Employee communications seems to have regressed backwards since the pandemic. That’s unfortunate, because during the early days of Covid 19 leaders ramped up their communication efforts, and trust in leadership increased dramatically. The goodwill that leaders built up during the pandemic is dissipating fast.
70% of communicators think their communications are concise and engaging, 60% of employees disagree, according to a recent Axios HQ survey. The inevitable result is that employees, who now working remotely, are left feeling disengaged and unconnected to their leaders.
The old ways of communicating before hybrid work don’t work anymore.
Ironically, leaders are sending more communications than ever to employees, inundating their inboxes. But they’re not prioritizing or contextualizing what they’re saying. More is less. Employees ignore generic messages that don’t directly impact their work or don’t reflect their experiences in a humanistic way. Hybrid work has changed not just how we work, but why we work.
Not only are people talking about when, where, and how they work, but also why they work. They really want to recontract, in some sense, the real meaning of work. — Satya Nadella, Microsoft
Hybrid work is the largest change employees will experience in their lifetime of work, and not everyone feels the same way about it.
Some employees embrace hybrid work, others feel more comfortable in the office, and some want to stay completing remote. The change is most unsettling when a company’s vision for hybrid work is unclear. Employees ask, “Will I always have to juggle equipping two workspaces? Am I missing out on a promotion by staying home? If I go to the office, will the people I need to meet show up?
Leaders need to communicate that they don’t have all the answers about how the hybrid work model will work in their companies and acknowledge the myriad feelings employees have about hybrid work. Real, honest communications about what’s changing will go a long way re-establishing the trust leaders gained during the pandemic.
There’s a need to move away from communication cascades to circular communication channels that encourage two-way dialogue.
The traditional communications cascade that starts with senior leaders conveying a message down their ranks who then pass it through their ranks doesn’t work in a hybrid work environment of constant change. This linear type of communications doesn’t address cross-functional communications and the informal information sharing that naturally occurs in the office.
Executives must become comfortable with two-way communications.
The best option is to build a circular communications network with feedback loops. Collaboration platforms such as Slack or Webex teams can be used to send communications to self-forming groups and receive valuable real-time feedback. Employing circular communications requires that leaders adopt a new mindset of being comfortable with the impromptu, the unedited, and the ‘undone.’ Leaders must forego finely crafted and vetted messages, and instead opt for a short series of communications that inspire conversations. Leaders must show their vulnerability conducting these conversations with employees, just like they did during the pandemic.
Now it’s meetings, not the office, that define the bulk of the employee experience.
The office was a place where employees could absorb major aspects of both the culture and the employee experience. Visual cues such as the interior décor and observing how employees interact with each other at lunch provided a window into a company’s culture. Meetings, however, give employees a sense of their team’s role, the direction the company is taking, and how they fit in. Now, the meeting is how employees take in a company’s culture. And, there’s subtle nuances to meetings that reveal a lot about a company’s culture.
Leaders and participants get to construct their own ‘set’ for meetings which gives cues as to who they are and what they value, in lieu of personal introductions. If a person’s ‘set’ is just bare walls and fluorescent lights, it can make a person seem devoid of personality and unapproachable. On the other hand, leaders can communicate their humanity by bringing a bit of themselves on the ‘set’ of the meeting. The environment of the person behind the camera paints a powerful portrait of who they are.
Employees learn the norms for hybrid work from meeting interactions.
Organizers need to understand the critical role they play as communicators as they disseminate critical company information while giving it context. The organizer provides a virtual snapshot of the company culture.
Often the arbitrary ½ hour or 1 hour meeting format is overkill to cover the business at hand. In these instances, the meeting organizer has a huge opportunity to go beyond the agenda and start an impromptu conversation with meeting participants. Meeting organizers who share information beyond the agenda build their authority as a leader and a trusted communicator.
Storytelling can build strong bonds and make employees feel like they belong.
Loneliness was cited as one of the biggest challenges of hybrid work in a 2022 remote work survey of over 2000 global employees. Employees simply don’t have enough ways to authentically engage and connect with each other. Relating to others with stories is a great way to build a common bond and bring energy into the conversation.
People relate to stories, because they see bits of themselves in the experiences of others. Using storytelling techniques in leadership communications builds empathy, forges trust, and creates deeper connections. Authentic stories help employees connect to a company’s vision and feel they have a purpose to the larger vision.
All leaders must take a proactive, visible role in communications at all times.
Employees leave companies when they don’t feel valued or connected to their companies and leaders. As employees are now re-evaluating their relationships with work, companies can’t afford to have employees who feel alienated. Frequent, two-way conversations with employees makes them feel appreciated and part of the team. Frequent communications are important, but the messages should be bidirectional and personal. Speeches or All Hands with forced Q&A’s don’t cut it anymore.
Executive communications must be personal and relatable.
In my experience, when a leader says, “I’m always available or ask me anything,” no one asks, no one schedules a visit. Employees aren’t comfortable reaching out to leaders to ask the tough questions. The leader has the responsibility to initiate the conversation. And, when leaders take the initiative to build a communications loop with employee, it can have a huge impact on employee engagement.
I personally saw a dramatic shift in employee engagement with a program I designed for a large technology enterprise undergoing significant a change in their business model. Change was slow to take hold as leaders were perceived as unavailable, insincere, and misaligned. The leaders were able to shift that perception by conducting unscripted video meetings from their own desks, tackling the hard questions while establishing 1:1 virtual eye contact with participants. After attending these sessions, 95% of attendees believed their leaders could be trusted, and that leadership was aligned on the issues needing change.
We have to really deeply look at what is the lived experience and culture for anyone, and find that connection between the company’s mission and the individual’s mission and philosophy. – Satya Nadella, Microsoft
Companies that fail to implement effective communications strategies for hybrid work will experience a decrease in collaboration and an increase in employee disengagement. The net affect will be greater attrition rates and less innovation.
Communications can be a critical catalyst for promoting positive change. Leaders must consciously develop communication strategies to create cultures of belonging or let their good corporate cultures and employees drift away.