Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone - to echo a line from a favourite old song. And it is a line that also echoes the current predicament facing thousands of employers as they attempt to manage 'The Great Resignation'. Personally, I think it is more of a great escape as individuals take a long look at their career path, or a close look at the job they've somehow wound up doing and realise life's too short to be stuck with an employer who has no regard for them.
We've long known that internal communication, employee experience and simple decency on the part of the employer are essential if an organisation is going to achieve its goals, yet for many organisations such notions have been simmering dangerously on the back burner while they preoccupy themselves with shareholder interests, profits or politics.
Research from Edelman highlights that employees have overtaken shareholders as the most important stakeholders for an organisation - something we've known all along albeit something employers themselves have been slow to understand or have deliberately ignored.
This week I'm working with internal communicators on the shape of things to come as we navigate the ongoing COVID challenges. At the start of the pandemic, I counselled organisations that they should quickly turn themselves 'inside out' and take time to focus on employee relationships and what it meant to be part of their team. We've since survived the seismic shifts in the workplace - it really has been a case of 'the workplace is dead, long live the workplace'. Suddenly employers have realised just how important their workers are. Well, some have - others have turned a very dark corner, switching on surveillance software to monitor staff in their homes or sacked people en mass via text or social media.
With a multitude of research reports now in, we have new data to share with our leadership teams. Data that will help them understand that the employee experience is critical, that they have a duty of care to understand the external pressures their staff face, that they cannot remove themselves from the business of communication and, if they are going to use technology to 'keep in touch' then budgets must be found to equip staff with the devices and technology they need.
Employee wellbeing is central to the employee experience - financial, physical and emotional - and these are not areas that have been overly explored in the past. Banging out a newsletter and hoping for some good open rates won't work in today's world (it didn't before but that's a discussion for another day).
If employers stop, listen and truly understand the value of their people and do something to make their employees' experience a good one, they'll discover it is possible to dodge the great escape and keep hold of those who get the job done.
Today's World Health Organisation declaration of pandemic changes the game. Life is going to be very different during this pandemic stage and down the track, we'll be viewing life in two separate chunks - pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. Our post-COVID-19 society and economy will look very different.
I've put together the COVID-19 resource for small businesses and solo communicators and you can get that here. It will be updated regularly as situations develop and there's useful information for anyone involved with communications right now.
Another urgency for us isn't just dealing with the situation we are faced with now - we need to look beyond the now and into what will be the 'new normal' in the years ahead.
The 'flatten the curve' graph has been widely shared and illustrates what happens without intevention - flattening the curve helps reduce impact on health services - but there is another curve that needs the attention of those of us outside the health system - the confidence curve. As the pandemic heightens and spreads, confidence and trust in organisations, social and economic systems rapidly diminishes.
We all need to tend to this curve throughout the crisis phase as, without care, it will extend far longer than the pandemic and, together with trust, must be smoothed and sent upwards so when all are well, societies can recover and regroup - albeit in a very different way to the way we've been operating for the best part of a century.
The post-COVID19 world will be very different, challenging and require a lot of work from all of us to create what will essentially be new systems and - hopefully - an improved society.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you stay well, stay informed and stay kind.
It's that time of year when my attention turns outside in and I take another long look at the role of internal communications. Sharing knowledge around the preparation and implementation of good internal communication strategies always leads me to emphasis the fact that you can't have good external relationships if your internal relationships are poor or neglected.
Relationships of all kinds give our organisations the permission they need to do what they do and to keep their licence to operate. Sadly, internal relationships often fall by the wayside with employees taken for granted by the organisation's leadership. Much has been made of employee engagement and the need to ensure that everyone is delighted, enthralled and active in the workplace - which is great but, as humans, it is a rare thing if this actually comes to pass, particularly in an era that features zero hour contracts, unsafe work spaces, stress, burnout and the odd oppressive boss. What might be considered 'gold standard' internal communication is swiftly cancelled out by bad behaviour - whether that's the boss, the colleague or the employee themselves.
So what's next for internal communication? We've already seen the evolution of titles - employee engagement executive, employee relations officer, chief happiness officer and so on - but have we actually seen an evolution of the role? I don't think we have but it is getting there. Many internal communicators have moved on from 'sending out stuff' and simply actioning executive demands for information sharing and tools like Slack and Trello have helped internal organisational culture move forward a little (although there are growing reports of task update fatigue as employees struggle to use the collaborative tools and actually complete their work).
My thinking is that there's some internal rethinking for organisations to undertake and that has to start with an audit of their people, values, culture, tools and systems. Each of these things informs the other and a cohesive, effective internal communication strategy can only be formulated once this is done (and if you need some help understanding just how it is done, then we can help).
Internal communication is everyone's responsibility but not everyone's area of expertise. Bringing people together, facilitating good relationships, developing a healthy values-based internal culture is the realm of the internal communications professional and always has been. Communicators for sure - but also connectors, facilitators and encouragers specialising in building a workplace culture where people are empowered not just to get the job done but to do a great job.
Funny thing experience. When you are looking for a job, experience tends to be the focus of the interview. What experience have you got? How is it relevant? Where did you get your experience? If the 'experience indicators' aren't immediately obvious on your CV, it is highly unlikely that you'll even get to the interview stage.
Surprising then that the emphasis given to experience at the recruitment stage is so poorly reflected by employers when they consider the experience they are providing for their employees. I wonder how different recruitment would be if, during an interview, the prospective employee was asked about their experience and they related their experience of being employed. Describing in detail how their current or former workplace made them feel. Whether or not they were rewarded, developed, trained and recognised. Whether the employing organisation truly valued them and the contribution they made. Whether they were listened to - and acknowledged. Or perhaps they would explain how they were ignored, stressed and under-resourced, motivating their current job hunt.
Public relations builds and sustains the relationships organisations need to keep their licence to operate - and that's all the relationships, not just a select few. All relationships include the internal relations for the organisation which includes the internal communications strategy and function. If you don't have good internal relations then your external relationships will fail and your reputation will falter - and underpinning all this is the workforce experience.
For years employee engagement has been the elusive 'X Factor' for organisations - 'if we get good engagement then all's well and our employees will magically become staunch advocates for us on social media and other external platforms' goes the riff which, to be fair, is only one step up from the great myth of 'employee satisfaction'. It's a myth because I might be 'satisfied' with my job for many reasons and those reasons will probably have nothing to do with my loyalty, commitment or care for my employer. For instance, I might tick 'yes' on the job satisfaction survey because the hours I work allow me to pursue a part-time career as a magician, or allow me to take care of an elderly relative, be a volunteer life-guard, pick the kids up from school - or any number of pursuits. I might tick 'yes, I'm satisfied with my job' because I'm frightened my manager might find out if I tick 'no' and make my life a misery. Satisfaction is not an adequate measure of internal relationship health and neither is engagement, which is only a mild improvement on satisfaction. The concept of 'engaged employee' is a surface measure of an individual's reaction to their workplace but not a measure of relationship health.
Work has changed and as security has been substituted for flexibility so employee requirements have changed. Studies have shown that employees look for purpose in their work often before pay. That the organisation's values must align with their own if they are to remain committed and loyal to their employer. Employee engagement requires a culture that facilitates collaboration and that collaboration helps everyone comply with what is necessary to get the job done. The experience must include a sense of place so the employee understands the environment they belong to, their place and role in achieving the purpose and the opportunity to work to and provide value.
As always, new job titles emerge to describe new times - we can find chief happiness officers, masters of contentment, experience innovators and many more besides. But the titles don't change a core undertaking if the experience is going to be genuine - and that undertaking is internal communication. You can't build good relationships without good communication. Communication that helps build knowledge, address behaviours or change attitudes. The internal communication strategy must be designed to convey the working experience of all those inside the organisation, listening and engaging in conversations that help inform organisational culture and any necessary change. What it must never be is 'sending out stuff', churning out email newsletters and uploading information to a stale old intranet - heading in that direction will take employees towards the door rather than towards the heart of the organisation.
Still photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash
Video and motion graphic by Catherine Arrow for PR Knowledge Hub
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.