How internal communicators can succeed in 2021

Rebuild a sense of belonging and camaraderie, focus on well-being, and plan for our hybrid workplace future.

How communicators can succeed in 2021

Although 2020 saw much turmoil, for internal communicators our role grew significantly in prominence. With much uncertainty, fast-changing events, and a loss of direct contact with many employees, the role of keeping workers informed, reassured and engaged never mattered more.

For 2021, we need to start thinking about the long game, and I see five emerging themes that should be shaping the approach of internal comms teams:

Rebuild a sense of belonging.

A recent study by Slack of people working remotely found that indicators such as work-life balance, productivity and satisfaction were all trending up, but that a “sense of belonging” had been badly hit by the pandemic.

In 2021 communicators need to focus on re-kindling belonging by doing more to celebrate success and recognize individual’s contributions. Social events are less likely to be spontaneous so there is a need to be more deliberate in this area. For example, companies have kept a community feel going with events ranging from painting classes and bake-offs to antique ‘show and tell’ sessions.

Remote onboarding becomes more important too. In a permanent hybrid workplace, we can hire people from just about anywhere, but this also means we need to plan with our HR colleagues how we get those new hires integrated as effectively as possible. The better we do it, the more productive and content those hires will be, and the more likely to stay. However, it’s not so easy to ask the person next to you about how to do something when you work remotely. In response, Salesforce, for example, has set up a remote concierge desk to help recruits get the information they need as a new employee.

Double down on well-being.

We may be tired of asking “are you OK?” but employees still need to know that their organization cares for their welfare. Regular check-ins with a quick pulse-survey or sentiment analysis of posts on internal social channels can help to signal where support is needed.

Some companies have made big strides in making it routine to talk about mental health. Anecdotally, employees respond really well to leaders that are willing to lead the conversation by saying that they are not always doing OK, and being open about the uncertainty we face through video messages and virtual town hall meetings.

Plan channels for a permanent hybrid workforce.

We should accept that there will never be a full return to face-to-face internal communications. Both leaders and employees say they want to continue home-working when the pandemic ends.

This means that our current digital channels such as intranets become more important. But our channel strategies need to recognize that ‘work’ will continue to happen more in tools like Microsoft Teams, so we need to be connecting with staff there too. Plan to surface corporate news within these collaboration tools, for example by adding a news center section, or cross-posting headlines into an ‘all company’ channel.

Bring frontline workers to the fore.

Over the last few years, many deskless workers have become digitally connected, either through a BYOD policy for cell phones or tablets for sales teams and field engineers. In response, a new category of tool has emerged – the “employee app.”

Internal comms can play a key role here. Frontline workers often feel they are under-appreciated, but we can use digital channels to collate their stories and propagate them through the rest of the company. When all the desk workers were sent home at utility company Wessex Water for example, they compiled a selfie video compilation showing their teams that were still fixing pipes, testing water quality and supporting customers. It helped show that the business was still as active as ever, and also contributed to that sense of belonging.

Get ready for a growing gig workforce.

Economic stress is likely to see more layoffs in 2021, and often it leads to those without a job moving into the freelance market. This is echoed in a survey of executives by Mercer, where 77% say they expect the majority of their workforce to be gig-economy workers by 2025.

This means that communicators need to be ready to engage contingent workers as a distinct audience and at scale. Our digital channels need to be able to segment and target messaging appropriately. For example, gig workers shouldn’t see updates about health plans, but they do need to know about operational changes and company values if they are to deliver their best work.

Across all of these five themes there are things that have been growing for years, but which have been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Engaging employees digitally is no longer an additional set of activities; it is at the core of how many businesses will be operating for the long term.

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting. He has helped multinationals develop intranet and digital workplace strategies for over 20 years.

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