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How internal comms leaders can help firms reap the rewards of flexible working

Sheri Brissenden

It makes sense that much of the global communications around Covid-19 centred on war imagery. We’ve been exhorted to battle, combat and attack the invisible virus through endless metaphors as we’ve mobilised against our collective enemy.

But as the world opens up, a “command and control” mentality is not what IC needs to perpetuate, and certainly not what people need to hear. War implies obeying orders and doing your duty – and employees are not soldiers.

The way we structure our working life now will depend on how we make the most of this major chance to reset. IC is ideally placed as a powerful voice to galvanise employee voices and lead that change.

Understanding how employees want to work, and how they want change to be delivered, will power IC efforts to support these changes and show business leaders that action is both essential and urgent.

The successful companies of the future will embrace 360-degree change, reflecting on the pandemic, but also using it as a platform to review all their operations. Every facet of our working lives is under the microscope – from the role of technology to employee skills and expectations, and building sustainable businesses that reflect the new-found personal cause of many leaders and employees.

Now is the time to plan ahead – and it’s also the era when IC can shine.

So, what must IC professionals do to prove their value? Their role is vital to ushering in the future of work, driving forward the business benefits of preparing for a more flexible approach.

Why mutual trust is a must

We are undoubtedly in a state of flux, with no certainties or guarantees. That’s why establishing trust and transparent dialogue between leaders and employees is vital. Change will not come unless everyone is brought along for the ride – and that starts with leadership.

Regardless of the size of your organisation, listening to and learning from your colleagues across the business is vital. Give people an equal voice in creating a workplace that reflects their values and offers mutual support.

Working closely with our strategists and operations director, we surveyed our entire team to discover the ways their lives have changed in the past 18 months. We’ll be using these learnings to inform our comms strategy and design the future of our business together. Here’s a snapshot of our findings:

  • Our team would overwhelmingly prefer to stay working remotely, using the studio as a hub for creative collaboration and socialising,      
  • Some team members view the office as a place they can work without distraction, and hope to continue using the space in this way.      
  • Overall, our findings emphasise how personal people’s needs are, and how fundamental it will be for firms to introduce more flexibility into their operations to get the best out of each employee.

Understanding how employees want to work, and how they want change to be delivered, will power IC efforts to support these changes and show business leaders that action is both essential and urgent.

The pandemic has wrought new working patterns – many parents working early or late to accommodate homeschooling, for example – and that places a greater burden on individual self-discipline. It also demands an authentic acknowledgment of employees’ efforts.

Clear objectives, and praise when people hit their goals or go the extra mile, contribute to a virtuous circle creating confidence and commitment. It’s also imperative that leaders act as role models, displaying behaviours that support new ways of working to establish new cultural norms. Since language shapes culture, IC’s duty is to regularly reinforce the message.

It’s important to stay authentic and remain open and flexible to change. Keep employees updated about what is working and what isn’t, listen to their views, and move forward together.

Choice means having a voice

Truly engaging your employees and embedding their wishes into your organisation’s culture requires empathy and understanding. Don’t just communicate to them; make it a dialogue.

Keep learning about their individual needs: what works for them and what doesn’t. Keep channels of communication open and stay alert to making necessary changes. That’s how you build trust.

As you shift to incorporate a number of new working patterns – both remotely and in the office – IC will play a pivotal role in keeping everyone informed, in good time, and ensuring they feel part of your work revolution.

In our case, we’re drawing up a set of guiding principles that we will turn into a manifesto for flexible working. We hope to bake into this a contract of trust: that we trust our team to manage their workload, deliver the best outcomes every day and communicate with us openly and honestly as we learn together. In return, we ask them to trust us to create the best possible workplace for all employees.

One thing we've noticed over the past 18 months is that remote working has also raised interesting challenges around mental health and wellbeing and the role of employers. IC plays a vital role in communicating around this. As such, we are extending our use of our performance management and employee engagement platform for more regular employee feedback, and providing management training geared to spotting burnout and mental health issues early.

Make comms central to change

To sum up, we’re on the threshold of a new future of work and IC is pivotal in ensuring businesses grab the opportunity with both hands. Here’s how:

  • Build trust and transparency, sharing information so everyone feels nurtured, informed and connected.
  • Deal in clear comms to spell out why change is coming – and what it means for everyone.
  • Create a feedback loop: listen, and iterate new cultural norms to reinforce new working practices.

All of this points to employees being given a choice in their working future and culture. This focuses on fostering belonging and ultimately commitment. It applies to new talent, too: communicate your commitment to flexibility – and what your organisation is doing about it – and prospective employees will choose to work with you.

As ever, shaping a flexible working approach should not simply be left to internal communication. It must be a collaborative effort between HR, operations, comms, leadership and, of course, your employees. Everyone needs to be brought in and work together to effect change – or it will never stick.

For The Frameworks and our clients, the working world is changing for good. As IC experts seek solutions to support these changes, they become the centre point of designing future success. Being prepared for the future is the only sensible starting point.

From a global point of view, the fight against Covid-19 really can be likened to a war. But in the fallout from this conflict, the winners and losers might look different to expectations. It will be the companies that proactively embrace change, not those who focus on top-down mobilisation, who stand to prosper. Which path will you take?

This article first appeared in Voice, the magazine of the Institute of Internal Communications, in July 2021.