We are being bombarded with rhetoric telling homeworkers that it is now time to get back to the office and ‘get back to work’. As we move into the next phase of the pandemic the gaslighting continues and does nothing to help organisations prepare for the safe return of some employees to their pre-pandemic workplaces. How can internal communicators neutralise the tangled messaging of an insidious gaslighting campaign designed to confuse and disorientate us?
Another week in the new abnormal and another deluge of conflicting messaging in the media, from the UK Government and from the representatives of big business. For those of us in internal communication roles, helping businesses and organisations prepare for the safe return of some employees to their pre-pandemic workplaces, none of it has been helpful.
In recent days we have been bombarded with rhetoric from ministers and other government sources telling remote workers that it is now time to get back to the office and ‘get back to work’. Stories in the media, no doubt also seeded by these same sources, imply that previously compliant homeworkers helping to stop the spread of the virus are now a work shy, skiving bunch of unproductive Netflix addicted time wasters. ‘Get back to work or lose your job’, some headlines have screamed.
The Director General of the CBI, also bolstered and proliferated this questionable carrot and stick narrative with a stark warning that if this does not happen soon city centres will become permanent ghost towns and countless coffee shops and takeaway food outlets will go bust. Twitter has since been awash with the mantra ‘Leave Home, Forget The NHS, Save Pret’.
It is clear that the economic imperatives are now taking precedence over matters of public health in the ‘new abnormal’ narrative, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the threat of Covid-19 has suddenly disappeared altogether.
The gaslighting campaign continues
I few weeks ago I blogged that we were all about to be subjected to a gaslighting campaign of historic proportions, predicting that the 2 metre social distancing rule in England would be its first casualty and that more would follow to change our perceptions of the pandemic and its consequences. I was not wrong, and there was a concerted campaign to establish a cognitive dissonance in our understanding and recollection of how far we really needed to be apart to avoid infection. The rule was subsequently and quickly reduced to 1 metre to address the ‘practicalities’ of some businesses reopening.
This gaslighting campaign has now moved on with a new purpose to help many of us ‘forget’ why we needed to become remote workers back in March, and to even feel guilty about it. This in the same week where a leaked report, prepared by the governments’ own SAGE scientific advisory group, suggested that there is a “reasonable worst-case scenario” of 85,000 deaths across the UK this winter due to Covid-19.
How are we to make any sense of this tangled cat’s cradle of conflicting information and confused mixed messaging? How can internal communicators neutralise this insidious gaslighting campaign and communicate the right things to employees as we enter the next phase of the pandemic and make preparations for what could be a difficult winter as infections increase again? I think there are three things we must do.
Stick to the plan (and the facts)
Many internal communicators have been working with their stakeholders for months to plan a safe and sensible return to pre-pandemic workplaces for some of their employees. There is no need to heed the nonsense that is being proliferated in the rhetoric of the recent days and weeks, and diverge from these plans.
Our guiding principle, and the narrative we must develop around this, is that the virus does not cause infection spikes. It is the behaviour of people which does. The more uninformed and irresponsible this behaviour is the more chances the virus has to infect the next person. This is why good internal communication will be essential in any return to pre-pandemic workplaces to influence the right behaviours when employees do.
At the core of this should be the clear messaging about the basic facts of good hygiene, keeping your distance, reporting any suspected infections and how these rules must be applied when in the workplace.
For clarity and safety’s sake, nothing else must get in the way of that.
The experience of lockdown and remote working has already been a stressful and disruptive experience for many employees. To now have it implied that they have not been doing the right thing, have been unproductive and lazy by complying with the lockdown rules to work at home, and should now feel guilty about that is the height of insensitivity. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding, on the part of the government and others, about how this pandemic has impacted on ordinary people personally and professionally.
As internal communicators we should not allow employees to feel that they are being bullied and herded back into pre-pandemic workplaces by the gaslighting campaign. Or, that they have been unproductive over the last few months and are more likely to lose their job if they continue homeworking. Our communications should seek to reassure and prevent this mythology from taking hold.
Presenteeism and long hours spent in offices and other workplaces under the watchful eye of management has never equated to increased productivity. It is, in fact, symbolic of toxic workplace cultures that we now have an opportunity to banish once and for all to the history books and create a more productive and better experience of work for employees, wherever it is done
This interesting CIPD blog demonstrates the scale and impact of homeworking on competence and productivity in recent months in the UK and concludes that ‘the quality of line management makes more difference to competence than where we work’.
I think most internal communicators would agree that this comes as no surprise.
The ethical role of the internal communicator is to challenge decision making that results in activities and actions which don’t ‘feel right’ or which aren’t right. It is our responsibility to balance the demands of management and leadership with the needs of employees when we communicate these decisions and actions.
It seems that central government politicians have now cleverly shifted the entire burden of responsibility for keeping employees safe in the workplace onto employers and local authorities, so that they cannot be called to account when things go wrong. This is why the gaslit rhetoric emanating from the government, the representatives of big business and some parts of the media in recent days have been so unhelpful and frankly utterly unethical.
It is encouraging that some big employers are clearly ignoring the rhetoric and do not intend returning all staff to the office full-time in the near future. Hopefully other employers will take a similar decision and not succumb to the nonsense being peddled by some sources, and try to cajole and pack employees back into offices and other workplaces at unsafe densities.
There is a safe and sensible balance to be struck between employees working in pre-pandemic workplaces and homeworking while this pandemic continues and hopefully beyond that. The work and contribution of internal communicators will be essential to make sure this happens in a fair, equitable and ethical fashion.
The Cat’s Cradle
The ancient string game of the Cat’s Cradle has nothing to do with either cats or cradles. Similarly, the tangled mess of mixed messaging in this gaslighting campaign is designed to confuse and disorientate us. It is driven by questionable ethics and motives which have nothing to do with getting employees back over the threshold of workplaces safely, sensibly and productively.
We must resist being influenced by it.