In the midst of the current health and economic crisis, our common human experience has been made abundantly clear. As we speak to each other from our homes, and adapt to different ways of working, there is a new dimension to our professional relationships. A deeper level of authenticity has emerged that is, perhaps, sometimes obscured behind more polished business appearances.
Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard, once said, “Communication is the real work of leadership.” It is certainly playing a vital role this year. Transparent, frequent, empathetic and clear dialogue with colleagues and customers has been essential in meeting the fresh daily challenges the pandemic has brought.
We know that effective leaders need to excel at communication – it is one of the most powerful tools in our kitbag. According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, poor communication can lead to low morale, missed performance goals and lost sales – not something any business can afford, especially in the current climate. Of course, this also involves active listening. Open dialogue will help you address needs that you were perhaps previously unaware of. It enables you to gauge employee sentiment and to hear feedback and suggestions. These conversations ensure people feel understood, and allow leaders to convey the importance of each person’s role in the business.
During lockdown in the UK earlier this year, I started doing a weekly audio broadcast to all employees worldwide. The aim was to keep everyone up-to-date on a fast-changing situation. We deconstructed any new directives from the Government and swiftly relayed how this would affect our business going forward. We aimed to interpret and clearly explain the salient points about what was going on - and in fact one person told me they had stopped watching the 5pm news updates in favour of our own! We wanted to instil a sense of calm, but also not shy away from difficult or unwelcome conversations – obviously people’s lives and livelihoods were at stake. It wasn’t always easy to deliver, but news was shared promptly and in a transparent and honest manner. We also gave employees the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns.
The weekly briefings I delivered from March through to August were part of a carefully planned campaign of internal communications activity. This campaign provided frequent and regular updates containing important information via a number of different channels and formats. It gave us the chance to explain why difficult decisions were being made, and how they would impact each individual and their colleagues. This approach meant people understood the reasoning behind our business decisions, and they weren’t sprung upon them. We also outlined how working life was going to be evolving in the weeks ahead, and what we expected people to do to keep safe while supporting the needs of the company.
Our regular updates also aimed to expand the sense of community within the business, and try to combat some of the isolation many were feeling while working from home. We are very aware that while we were able to provide the technology for people to operate effectively outside of their usual workplace, remote working also raised issues around wellbeing. According to the Centre for Mental Health, up to 10 million people just in England could need help with their mental health because of the pandemic. This is obviously a priority for any leader, and communication has a key role to play in helping to support employees, but also to understand more about the individual challenges they face.
Such open and honest communication can increase trust, the foundation of any successful business. It motivates and empowers people as they work towards a common goal. In our Annual Trends Report 2020/21, which will be released early next month, 43 per cent of respondents said the most important attribute for business leaders was to be strong in times of crisis. The way we communicate with our people can reveal that strength and build confidence in our leadership at this exceptional time.
I have taken away some key learnings from the past few months:
- You don’t have to do it alone - bring in subject matter experts to provide more information and clarity. During my lockdown updates I would often be joined by other members of the c-suite, such as my Chief People Officer, who would deliver clear detail on Government directives and how they were going to affect us all.
- In the survey we carried out for our Trends Report 2020/21, 44 per cent of respondents said that the implications of Covid-19 had demonstrated the need to regularly communicate with the workforce. I couldn’t agree more. We have gone from holding quarterly Town Halls to monthly virtual Town Halls covering a number of topics. Based on audience feedback, we now use webcam for all our major business updates. We always have a live Q&A session at the end so we can hear what’s on people’s minds and answer any queries. The Town Halls involve key members of the leadership team, but also other speakers from throughout the organisation. For example, this month we have one of our Diversity Champions sharing latest news on our initiatives. We feel it’s important Town Halls aren’t just top-down broadcasting, and encourage peer-to-peer communication so employees feel represented by those sharing business information.
- Always measure the effectiveness of your methods. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place”. Find out which approaches and channels are working well for your organisation and what resonates with your people. Then employ them to best effect. You face competition for your audience’s attention – you need to ensure what you have to say is being heard, and enable people to easily respond.
- Keep your message simple, clear and concise. Don’t allow for any ambiguity or misunderstanding. Get to the crux of what you want to say and make your words count.
- Align your communication strategy to your culture and values, it should consistently reflect and strengthen them.
- Technology offers powerful tools to aid your communication and increase its effectiveness. Collaboration software can also help to foster the sense of belonging and purpose at work that many home workers may feel is currently lacking.
Very little about how we live and work has remained unchanged this year. It has never been more important to demonstrate resilience, ingenuity and agility in our approach to new demands and opportunities. Powerful communication sits at the heart of this, the thread that binds it all together. Get it right, and you can unite as one cohesive team to support each other and address the challenges that this winter will undoubtedly bring.