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Employee Communications for the 'New' Workplace (Q+A)

The following questions were asked during our live digital event,  Refocus your employee communication for the new workplace. As we ran out of time to answer them all, authors  Sue Dewhurst and  Liam FitzPatrick have kindly provided the answers here.

Q: Is neuroscience the same as psychological safety? (Linne)

Neuroscience studies the nervous system, including the brain, so it’s a wider topic than psychological safety.

However, insights from neuroscience would certainly be valuable if you’re looking at psychological safety. For example, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain processes ‘painful’ experiences in social situations in the same way as physical pain – the same neural network is activated. Feelings of embarrassment or humiliation, being publicly criticized or ostracized are quite literally ‘painful’ and could trigger the threat response we talked about in our session.

Q: Is communication more about influence or impact? (Ayshea)

If we’d had time to answer this in the session, we’d have started by asking you to tell us a bit more about what’s behind your question.

In the absence of this context, we’ll say we both believe in communication being outcome-focused. We communicate not for communication’s sake, but as a means to an agreed, defined end.

But comms professionals rarely have a lot of power, which means they get those results by being able to influence and work with others effectively.

In the past, we have written about understanding what we called your ‘inventory of influence’ and there is some great work out there that’s worth looking at that talks about:

  • What knowledge you need to make yourself useful – such as audience insight, the reach of particular channels, or what other organizations do in certain situations
  • The relationships which help you achieve results at every level and nook and cranny of your organization
  • The skills which you need to be good at such as writing, facilitation, audience research or making things happen. What are the things which people always beat a path to your door for?
  • The processes which you really need to control such as making sure people are not swamped with email and being able to decide objectives or manage air traffic control.

Take time to understand what makes people in your organization valued and see how you, as a communicator, can make a difference.

Q: Do you think leaders are scared to get it wrong, or that they do not know how to communicate? (Ayshea)

We meet many leaders who are really good communicators, and we’d say most managers are doing their best in often difficult, very time-pressured circumstances. At the risk of being controversial, it’s easy for organizations to blame managers for not communicating, without creating the conditions which help them to succeed. Some ways professional communicators can help managers are:

  • Get to know what it’s like to stand in their shoes. Watch, listen and learn. Shadow a line manager or spend time in their working environment. Understand more about what hinders good communication for them and what would make it easier.
  • Help managers know what’s expected of them. The word ‘communication’ could mean many things to many people. Remember to ‘direct the rider’ – be specific about what you hope to see.
  • Make sure someone talks with managers about the important issues, so they have a chance to really understand them, challenge and ask questions. It’s not easy to take someone else’s briefing notes/materials and make them meaningful, in your own words. It’s even harder if you don’t really understand it yourself, you don’t necessarily fully agree with it, and you’re dreading people asking you questions which you don’t know the answers to.
  • Provide support materials and simple tools, and train managers on how to use them.
  • Ask for feedback, listen to it and act on it.

Q: Some people are good verbal communicators but struggle communicating the same messaging, succinctly in the written format (where video/audio is available). Do you have any advice for that? (Lee)

Well, you could choose to play to people’s strengths. Ask the people who are great verbal communicators to do the talking; ask those who are good with writing to focus on that.

Alternatively, teach people to write. Just one or two simple techniques/tools can make a difference, such as knowing how to pick out the few most important points and write them upfront; or work on replacing corporate-speak and business buzzwords with everyday language.

Q: Do you think interesting, longer-form content has a place in comms? (Sarah)

If it’s genuinely interesting content – from the perspective of the reader, not the organization – then possibly. Although just because your Exec team thinks a subject is fascinating, doesn’t mean everyone will!

So, if you are producing longer-form content make it attractive and easy to digest. Signpost it, put it in the right place and don’t overdo it. For example, organizations with print publications might use these for longer deep-dives into topics. It could also work for niche topics from specific segments of the organization. We meet plenty of engineers who love to dive into detail if it’s a topic they’re interested in.

Don’t bank on everyone reading it though! It’s definitely a pull, not a push.

Q: You mentioned process. Could you share some other opinions about communication strategy related to building and sustaining resilience? (Stewart)

This is a big issue and we’re conscious that it’s not one we can do justice to in just a few lines.

However, we do want to stress how important it is for communications practitioners to think about themselves during COVID-19 and the following tough times that are ahead. It’s easy to fall into a way of working which involves running on adrenalin, responding to emerging events at pace on a seemingly unrelenting treadmill.

It’s easy to just ‘get on with it’ without considering how it might be impacting you to share difficult news over and over without a break, working alone or with stressed colleagues.

Don’t put your own self-care on hold until things settle down. We found each other as professional friends in tough times and kept each other sane when, in different organizations, we were juggling almost identical issues. We recommend it as a strategy for every communicator – find a professional friend who you can share your feelings with, who is likely to know what you are going through and offer a bit of perspective.

Q: Given the current climate (I.e. rising unemployment levels), which do you think will be more important for recovery - retention or recruitment? (Jessica)

Holding onto experienced and loyal staff must always be better than hiring afresh. Communications has a massive role to play in shaping the employee experience and ensuring that colleagues are listened to.

Q: How can employees express to leaders that information is not being communicated effectively within their organization? (Stevo)

Communication is a two-way process and organizations need ways of listening to their people. How that happens will depend on the organization.

Where organizations have a communications team, we’d hope that team would be listening, auditing, and measuring. Other methods could be through conversations on social media (e.g. Yammer, Workplace), through informal forums (such as coffee/discussion/Q&A in smaller groups), through the line – line managers feeding upwards – or through feedback accounts or similar.

Whatever the method, our suggestion would be to give concrete examples of issues that will matter to leaders. Simply saying ‘communication doesn’t work around here’ won’t help to direct any action.

Q: How do you help leaders clear the path for others, when they usually have lots of priorities and sometimes do not listen to the advice of comms professionals? (Nadia)

That sounds like a simple question with the potential for a lot of issues lurking behind it!

Without knowing more, one thing we’d suggest is to ask coaching questions, to help leaders be clearer about the priorities, and understand why it matters. ‘Telling’ (aka ‘giving advice’) often isn’t very successful. Whereas asking questions invites people to work the issues through themselves. That way they gain insights and their own conclusions.

Q: Can you share any examples of companies who are getting their internal comms right? I.e. Directing the rider, motivating people and clearing the path (Krishan)

We’d probably say different organizations have different strengths. We included over 20 practical case studies in our book Successful Employee Communications, and each was focused on an area we’d heard about that we really liked from that specific organization.

For example, the leadership communication chapter includes case studies from two Swedish organizations. There’s a lot of academic focus on the concept of ‘communicative leadership’ in Sweden, so several of the large organizations headquartered there place a lot of emphasis on it.

If we had to choose one overall example – Sue’s choice is Aviva, which provided two great case studies in the book and she’s been part of a few judging panels over the years that have recognized their work as exemplary. Liam is also a massive fan of how Novo Nordisk approach communications, working analytically with local leaders to raise their game.

Did you miss the live event?  Watch the full recording online.

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