Peter Davenport at Definition Group explains how innovation in communications can help bridge the divide between corporate requirements and employee preferences.
Over the last eighteen months, British businesses have faced their biggest peacetime challenge in coping with the disruptive impacts of the pandemic. For some, the crisis created opportunity. For others, it was a question of simple survival.
But for them all it meant dramatic and rapid changes to the traditional office-based ways of working as they transitioned to a remotely operating workforce.
There is no doubt that this seismic shift to home-working enabled many businesses to survive and, indeed, for some to thrive. However, if the temporary becomes the permanent, will the negative consequences outweigh the positive benefits?
The conundrum now facing businesses across the economy is how to satisfy the corporate desire to see office desks fully occupied again, with the expressed wishes of a majority of employees to work from home permanently or at least for much of the time.
Will we ever return to the office?
A number of surveys have brought the issue into sharp relief. The latest by the BBC revealed 79% of business leaders and 70% of the public believed it unlikely that people will ever return to offices at the same pre-Covid rate.
Half of the 530 senior business leaders who responded said that workers remaining at home would adversely impact creativity and collaboration, whilst the majority of workers stated their preference is to continue working remotely for at least some of the week.
This dilemma echoed the findings of new research, commissioned by the Definition Group, which found that the positive benefits of the new model in terms of a better work-life balance for employees were widely recognised.
However, they were almost equally countered by concerns about the potential negative impacts on business performance. These include the challenge of maintaining a shared culture, nurturing creativity and keeping up morale whilst delivering effective training, ensuring staff loyalty and retaining the camaraderie and cohesion that make for a motivated and productive workforce.
The one certain lesson of the past eighteen months has been the critical role of communications.
The role of communications post Covid-19
Moving forward, that importance will only grow as businesses grapple with a new management challenge. There is a need to embrace fresh and innovative methods of integrated internal and external communications that inform but don’t irritate, engage but don’t exasperate.
Communication must effectively connect remotely based colleagues to a shared sense of purpose that is vital in successful organisations.
In the Definition survey, overall 92% of decision makers, reported that communications priorities had changed since the start of the pandemic; 21% said that they wanted to increase the frequency of communication, 18% wanted to increase the use of owned media, 17% intended to do more social media, and 14% planned to boost their PR.
Andy Holt, Managing Director of internal communications agency Words&Pictures, has pointed out that the pandemic, while requiring a swift tactical response, in many cases did much to align colleagues to their organisation’s purpose.
“Increased leadership visibility, through PC and tablet screens brought a genuine authenticity to corporate communications, raising engagement levels across their audiences. It also accelerated the union between internal and external communications and brand as teams collaborated to unify messaging and create a joined-up ‘inside-out’ response to communications.
“This approach will continue to reverberate as organisations reset strategy, seek to align their workforce within a hybrid model of flexible working, support their people’s health and well-being whilst creating a more diverse workforce of many talents.”
Negative pressures on productivity from a remote and disengaged workforce is one of the constant worries for management highlighted in many recent surveys.
Louise Vaughan, Managing Director of the Definition PR and reputation management agency, believes that it is organisations which innovate and supercharge their communications to meet continually evolving commercial and employee needs which will be the long term winners. “Technology”, she says “has been able to connect colleagues over screens but unless the content itself is not engaging and presented in compelling ways then its impact will wane.”
A business that previously had a 500 desk HQ now has, in effect, a 500 strong network of one-person branch offices. Those members of staff are both an internal audience and, because of their geographically disparate locations, an external one too. So it is important that communications reflect this reality.
Ms Vaughan stresses that “an informed workforce is an engaged and more productive workforce. Key to achieving that is having a shared sense of ‘purpose beyond profit’ within a business. This acts as a unifying force for individuals working remotely, making them feel part of a greater whole and instilling a real sense of pride.
“Communications that are engaging and empathetic, that respect the boundaries between business and personal lives are core to creating and sharing that purpose. For example, CSR initiatives designed so that home working individuals can contribute to the overall corporate objective are a great way of bringing people together.”
The key to achieving this is to develop new communication models that provide integrated and innovative, multi-channel messaging to internal and external audiences with equal impact.
Peter Davenport is Strategic Consultant at corporate communications group Definition Group. The Definition Group’s A unified voice report surveyed 500 CEOs and Board directors at a broad cross-sector of businesses, each with a least 250 employees and with annual revenues ranging from £50 million to more than £500 million.
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com