Why comms is key in times of uncertainty

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, businesses and employees entered a sudden period of uncertainty. Whether this was due to not knowing where revenue might come from or what furlough meant – along with individual concerns over job security, finances and health – it was all underpinned by a sudden, and very apparent, precariousness. Yet, during this extended moment of uncertainty, HR played an increasingly visible and important role as a hub of information and communication as changing guidelines and business plans necessitated clear guidance.

Yet, despite the importance of good comms and anecdotal evidence of many HR teams operating as effective communicators during the pandemic – data from Workplace from Facebook painted a pretty stark picture around leadership and comms during the coronavirus crisis. For example, almost one-third (32%) of staff said that communications from their leadership team during the pandemic felt cold and impersonal. 31% also claimed that leaders showed a lack of empathy for people’s personal lives. With sperate 2016 data from Peninsula – cited by FreshBusinessThinking – finding that a lack of communication at work was the biggest reason why employees wanted to leave their roles, it is crucial that HR and employers think about how they can better deliver comms in a way that is effective for staff. This particularly rings true in times of uncertainty where businesses need staff to help weather the storm.

Abby Guthkelch,

Head of Global Executive Solutions

“Lack of information creates a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by rumours and misinformation”

Why comms is key

Abby Guthkelch, Head of Global Executive Solutions at Workplace from Meta, believes that the biggest threat to employee trust and belonging – two core areas of HR’s remit – is uncertainty. In recent times, this has been seen in the form of a global pandemic which sparked a wealth of uncertainty regards job security, health and finances – something which HR strived to mitigate by keeping in contact with colleagues. She said: “Lack of information creates a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by rumours and misinformation. Leaders need to make sure that there is a regular cadence in communication to share information with employees, but also that they build in feedback loops to ensure that priority is also given to listening to them as well.”

As such, Guthkelch argues that workforces need a company-wide central hub where employees can be privy to important information and discussions. She explained: “This is why you need equitable access to information through a central platform or community where everyone in the organisation can be part of company-wide conversations, where everyone can participate, talk, listen, learn and connect (regardless of role type, place of work or seniority)."

Communicating well during uncertain times

With Guthkelch demonstrating the importance of clear and regular communication, employers and HR should consider how they can deliver better comms for their workforce. For Guthkelch, there are several ‘best practice’ tips for communicating during periods of uncertainty. The first centres around giving everyone access to information and updates at the same time. She explained: “You can do that by prioritising online communication as the primary method for sharing updates across the organisation, so everyone (remote and in-person) are consistently using the same channels to access and share information.”

The important role of people managers in uncertain times

When organisations go through any period of uncertainty – whether this is a restructure, period of digital transformation or a global pandemic – employees will likely turn to their managers for answers.

As the leaders responsible for the day-to-day running of teams, people managers play a crucial role, particularly when times are uncertain.

This mantra is supported by Guthkelch who said that “people managers play a pivotal role in establishing team and cultural norms that foster connection and an open, inclusive workplace”.

She added: “They are the glue that binds an organisation together, and with access to the right training, autonomy and technology can be the anchor point for individuals particularly at times of uncertainty.”

Therefore, HR and employers should recognise the important role that people managers play and provide them with the necessary tools to properly support staff during uncertain periods.

Guthkelch added that it’s also crucial that employers consider how they are communicating and connecting with their people. She said that thought should be given to how easily messages can be conveyed, as well as whether human connections can be built. “One of the silver linings from the 20 months is that leaders from all industries are connecting with people through video and not just video conferencing for meetings – they have been leaning into live broadcasting. People watch live video 10 to 20 times longer than on-demand content, making live streaming a powerful way to deliver important communications. 70% of our communication is non-verbal – gestures, tone, word emphasis, facial expressions – all work to convey meaning to people, it is not just what we say, it’s how we say it. Access to this digital body language improves the effectiveness of your message and creates the emotional connection with your audience,” Guthkelch added.

Aside from this, Guthkelch also encourages employers and HR to encourage a two-way dialogue in a way that employees can voice their concerns as opposed to solely being handed information. She continued: “Give people the space to ask questions during and in advance of live broadcasts. This enables your people to feel seen and heard, which in turn will foster a sense of trust.”

“It is not just what we say, it's how we say it”

How good comms can help

Guthkelch has laid out several ways that HR and employers can get better at communicating during uncertain times. Not only does this pay dividends to employees and provide more assurance for them, it will also help HR address some of the things it looks after such as employee wellbeing. Guthkelch continued: “Effective communication needs to be front and centre particularly during (but not limited to) times of uncertainty; it is crucial for establishing trust, reducing anxiety, feeling supported, aligning behind strategy and enabling that all important sense of belonging. It’s no good connecting your organisation if you aren’t going to regularly listen, engage and be transparent with your people.”

While top-down communication will help to keep staff in the loop about changing business practices and the future direction of the organisation, employers should also regularly listen to their staff, as communication works both ways. This can help employees voice any concerns or questions that they may have which will result in a more transparent culture which could be the difference between navigating periods of uncertainty successfully, or not.

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