Talent leaders know only too well how important effective internal communication is to workforce engagement. The pandemic has created a new workforce reality and it’s redefining how internal marketing practitioners perform their art. In this article, Ian Tomlin, lead consultant for Workspend on workplace communications, sets out his perspectives on how internal communications strategies can be reshaped to serve the extended workforce.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Microsoft’s influential report on the dynamic changes occurring in workforce cultures and behaviors as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic published this year point to a root and branch change in the make-up and operation of workforces around the world.

Key highlights of this report—a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and an analysis of trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn—include the following findings; that:

  • Over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue
  • 40 percent of the global workforce considering leaving their employer this year
  • 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams
  • 66 percent of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments

Perhaps the mosts telling indication of substantive cultural change however comes from Microsoft’s analysis of Gen-Z workers— those between the ages of 18 and 25 — sixty percent of whom say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling.

The challenge for these individuals, is they’ve come into the working world with little or no experience of workplace culture, and they lack the life experiences to know how to socially function within a corporate culture. They have almost no experience of dealing with workplace pressures, office politics, learning how to cope with the stresses and strains of work, of how to communicate with senior managers and execs above their grade that—from their vantage point—appear to be the Gods of business. They don’t know what they don’t know.

“Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work — especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it’s hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.” Source: Hannah McConnaughey, Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft—excerpt taken from the Microsoft Report.

A safety blanket of worldly-wise office coaches has been lost

We’ve all experienced those first day butterflies in the tummy. The corporate world can be a daunting place for a new-starter. Yet, for most of us, our early steps into the world of work were guided by a friendly ‘someone’ in the office prepared to give their time to coach us into the workplace; to show us the ropes, and be on hand when that ‘lost look’ appeared on our faces.

As is the case for many, my personal first steps in the workplace were guided, not by my manager, but from other colleagues in the office. Many of these people, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, had no obligation to lend a helping hand. They had NOTHING TO DO with my role. Many worked in different departments and just happened to sit close to where I was sited in the office. They just wanted to help.

This ecosystem of social office assistance has evaporated in the new extended world of work. People join the workforce remotely. They’re on their own from day one and expected to survive on their own initiative. But that’s hard, when they have never had any of the events, workarounds and work life experiences that generations before have had. They don’t get a helping hand or someone looking over their shoulder, someone willing to volunteer their time to guide them on their journey ‘just because’ they happened to sit at the desk next door.

True – the workforce has been extended, but it’s also dramatically changed in its make-up

In the last 18-months, the workforce has not only become more widely geographically spread; it’s also changed in its make-up, with substantive more contract workers functioning as part of teams. These workers are ALSO remote. They may be employed on relatively long-term periods, contracted against a Statement of Work (SoW) to deliver a project, or a task. To work colleagues, these individuals may well ‘feel’ like any other employee, but of course their contractual relationship with the company they serve is indirect. Additionally, as Microsoft found to its own cost, companies face harsh fines if they choose to treat contractors in the same way as employees, when they’re not.

It’s the softer-side of business that’s suffered most from COVID-19

Many bosses expected, when they sent their workforce away to work from home, that productivity might suffer. For some it did, but for most the impact (in the short-term at least) was negligible. Removing time spent commuting, and being given the self-determination to blend family and work in a smarter way, meant that some workers actually boosted their productivity.

These short-term gains however mask a more painful long-term erosion of the softer side of business; things like a degradation of the workplace (and brand) culture, the loss of the social office support network, and the removal of ‘water-cooler moments’ that has led to fewer ideas, weaker problem solving, etc.

Even with the many great advances in digital technology and cloud computing, it’s not easy to engineer new methods to synthetically graft these seismic losses to workplace culture. In fact, so far nobody seems to have managed it.

5 ways to adapt your internal comms plan

If organizations want to deliver on their brand promises and engage their extended and hybrid workforce in the best possible way—to maximize workforce outcomes and minimize attrition rates—then those responsible for internal marketing and communications will have to upscale their efforts.

Here are five ways internal communicators can bolster their strategies to improve communications to better serve this newly extended, hybrid workforce:

#1 Over-communicate all the time

Operating remotely through synthetic digital office interfaces like Teams, Skype, Google Huddles, Slack, 8×8, and Facebook Workplace, organizations have to work harder to stay in touch. It’s important to create more ‘non-core’ reasons to engage workers; to find more reasons to create opportunities for communications. This way, workers feel less isolated. Can we imitate the physical workplace using technology? Probably not. Although, it should be possible to make people feel more like they are part of a work community if their desktop includes regular chatter and news updates from colleagues and teams.

#2 Coach-in how to identify and deal with stress

Education has a key role to play in managing levels of anxiety and stress across the workforce. As we learn more about what causes work stress, we now understand that ‘stress’ is a natural and proper consequence of ‘inputs’ that humans have always had to deal with.

Stress as something that people can be trained to self-diagnose and deal with in their own way. One positive way to deal with stress is for individuals to recognise that humans can only do one thing at a time, and making a list of priorities (and acknowledging that these task are all you will be able to complete in your available time) lessens those invisible spectres that cause our uniquely crafted emotional management systems to overload.

All of this needs coaching into remote workers, including contractors—which requires management buy-in to the importance of workforce wellbeing, and a program and strategy to deliver it.

#3 Create an outlet for concerns with systemized coaches and mentors

Everyone needs a helping hand sometime. Few organizations today offer more than a volunteer-based coaching and mentoring support network. This state of affairs isn’t robust enough in an era of extended and hybrid workforces. It’s vital workers know who they can turn to when they need help, whose job it is to look after their personal mental wellbeing.

#4 Install a virtual ‘ideation’ solution

Give workers and outlet to contribute to the business they serve. If we know anything about millennials, it’s that they want to participate; they want to be involved. Failure to respect this can only lead to a loss in workforce engagement.

While many companies have a formal suggestions scheme, few companies have a separate digital system for ideas that is proactively driven my their management team.

The sad fact is, many people in business don’t treat ideas as the business necessity they are. Without a conduit for ideas that respects how ideas get generated and how they need to be filtered and curated, this avenue for improvement and problem solving, for finding new ways to serve customers and to develop new products and services, is hugely eroded by the extended workplace.

#5 Make scrums a feature of every day for every worker

In a remote working environment, it’s hugely important to create a higher frequency of contact that includes a ‘social’ element. In our business, we design our organization so that every worker is part of a team, and every team has a scrum every day to feel part of a community. Does it make up for the loss of existing in the same office at the same time during the work day? Undoubtedly no, but it absolutely is a vast improvement on expecting home workers to fend for themselves.

Ian Tomlin is a management consultant and writer on the subject of enterprise computing and organizational design.  He serves on the Workspend Management Team.  Ian has written several books on the subject of digital transformation, cloud computing, social operating systems, codeless applications development, business intelligence, data science, office security, customer data platforms, vendor management systems, Managed Service Provisioning (MSP), customer experience, and organizational design.  He can be reached via LinkedIn or Twitter.

ABOUT WORKSPEND

Workspend is a woman-led, diversity MSP with a global footprint that helps organizations to source, manage and nurture a flexible workforce as part of their total talent agendas.  We drive value from your contingent workforce; managing your hires and controlling the spend.  Our clients benefit from partnering with an MSP focused on outcomes and continuous year-on-year improvement that is also a diverse supplier.  Our innovations in technology, processes and compliance governance serve to bring our clients a competitive advantage.  To find out more about the benefits of using a Diverse MSP, find out here.