The undiscovered country

Internal communicators can no longer continue dealing with the workplace impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak with a reactive crisis communications approach and tactics. What we are now dealing with is the mother of all change situations. With no internal communication precedents for dealing with the longer-term workplace impacts and fallout of a pandemic on this scale, the future is an undiscovered country for all of us.

“I offer a toast….the undiscovered country…..the future”

Six weeks into lockdown and this Hamlet inspired quote from one of my favourite original cast Star Trek films was called to mind as I started to see more internal communicators speculating about some kind of return to workplace ‘normality’. What should we be thinking about to facilitate this return and how would we communicate it? The suggested lists were long, the subject matter perplexing and the challenges obviously huge in the face of an uncertain future. A truly undiscovered country.

A few short weeks ago we were tussling with a crisis communication situation. Now as the lockdown, enforced social distancing and home working has dragged on with no end yet in sight it’s starting to feel to me that as internal communicators we are now dealing with something quite different.

Are the point discussions about ‘The Return’ somewhat premature? Are there other bigger things we should instead be focusing on which would be more helpful to our colleagues and the organisations we work in, now and in the longer term?

I posed the question in a recent Twitter poll, and clearly a few others think that there are, given the results.

I tend to agree with the poll result that the suggested focus for us right now should be on supporting and developing workforce wellbeing and resilience, because this issue is so tightly entwined with the preparations for eventually entering the undiscovered country.  

This ongoing situation is going to be a long haul for us all. In the absence of an effective vaccine or treatment for coronavirus there isn’t going to be some sudden return to the previous workplace status quo or a slightly adapted version of that. Until that breakthrough happens, we are going to have to learn to live with our unwelcome viral guest and that is going to drive an awful lot of changes in the workplace, and some of these will be permanent. One of the big questions we should be asking ourselves right now is, do our colleagues have the resilience to cope with that bow wave of sustained change?

The fact is, for internal communicators this is now no longer a crisis to be dealt with by a reactive communications response and tactics. We are now dealing with the mother of all change situations. Forget your last big organisational change programme. What we are potentially dealing with now makes that look like a village bake sale.   

If you’ve worked in and around organisational change, as I have for over a decade, you’ll know the often quoted stat that around 70% of change initiatives in organisations fail with poor communication often cited as the reason for this happening. So, no pressure, but all internal communicators have really got to step up with this one because I’d suggest that with the stakes so high, change failure is not an option for most organisations right now. Failure to adapt will simply drive many of them to the wall.

Unfortunately, in this instance we have no case studies to guide us and no award winners to reference. There are no internal communication precedents for dealing with the longer-term workplace impacts and fallout of a pandemic on this scale. Where else is there for us to look for some inspiration and guidance?

When I’m stuck for an answer, I often return to the text books and the communication models, frameworks and research which underpin and shape the things we do in practice. If the real question we are grappling with is change resilience then this means giving employees some sense of understanding, influence, and a feeling of control over the changes which will have to be made to enable us to live with the virus. Obvious you might think, but as an internal communicator how do you sustain such an effort over the longer term?

Let me introduce you to a change model by John Kotter. I think interpreting his eight accelerators for successful large-scale change are helpful for shaping the communication approaches we need right now as we emerge from the pandemic and enter the undiscovered country.

Create a sense of urgency – The current health, social and economic contexts we are working in have given us the urgency, but succinctly articulating the ‘burning platform’ for organisational change in the face of the Covid crisis will be an essential ingredient for communicating why things need to be done differently in organisations.

Build a guiding coalition – Communicative and visionary leadership is essential for this, but internal communicators more than ever need to be collaborating intensively with other influential functions such as HR, Organisational Development and IT as part of the guiding coalition. For example, new digital collaboration and communication platforms will have been implemented rapidly in some organisations over the last few weeks, but exactly how these will be used to support day to day business will still be an open debate for many.

Formulate a strategic vision of change – This means helping everyone understand why they are being asked to do something differently so that this makes sense to them. Linking this to any existing organisational mission, vision and values is also essential. The changes being made need to make sense in those contexts. If they don’t, then maybe the mission, vision and values need adapting so they do in a post pandemic world.

Communicate the vision and strategy to recruit converts – A conversion of employee beliefs and attitudes to support the changes being made are essential for success. This means communicating the vision and strategy often, powerfully and persuasively. The changes being made need to be woven into an organisational narrative which makes sense in the contexts of the new circumstances we are now in. Everyone in the organisation must know this story, if they don’t the change will never stick.

Remove obstacles – Employee resistance to change is often cited as an obstacle to it, but this resistance often stems from employees having a poor understanding of what is happening and them being ignored when they have a viewpoint or suggestion. Listening to employees has never been more important, particularly when they are exposing issues with organisational processes, policies and practices which do not work in their neo-Covid working world.

Celebrate short term wins – Success is a great motivator and holding up successes born out of new ways of working can quickly and effectively demonstrate to workforces that the changes are working and that they are in control of the outcomes. Real change does not happen in the centre of an organisation and ripple out to the edges. It starts with the people on the front-line doing things differently and changing their behaviours which alters the direction of the whole organisation. Remember this, and communicate success to reinforce and reward desired behaviours, so employees can take control of the change and drive it.

Never give up – Declaring victory too early is a mistake that will stall the momentum of change in the organisation. Leaders in particular need to demonstrate in their communications that progress is being made, and that incremental changes are working without giving the impression that the final destination in the undiscovered country has already been reached.  

Institutionalise the changes made – Organisational change should become cultural change. If it doesn’t become ‘the way we do things here’ the change will never stick. That’s why its important to make sure that the organisational values and the behaviours expected of employees to demonstrate them are completely aligned with the changed mission and vision of doing business in a post pandemic world.

Internal communication models and frameworks born out of academia are never an out of the box, one size fits all solution, but they can be helpful to shape our thinking when there are few other relevant reference points of situational and circumstantial practice. In the current challenging and unique circumstances, they can act as some much-needed signposts in our journey to, and through, the undiscovered country.  

Stay home, stay safe, live long and prosper.

Martin

References:

Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country – Chancellor Gorkon: “I offer a toast. The undiscovered country…the future.”

Kotter, J.P – 8 Step Process for Leading Change

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

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