Like all crises affecting companies, the COVID-19 emergency brought employee communication to the forefront — this time even more than usual.
With physical distancing being enforced worldwide, employee communication became the primary way to promote closeness between people in organizations. In particular, employee communication managed various challenges and expressed its highest potential.
The Centre for Employee Relations and Communication (CERC) at Università IULM conducted a study that analyzed the employee communication strategies used by Italian companies during these difficult times. Two focus groups and 10 interviews with employee communication managers outlined a qualitative picture of the challenges that companies have faced with the help of employee communication. This qualitative analysis was complemented with a survey on a sample of 116 employee communication managers working in Italian companies.
The study’s qualitative stage outlined three main categories of employee communication strategies:
- Creating a sense of security.
- Sustaining a sense of belonging.
- Activating employees as allies of the organization.
The survey showed that the strategy aimed at creating a sense of security was deployed by focusing on the following communication objectives:
- Providing information on the protective measures and behaviors to be adopted by employees
- Adapting and clarifying the measures undertaken by authorities
- Explaining the company plans to support business continuity.
The strategy aimed at sustaining a sense of belonging was used by supporting the “distant but united” spirit and the pride of serving the country, supporting employees in their work-life balance, and managing the climate of worry, sadness, and conflicts.
Finally, the strategy aimed at activating employees as organizational allies was brought into action by explaining the organization’s commitment to deal with the emergency, activating behaviors aimed at overcoming the crisis, and involving employees in initiatives aimed at sustaining external stakeholders.
The surveyed managers underlined that their role during the COVID-19 crisis became more valuable and strategic. After comparing this study’s findings with a similar survey conducted in 2019, the Centre found an increase in the relevance of the employee communication manager’s role. Namely, implementing tools and initiatives (mean of 4.30 on a scale of 1 to 5 in 2020, versus 3.89 in 2019); managing communication processes (4.26 in 2020 versus 3.53 in 2019); participating in the definition of strategies (3.97 in 2020 versus 2.95 in 2019); listening internally (3.76 in 2020 versus 3.14 in 2019); and counseling managers and other teams regarding communication issues (3.67 in 2020 versus 3.12 in 2019).
In particular, employee communication managers perceived that, among all the activities they perform, the strategic component grew most during the 2020 crisis time compared to the 2019 pre-crisis phase.
This crisis experience led to a series of changes in employee communication processes, style, and characteristics that, according to employee communication managers, will remain perceivable in the future. In particular, surveyed managers underlined that, following the emergency, employee communication will increase the attention placed on digital communication, human aspects and people’s care, creation of meaning, and the management of concrete and real problems. Additionally, internal communication will become increasingly crucial for effective external communication, will converge more with external communication, more relevant to the business strategy, more oriented toward informality and less self-referential, and more important for selecting and interpreting information from external media.
It will be interesting to see how the prolonged status of this crisis will further challenge the processes of employee communication in organizations in the coming months. It will also be interesting to see if and how the strategies, activities, and style of employee communication implemented by companies in this second year of the pandemic will show the capability to sustain the organizational spirit and engagement in a persistent condition of crisis.
Alessandra Mazzei is director of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at Università IULM of Milan, where she is also coordinator of the Bachelor Program in Corporate Communication and Public Relations. Read more of Mazzei’s work on IPR’s blog.