People all over the world faced unprecedented challenges in 2020 — COVID-19 shook entire societies to the core. Unlike economic crises of the not-so-distant-past, the pandemic forced an unnatural state for social creatures: loneliness and isolation. And though 2020 is over, the distance will continue and the world will continue changing. Companies that invested in internal communications in the pandemic found ways to adapt, in some cases permanently, for the future.
How internal communications changed for the better
This crisis was a sink-or-swim moment in reaching and supporting employees — for companies that went fully remote, the question was: How can we keep everyone “together” while being so far apart? And for companies with essential workers: How can we keep everyone safe, physically and emotionally?
The answers were different, company to company and employee to employee. But steady, supportive internal communications were vital, and creating whole new strategies helped many organizations see the gaps. It became clear that sporadic communications in the pandemic wouldn’t cut it — employers needed to reach people where and when they needed it most, which meant often.
Many companies made an investment in employee experience during the pandemic, an investment we can’t afford to lose. For HR professionals, leaders and managers, thriving in the future means building on the learnings and changes.
Communications in the pandemic: 3 changes to keep
1. We learned how to provide resources and improve visibility
What to keep: Enhance visibility with existing crisis communication channels, don’t dismantle them. In 2020, many workplaces realized they were either missing meaningful ways to engage employees or the structure for communicating with them entirely. Instead of “returning to normal,” companies should assure employees that they will maintain systems for crisis communications. And more, they should find ways to repurpose relevant forums to create greater visibility for employees.
The need for updates on restrictions and safety guidelines might fade, but they taught us that employees look to their companies for security, resources and organizational visibility. To create greater trust long-term, we need to maintain these channels even as topics change.
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2. We learned how to be flexible and practice trust
What to keep: When offices open up, don’t revert to outdated measures of productivity. Instead, build more human processes. COVID-19 reiterated that the world of work needs more humanity. Employees need ways to talk with their leaders and managers about their lives. Companies need to show employees that they trust them to follow a schedule that allows for both the personal and professional. We need to allow flexibility for working parents, caregivers, the mental health of remote workers and more.
This cultural change will likely go hand-in-hand with operational changes: Invest in manager training including first-time managers, survey employees on their feelings about performance reviews, and create business-level goals that help employees build achievable goals of their own. If your company is returning to work in an office, remember that a person in a seat is not a measure of success. Work done well by happy employees is the only thing that matters.
3. We learned to support each other at a distance and in stressful situations
What to keep: Find ways to prioritize employee connection, whether people are returning to an office, staying remote or both. Some encouraged camera-on video calls, others instituted 5-minute chats at the start of every meeting. When possible, we tried to stay in touch through 2020’s isolation, and many companies stepped up to create ways not to just support people with tools and resources, but to give them a reason to laugh with their co-workers. We learned how important our professional relationships are, and how they’re worth nurturing.
Going forward, companies should invest more in a culture of friendship, allowing COVID-19 changes to inform future definitions of “who we are.” In the process, we’ll build resilience and improve engagement.