With Melbourne and regional Victoria now open, I hope you’re enjoying seeing friends and family and experiencing retail, hospitality, and the arts once again. You may even be getting ready to catch up in person with your work colleagues after many months (or more) apart. There will be new people who started in your organisation you might never have seen outside of a screen!
COVID-19 has been a time for communications to shine, as we helped provide factual detail on behalf of our organisations and clients. Yet that challenge to communicate clearly and cogently hasn’t ended with the lockdown. The drive to “get back to normal” (even if it’s a slightly different kind of normal) is one facing employers from the Government to the corporate sector and us all as communicators. The transition isn’t an easy one as there are so many different perspectives. Some people never want to return to the workforce while some employers (and CBD cafes!) want to see people back five days a week.
In an environment where there are divided views, what is the role of communications? How do you effectively engage with a diverse audience in a workplace in an environment where even some executives might not be on the same page? What advice should you be offering to your leadership?
Firstly, do your research. Most organisations I work with have taken the pulse of their employees at least once across the pandemic. The better ones, more often. Understanding where people are at is critical to crafting messages that will resonate. This article discusses some of the psychological factors at play among employees and employers as they face a return to work- from excitement to dread- and is worth engaging with if your organisation hasn’t done this work.
Related to that is knowing what the organisation needs from work in this new environment. Why and when do you need face-to-face work vs online work? What has the organisation missed out on and needs to get back to? What can be safely left behind?
Secondly, if we’ve learned anything from the last two years it is that clear, honest communications beats glitzy overproduced marketing material every day. If your leaders haven’t been directly talking with your people, they should start that quickly. From once a week check-ins, to virtual town halls, to CEOs popping into virtual team meetings, the best leaders are showing their teams more of themselves and listening at least as much as talking. We’ve now seen almost everyone’s workspace and more of their casual clothes than we ever needed to. So why snap back to impersonal and overproduced internal comms?
From a practical perspective, the emerging consensus among employers seems to be a move to hybrid environment, where work takes place in a combination of a fixed workplace and home. Somewhere between 2 and 3 days in a physical office as a minimum looks like becoming standard though some organisations are going fully remote. Telstra even commissioned a report into this new way of working to highlight the productivity benefits/
Thirdly, and related, is to be vulnerable and be flexible. I’ve been working with leaders who recognise that what works for them workwise won’t work for everyone. Not every staff member has a nice and quiet home office environment with an endless budget for stationary supplies and/ or the seniority to design their home around their work. Not everything that worked in 2019 should work in 2022. So being open and honest involves going there with the tensions the organisation is facing. Leaders should share the things they loved and want to keep about working from home while recognising that there have been things we’ve all missed. And that everyone’s experience has been different depending on their personal situation as much as their role.
One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was when a CEO of a client dialed into a team meeting a few weeks ago. She’d spent most of the last two Victorian lock down in Far North Queensland with her ageing parents and as such missed most of the hardships her team had faced. She wants to see staff return for at least 3 days a week in the office and expected she’d face some push back from a group of people who have gotten used to remote work and enjoy it. She owned her privilege and experience on that call and explained carefully, why her leadership team are asking for that time in the office and while she’ll be there with them. She stayed for over an hour and took questions engaging directly with concerns and fears. She was flexible to take some things on notice and make instant calls on other things (including agreeing that starting 3 days a week in December wasn’t essential so work from the office would not be expected until after the Christmas shut down). She built trust on that call because she was herself and she took the time to listen and to be open to adjust her approach.
The best communicators do the thinking and the work first, engaging with their leaders to support them. Returning to work will feel different for everyone and that’s just how it is. Yet we can help everyone feel better about the future of work if we ensure that their perspective is heard and reflected in the communications we help deliver to them.
All the best back in (and out of) the office!