The current health crisis has completely altered the way companies communicate with their employees, and it has raised questions about the shape of internal communication after quarantine. What is the best way for a business to transition to this new communication phase? What are the implications and needs of a system that will continue to rely heavily on remote, digital communication? In this article, Sociabble founder and CEO Jean–Louis Bénard discusses his vision for how effective companies can adapt.
In a recent white paper, we listed some best practices associated with quarantine and working remotely. And as the situation progresses, what can we conclude, and especially anticipate, for the weeks to come?
Transitioning out of quarantine will pose more questions than containment.
Even if the lock-down posed many technical and human challenges thanks to its suddenness, it had the advantage of being “simple” in terms of its options: the employees worked remotely, or were put on partial unemployment, except for critical elements that had to organize themselves to maintain face-to-face activity. And yet, even in this “simple” configuration, the ability of companies to address the specific needs of each case has shown its limits. Examples: partially unemployed employees were given instructions for teleworking, simply because the company did not have a segmented approach in its communication; employees who did not have a work email address received the information late, and often outside of official channels.
After quarantine, the situation is likely to get complicated. Why? Because some employees, with the agreement of their company, will continue to work remotely. Others will return to the office. Maybe permanently, maybe in rotation. The quarantine forced the whole company to use digital tools, web conferences, and collaborative platforms to exchange all information. The transition out of lock-down will see the return of non-formal, non-digital, important exchanges, which will not be picked up by those still working remotely. On the contrary, employees who come to work will not be able to attend web conferences, general video meetings, etc., because they are stuck in slow motion transport. In short, informing employees and maintaining alignment, even though the company’s strategy may be going through a roller coaster ride, is going to be a difficult task for many companies, especially large ones.
“The transition out of lock-down will see the return of non-formal, non-digital, important exchanges, which will not be picked up by those still working remotely.”
What if we just kept the company in remote work mode? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A number of companies have already announced this: they will maintain teleworking for the coming months, precisely to avoid confusion and disorganization. This is what we have chosen to do at Sociabble. And we aren’t alone. Many tech companies have decided to follow this model and to take the plunge. Tata Consulting Services recently set an example by permanently switching 75% of its 450,000 employees to remote work.
Is it always easy? Absolutely not. First, because many companies have production tools that require a presence on site. Even in areas where you don’t expect it. For example, banking institutions ask employees to be on site to make customer transfers, which makes it impossible to telecommute. But above all, beyond production constraints, a long-term telework model is not necessarily what employees have “signed up” for. Certainly, when you live in a house in the country, when you have made your career decisions by integrating the remote work component, it’s relatively simple. When you live in a cramped apartment, when you have young children, it is much less so. Coming to work is part of the balance. Mandates on “telework for all” are therefore complex in many cases.
We will have to manage motivation and commitment within a difficult context.
In countries around the world, employees began working from home in good spirits, but they’re coming back with morale that’s anything but high. Limited travel for vacations, an economic crisis that has only just begun—it’s no surprise that spirits are low. The employees had time at home to reflect on the meaning of their life, the meaning of their work, their “impact.” Some return with doubts, others with high expectations. The positive statements of business leaders are many regarding the positive world to come when this is over, one that’s more responsible, more social. But the question remains, how will life go on in the middle of an economic crisis, under the pressure of stock market prices, and investors who have bet on hyper-growth? Unicorns who gave lessons to companies in the “old economy” on how to treat their employees, showed themselves in their true light when they had to lay off their workforce by the hundreds, or even the thousands, sometimes with simple Zoom group meetings followed by an immediate exit. How can we promise a better future, especially at the dawn of a possible “second wave” of the virus that could have even far more serious consequences?
Forced digital transformation strengthens the digital divide.
Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, reminded us just a few days ago: “We have seen two years of digital transformation in two months.” He’s right. Some companies jumped on the ball and decided to accelerate the process, to save their business—and also because they could afford it. Others, already short of cash or a clear-sighted leader, have only increased their backwardness. How do you bounce back when the rest of the market is going ahead? What message can you send to employees? These are good questions.
So what do we do then?
In this context, we should ask ourselves what best practices should be applied. The first is that of humility. We only know one thing for sure, which is that we don’t know anything. Because you can’t control the environment, you have to learn to adapt continuously, like a surfer on an unknown wave. Let’s look carefully at all the lessons provided by great individuals who know nothing about specific contexts, and who, like all of us, are experiencing this unique situation for the very first time.
1 – Have a vision for the company and communicate it to (re) give hope and motivation.
In this period of uncertainty, employees need, more than ever, to understand what the company’s vision is. Not a dehumanized vision, but an embodied vision. Top management must convey this vision, on video, live, or on demand, regularly. At Sociabble, as with many companies, we now meet once a week on Friday to share perspectives and for a Q & A session, in a 30 to 40-minute format. We do this because the long-term vision must be broken down into a strategy, then into adaptable tactics, which everyone must be able to hear and understand. It doesn’t matter that the strategy evolves according to unexpected difficulties. As long as it serves the same vision of what the company aims to become, this is essential.
2 – Help everyone understand how they fit into this vision.
Understanding the vision of the company is good. Knowing what it means for you is even better. Everyone must be able to understand how they fit into the vision, how they contribute to it, in order to be able to build a personal vision of their career at the company. How it will be concretely expressed in the days, weeks, and months that will follow. The company must help they employee get there. How can they do this? By going through managers to implement the strategy, but also by using targeted communication. Whether through newsletters, mobile notifications, videos, or engaging visuals, each profile within the business must receive their own distinct information. And it’s not just hierarchical groups, but dynamic, contextual, flexible groups. If the company is not able to communicate specifically, for example, to teams that remain teleworking in a given country, to teams that are going to return to factories with new instructions in another, etc., then yes, the company has a big problem: it’s walking blind down a steep path.
“Understanding the vision of the company is good. Knowing what it means for you is even better. Everyone must be able to understand how they fit into the vision, how they contribute to it, in order to be able to build a personal vision of their career at the company.”
Simple, engaging (and therefore visual) communication will help everyone build a new mental model of what their job will be today, and tomorrow. Even if this model will evolve with the intangibles of the crisis. It gives everyone an indispensable perspective. Not communicating under the pretext that you don’t know what’s going to happen is the worst option.
3 – Maintain alignment at all levels regardless of configuration.
Because the company may be changing its strategy, because it is redefining the “what” and “how” of each department, maintaining team alignment is essential. Alignment is one of the company’s priorities for me. It is alignment that allows autonomy and therefore speed: I make decisions independently because I know how my work must contribute to objectives that go beyond my personal scope. But how can we maintain this alignment in a chaotic context?
Daily team meetings, which allow for informal small group discussions, are essential. In our company, we have chosen to maintain daily meetings of 15 minutes at the start of the day, for all teams, a sort of virtual stand-up. Whether people are in the office or telecommuting, these meetings remain mandatory.
Here too, the company’s top-down communication, but adapted to each person’s profile, helps maintain this alignment. It can and must be accompanied by bottom-up communication: some of our customers share the same amount of content created by employees, regardless of their hierarchical level, showing, by means of a photo or a video how they incorporated the strategy within their context. What better way to convince the most reluctant to participate?
4 – Listen and then listen some more.
Despite everything that will be implemented, some of the employees will still face difficulties. Either because of their personal and family environment, or because what they are asked seems difficult, insurmountable, or perhaps even incomprehensible. If change was easy, it would be obvious. Yes, the sense of urgency is there, it often helps, but it can sometimes inhibit. Listening, understanding how this change is experienced by everyone is essential. The manager’s role is important, but their low availability limits their ability to listen. It is necessary to be able to deploy small surveys, on a large scale, and at very regular frequency, for example, pushed on mobile devices, to receive feedback. Is the strategy understood? Does it make sense to people? Is morale high? These surveys will provide answers that the Q & A sessions of the more general meetings will not.
What are the ultimate lessons, then?
In times of crisis, managers are often tempted to cut what is not production or sales. However, as companies prepare to return to unknown territory, their ability to communicate properly with their employees will play a key role in bringing about change, alignment, and motivation for all. This requires the resources that all corporate communications teams are demanding today. Let’s give them the means to do their job.
This difficult period will unquestionably reveal the companies that are led by true leaders. They will overcome adversity thanks to these leaders, who will have a vision, who will be able to communicate it and make the company adhere to it thanks to their leadership, but also their ability to listen. Executives who are interested in strategy as well as operations, who show their real involvement in the transformation (not just digital, but digital without a hint of doubt) of their business. Alas, the others are likely to face great difficulties, as they are led by managers trapped in their “cost reduction as the only way out” mentality, disconnected, ignored, or even looked down upon by their employees in the field. Hedgehogs on the highway, curled up in a ball, hoping in vain that their quills will protect them from the worst.
Ready for the next step in your communications transition? Sociabble can help.
If you are interested in learning more about our general vision for internal communication in times of transition, or about how Sociabble can help your company’s internal communication adjust to the new realities of digital transformation and remote work after isolation measures end, please feel free to get in touch. We’ve already helped dozens of companies in over 80 countries around the world, including industry leaders like Coca-Cola, Vinci, and L’Occitane.
To learn more and schedule a free demo, click here.