating trust. Difficult.

Alejandro Alonso-COVID-19-internal-communication

📚 Read on: 14 Reasons why the future of work is happening now.

Poonam Sharma, Communications Lead at ASSYST

Throughout the pandemic, we have been having regular conversations with different employee groups, listening to their needs and concerns while continuing to meet customer needs. Although our region just announced a phase one reopening, the safety and wellbeing of all employees is our top priority. Therefore, social distancing measures and CDC guidelines for safe practices will be met and maintained. 

As we work on a roadmap toward returning to the workplace when public health guidelines permit, our priorities include ensuring that individual needs and concerns of employees are respected and that our back-to-work plan safeguards the health and wellbeing of our employees, their families, and our customers. We are all navigating the new normal, which for now, translates into virtual meetings even when employees are in the office, and having virtual lunches and happy hours to socialize until it is safe to meet in person.

Poonam Sharma-employee-communications-workplace

Sonya Gogna, Associate Consultant at ANSR

This is a time of unlearning and relearning things very quickly. The most critical role for IC professionals right now would be to lead the 'Equip to Adapt' strategy — how effectively we communicate in such times and equip our employees with relevant information to adapt for safe business continuity with as much ease. 

Getting the basics right will be essential now. For example, sharing guidelines for a smooth return to work, having a helpdesk available for addressing any concerns and driving positivity and impacting employee trust, during these uncertain times.

sonya gogna-internal-communications

The Key Takeaways

  • Safety first. The physical and mental health of your employees should be the number one priority. There’s no such thing as overcommunication when it comes to ensuring people’s safety and wellbeing. Here we’ve gathered 10 Best practices for communicating safety tips to your employees during COVID-19.
  • Engaging and re-engaging. Now, when most of the businesses are embracing more flexible remote work policies, internal comms and HR professionals need to consider new approaches to keeping employees engaged.
  • Support and empower your line managers. They can either be a barrier in the communication flow or your best-trusted channel. Supported with the right tools and guidelines, line managers will be an effective extension of your comms team, translating purpose, direction, and vision in a way that is relatable and engaging to people across your business. Read more: 14 manager communication best practices you shouldn’t ignore.
  • Targeted and timely communication is imperative. Everyone has been affected in different ways, and the one-size-fits-all approach to employee comms does not work. Business leaders realize that sending out email newsletters to the entire workforce is not the best way to inform and engage employees. Read more: how top companies are using Smarp for targeted COVID-19 crisis communications.
  • Now is the time to reset your communication plan and take a more strategic approach to your role in the organization. Communication professionals around the world have done a tremendous job responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. No surprise that, according to Edelman Trust Barometer, employer communications is the most trusted source of information during the coronavirus pandemic.
    Often, internal communications can be seen as a purely tactical function that supports other business units. But now executive leaders are starting to realize that IC professionals are strategic partners who play a central role in business continuity. Make the best of the spotlight and rise to the challenge. Earn that seat at the table by proving your impact on key business objectives.

    In the latest episode of the Comms Shift Podcast, we review a framework that helps IC professionals take a more strategic approach to their work. Hopefully, you find it useful.

What's next? Download the eBook “10 Principles of Modern Employee Communications” where we share tips & best practices for successfully communicating with your employees in today's digital age.

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Written by

Oles Datsko

Oles Datsko

Marketing Manager

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