Winston Churchill once said: “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication.” If ever there’s been a time when mere management won’t cut it and true leadership is necessary—this is it.
Like many HR executives, your last few weeks have probably been spent leading non-stop pandemic-driven business-continuity planning efforts and then getting the word out to employees. You’ve probably addressed more topics in less time than ever before: travel restrictions, office closures, hygiene guidelines, reductions in force, work-from-home arrangements, IT security, privacy questions, etc.
But now, we appear to be entering a new phase. As states debate opening their economies, businesses are busy preparing return-to-work plans for every possible scenario, in every location, for every employee preference.
It won’t be easy.
Whatever your company’s plans eventually look like, one key variable could decide success or failure, influencing whether employees buy-in—or—opt out: compelling corporate communications. Below are observations and tips based on operational changes we enacted at Resources Global Professionals, followed by significant and frequent outreach to our more than 4,000 professionals who work with more than 2,400 clients in 48 countries around the globe. For simplicity’s sake, I’m bundling them as the “3 C’s” of HR communication. Whatever you call them, all three can serve you now that return-to-work is at the top of many companies’ HR agendas.
Start at the top, but don’t stop there. Your senior leadership needs to establish the credibility for all your pandemic communications beginning with 30,000-foot messages about enterprise health, overall philosophy amidst crisis, company-wide policies and statements of principles. From there, regional, local and functional leaders can drill down with more details and granularity at lower altitudes, including which offices are opening when, how and what changes are expected. In our case, we have weekly messages going out from our senior leaders thematically discussing the impact to specific parts of the business—go-to-market teams, business operations, the back-office—followed by regional and local leaders cascading more specific information on down the line. This strategy aligns the leadership of the organization and instills trust because of the alignment.
But communicating about the new realities should not be top-down only. It should also be bottom-up and organic from within your organization. With so many negative headlines hitting us these days, offer employees open communication platforms and channels to express themselves. Providing a safe space to relieve pressure and anxiety is definitely the right move. This channel will foster authenticity in the communication and encourage transparency. Also, build communication channels led by peers that reinforce the positive via online forums or video sessions for wellness, yoga instruction, book clubs, family breaks or master classes. For example, we recently created a virtual learning program where employees can volunteer to tutor the K-8 children of other employees. The program helps give parents a much-needed break but also provides employees an opportunity to give back and put their free time to good use.
Style’s nice, but content is king. I would counsel you to focus on content that addresses employees’ No. 1 concern: “What does this mean for me?” Rumors flourish in the absence of credible information, so be as candid, factual and specific as possible. If you don’t have all the answers, say so. But be sure to follow up.
Create feedback loops so employees’ concerns are heard—and, most importantly—addressed. For example, several online pulse surveys we conducted helped us better understand our colleagues’ concerns about commuting and, ultimately, we designed better policies. A listening component can turn your employee communication into more of a two-way conversation than a one-way lecture. All employees then become part of the solution.
At the same time you’re communicating “need to know,” also communicate “nice to know” by acknowledging employees, instilling pride and modeling positive behaviors for others to emulate. For example, our weekly Business Continuity Team emails include policy announcements as well as stories about employees sewing masks for doctors and nurses, donating blood or cooking for elderly neighbors. Don’t just tell them you care—show them you care by acknowledging their hard work and generous spirit.
During times of non-stop change like these, it’s understandable that employees are seeking as much stability and predictability as humanly possible. One way to establish at least a modicum of control is by creating a regular communications cadence so people know when to expect information and look forward to it.
Message repetition also helps. And to be truly effective, it’s important to vary how employees hear that repetition. Because people consume information differently—some are more visual, others prefer the written word, while others trust numbers more—we try to vary our communication mediums with emails, blog posts, infographics and short videos. It’s better to have one message that’s communicated via three different channels than three different emails.
A well-planned communications cadence—promised and delivered—can not only help create a much-needed routine for employees but it can also help build institutional trust. Oh, and by the way, at a time when we’re all taking virtual meetings from our kitchen or home office, no one’s expecting Hollywood-level video production. A simple, from-the-heart video message recorded on your mobile phone will go a long way and be far more authentic.
Finally, as companies conduct their return-to-work planning, we’re all learning that the future of work will likely involve a blended mix of flexible work-from-home plus work-in-office solutions. And, although I don’t know the specific policies your company will likely enact, I do know this: This isn’t a time for mere management. This is a time for HR leadership. The difference—as always—will be communication. That much will never change, and now’s the time to act.
Kate Duchene is the CEO of RGP, a publicly held global consulting firm enabling rapid business outcomes by bringing together the right people to create transformative change. She previously was an employment attorney for a global law firm.