Portfolio perspective: how can teams plan their internal communication strategy?

Read Time: 8 Min
Office from above

There is no doubt that internal communication has been transformed during 2020, often on the fly as leadership teams and people across the business had to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and remote operations. ECI’s Commercial Team has been supporting our portfolio CEOs and HR leaders with how they think about communication, sharing best practice and top tips from across the businesses we back. As England enters a second lockdown, indicating that Covid-19 disruptions will be with us for longer than we thought, some of those knee-jerk transformations will need to be revisited and formalised for the long term. 

In this portfolio perspective series, we surveyed CEOs and HR leaders across our portfolio, to understand how they responded to lockdown, and what initiatives they plan to take forwards. We have looked at questions around getting the future of working from home right; making sure you have visibility over what matters; and building on the wellbeing focus. In our survey 100% of the HRDs we asked said that they saw increased top down communication and visibility during lockdown, whether it was specific one-to-ones or townhalls. Now that we have the time to step back and look at what worked and what didn’t in the first lockdown, what might teams want to consider as they enter second lockdown with more experience under their belt? In this fourth piece in the series we ask…

How can teams plan their internal communication strategy for the second lockdown and further into 2021? 

Looking back to March one of the most remarkable things was how quickly companies adapted to the need to both communicate different things and in different ways. Internal communication escalated in importance, as leadership teams looked to assuage concerns around how business would continue, job security, new ways of working, keeping in touch without physical meetings, as well as combatting some of the personal parts of lockdown in a pandemic such as struggles with isolation, mental health and grief. 

This increased and adapted communication was seen across our portfolio, with many seeing employee engagement scores actually increasing, which in the context of lockdown is a remarkable achievement. Employee surveys demonstrated a sense of pride coming out of lockdown stronger than before, and a real appreciation in what leadership teams were doing to support their people. However, what might have worked at the start of 2020 won’t necessarily be right going forwards, and with slightly more breathing space this time around, it is worth making sure that the role of internal communication doesn’t lose its importance just because we are more used to new ways of operating. 

1. Take stock

If you haven’t already taken stock to ask your people what worked and what didn’t work last lockdown, it is well worth taking the time to do so. We’d always recommend doing this after any large scale change but it’s all the more important in 2020 as this isn’t a post-mortem that gets filed way, we’re very much still living through this so all information you can gather is incredibly relevant. As well as asking what worked last time, asking what employees would like to see this time in terms of support is a positive way to democratise the solution. Taking a temperature check now should help inform messaging as well. Employees may well have adjusted to working from home and the related isolation, but they may now need more of a morale boost as the novelty of the situation and some of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ seen in spring is replaced by grudging acceptance. 

One of the questions all leadership teams should have a view on is around how much communication people are after. If the mantra of lockdown in March was ‘you can’t overcommunicate’ – the goal posts have probably shifted this time around. Chances are people may not want daily updates or weekly socials, but by understanding what did work and what didn’t, and how people are feeling as new restrictions roll in, you’ll be able to take a much more informed view where people neither feel spammed nor out in the cold. 

The questions don’t have to just be in the context of the pandemic either. At ECI we recently surveyed team members about how they saw the future of work in terms of remote vs in-office working, taking Covid-19 out of the equation, giving a basis from which to start planning how people want to operate and communicate more generally. 

2. Training evolves 

In our recent article on lessons learned from the 2020 ECI People Forum, one of the topics discussed was how new training needs had emerged out of the ongoing increase in remote working, whether in a permanent or hybrid model. At the start of the year communication training that had to be set up at pace often focused on how leadership teams communicated virtually, or how people might want to pitch for new business of manage clients. Companies did a really good job of quickly getting up a steep curve here, often using free online resources, but there may be wider training needs that have been neglected.

For example, have people in your business been trained on how to give feedback virtually? Outside of your senior team, have people been given training around how to communicate via different channels? What about how people collaborate internally, have they been given effective training tools to do so successfully when remote? 

As you look to planning for 2021, now is a good time to start with a blank piece of paper on training needs. If you look at types of communication that have had to adapt to a virtual or hybrid model, where have people been given pointers on how to do it successfully and are there any gaps? The most visible forms of communication may be ones where scope for improvement is easier to spot – but don’t forget all the day-to-day interactions that have been transformed during 2020 and may now need some attention.

3. From communication to collaboration 

The rush for new tech adoption at the start of the pandemic, dominated by Zoom and Microsoft Teams, was largely focused on communication needs. How will we talk to one another and replace our meetings virtually? But for many tools that is just scratching the surface. For example, Teams has a range of additional bolt-on functions such as Planner and Whiteboard that can really help drive virtual collaboration that a lot of people don’t know about despite using Teams throughout the day. Ask yourself: have your people actually been trained how to use the communication tools of your organisation or did they just learn on the fly? There’s a real question on consistency of use and application. 

One of the big questions to ask about your communication tech is where it sits in relation to the rest of your technology stack. Are people consistently using the same channels to communicate or are they flitting across multiple tools? If people are working on a project, are there multiple places they are looking for files or is it all in one place? Is that place somewhere where they can also collaborate on relevant documents? Is that where they understand tasks and timelines? 

There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but the tech revolution of 2020 has given people a fantastic opportunity to rethink how their different tech tools are working for them. Has more technology added to the noise or simplified it? Chances are the tools you’re already using provide more solutions than you might think but your people may not be getting the most out of them. 

Woman logs in to remote communication platform

4. Formalise your comms policy 

Most companies don’t have formal policies around how people interact, beyond generally ensuring the people you hire reflect your values and culture. However, one of the points that came out of the recent People Forum, is that virtual communication does have a different etiquette that can be harder to pick up on. You might know not to barge in on someone when they’re in a meeting, but do you check their diary before ringing them on Teams? You wouldn’t ignore people sitting in on your meeting, but if you are running a hybrid meeting are you including both in-person and virtual attendees equally? Holidays used to feel sacred when someone wasn’t in the office and remote working was less common, but now the tech barriers are reduced are holidays becoming less sacred. 

Codifying rules via a charter and giving people permission to switch off will help all to adapt to a world where we aren’t able to read body language and where the division between work and life have blurred. It will also help leadership teams to define what their culture looks like in a virtual world. 

5. Be prepared to manage various locations 

Virtualisation of the workplace has meant that employees can now work from anywhere which has led to many people understandably asking whether there is any different between a few miles and a few hundred, and pushing the boundaries, literally, on that question. Be prepared for requests from employees asking to work from ever more distant locations, perhaps whilst their family is on holiday, and communicate your policy clearly. Making people aware of this early on can help to avoid difficult conversations down the line. Many employees may not be aware of the tax and employment law implications of working overseas, and it’s important to make sure your company has a policy in place to help guide them through that if overseas work is permitted. Remember that actions by senior leaders will often be cited in such conversations, so it is worth making sure that management are leading by example here. 

6. Don’t forget the physical

It may feel innocuous – with so much of the UK and Ireland in lockdown – to talk about physical meetups, but it is important not to forget that we will be able to socialise again at some point. For many companies, people will still be going into offices, and once restrictions lift, people will start to socialise together again. It is important not to be on the back foot and only have a policy of ‘don’t spend any time together.’ Clearly keep an eye on regulations, but when it is possible to have a socially distanced drink or group collaboration sessions, make sure you are providing a steer, because otherwise chances are these things will still be going on without any guidance or control, especially if the expectation is still for people to come into the office.

Each office will have their own optimists and pessimists for when we can get back to some semblance of normal, as well as different interpreters of existing guidance, so creating a traffic light system for what is encouraged or discouraged, and someone responsible for reviewing this, may well be a sensible approach in a rapidly changing world. 

And if we are in ‘red’ on physical meet-ups for a while, it is worth making sure you think through how to keep people engaged, especially if it takes us into the festive season when traditional office parties, drinks and dinners abound. What does that look like virtually if at all? It’s worth remembering that this is a time when your people will feel the absence of social interaction more than any other time of the year, and developing a social calendar to address that will surely help.

About the author

Rich Pearce

"I work in ECI’s Commercial Team to support our management teams in unlocking growth opportunities by offering hands on support as they need it. I also lead our People function which involves driving the people agenda across the portfolio and managing much of the HR-related functions internally here at ECI."

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