Australians seem pretty much agreed that remote working for “office jobs” will continue even when the COVID-19 pandemic eases. Employees have discovered the joys of flexibility, have adopted a new work-life balance that is not as constrained by a rigid delineation between work hours and non-work hours, and look with new eyes at the time wasted through daily commuting. Equally, employers have gained confidence that certain jobs can be done without physical presence onsite, in many cases have established a new level of trust with their employees, and can also see the financial benefits of reducing their office space.
The current level of offsite working was forced upon us through necessity, driven first by health concerns and then mandated by governments. Companies moved quickly to adapt (or “pivot”, if you prefer the corona-lingo), and communications teams worked hard to keep employees supported and connected, urgently adapting their systems and strategies as each day brought new challenges. In the main, companies and their comms teams have done this well, but a survival strategy triggered by urgent need is very different from a long-term plan.
Challenges for internal communications
If remote working really is here to stay, internal communications professionals are going to play a crucial role in keeping employees engaged and productive. They will also need to find ways to replicate aspects of a physical workplace that we have taken for granted– physically coming together has in the past enabled and promoted things like joint creativity, knowledge sharing, mentoring, and a feeling of belonging. Face-to-face interactions of staff and even the fit-out and décor of the physical office contribute to shaping organisational culture – if the office loses its central position in an organisation there is a risk to identity that runs with this.
Things will be further complicated by the fact that not all employees will work remotely, while some will work offsite some days and in-office on others (which may not coincide with in-office days of their closest colleagues). The novelty of offsite working, and the can-do attitude of employees currently motivated by the shared challenge of COVID-19, may diminish over time without effective engagement strategies. Similarly, the longer employees spend out of the office, the greater the risk they will lose a sense of connection with the business and each other. Businesses should be thinking carefully now about how they will maintain productivity and loyalty in a post-COVID environment, and the role of their communications team in supporting this.
How internal communications teams can help
The exact strategy will vary from business to business, and depend on a range of factors including industry, size, workforce demographic, business culture and geographical footprint. But there are a few areas common to all that will need to be addressed:
Operational updates – keeping staff informed about operational matters will be as important as ever. The emphasis will be on timeliness and accuracy – communications that are clear and effective, sharing what is needed when it is needed. But with staff receiving more electronic communications than ever, it will also be important not to overload them, or indulge in unnecessarily lengthy missives.
Health – organisations will need to communicate with their employees about both physical and mental health. On the physical side, there are obligations around ensuring a safe workplace, which includes checking in on the health & safety aspects of their home office. And mental health experts have made it clear they expect greater numbers of people experiencing loneliness, emotional distress and depression. The best employers will have effective strategies that assist senior management in being proactive about supporting employees.
Motivation and engagement – how do you keep staff motivated about a business or cause that has had its physical hub suspended? Collaborative online platforms offer options, but workers are already complaining of Zoom fatigue. Eased restrictions may prompt more regular off-site gatherings, whether for all staff or targeted segments. Electronic newsletters, tailored apps and organisation intranets will also have a role. Expect some innovations in this area. Many organisations have built significant trust and loyalty with staff during the pandemic, in part because of the insights we have all gained into one another’s lives. Employers have a unique opportunity to build on that emotional connection.
Encouraging dialogue – there is a danger of communications travelling in one direction only as an organisation seeks to keep its staff informed. But seeking staff feedback and encouraging two-way dialogue will be important both to making staff feel valued and engaged, and to ensuring that their insights are captured.
Supporting collaboration – “water cooler” conversations and snatched conversations in the office sometimes produced solutions to problems that an employee had struggled with alone. How is this teamwork and collaboration replicated in a remote-work setting?
Mentoring and onboarding – inducting new staff, and investing in development of existing staff, are two of the most significant challenges of a dispersed operating environment. Organisations will need to find ways to encourage peer-to-peer connections, especially for new staff, as well as building mentor relationships across seniority levels.
Maintaining connection and culture – it is one thing for an organisation to have an established culture as it heads into a remote working situation, but another altogether to maintain that culture over many months, as staff come and go and connections are lost. Finding ways of addressing this will be crucial from a reputational perspective also - the most effective brand ambassadors are employees who feel closely connected with their company and proud of the culture.
A future that incorporates more remote working offers a real opportunity to communications professionals to demonstrate their value and help shape their company’s future. A strong strategy will play a decisive role in how a business transforms and recovers from the massive disruption caused by COVID-19. It is never too soon to start planning.