On 3 May, the Stranglers keyboard player Dave Greenfield (pictured far right) died at the age of 71 after testing positive for Covid-19.
In the words of their 1977 single, ‘Something’s happening and it’s happening right now’.
Sometimes, I channel my inner punk to try to make sense of what is happening in the world of internal communication. Previously, I adapted the Clash single, ‘Lost in the supermarket’ to reflect on the occasional superficiality of communication. I trust that you will kindly indulge me in doing the same again.
One of my students who works in the hospitality sector told me that they had sold their head office in London. Just like that. The CFO had seen how much had been spent on travel to the building and rent and decided that it was an overhead that could no longer be justified. The CEO of Barclays, Jes Staley, was recently quoted as saying ‘putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past’.
We’ve known for a long time that people don’t need to commute to the office every day or travel the world for meetings. People who can work from home are very likely to do so much more in the future. This presents many challenges and benefits. Using Zoom or Teams is effective, to a point. But it does not fully replicate the social and business benefits of meeting people face to face. So, what’s the optimum work from home and work in the office balance? Research conducted in 2013 suggests that employees benefit from being in the office for 2.5 days a week. However, this is dependent on the freedom they have in using communication technologies for work. If employees feel in control of how and when they can use communication technologies, they can maintain meaningful interactions with co-workers. This highlights the importance of maximising the potential of internal digital platforms. Something that I think internal comms will need to prioritise quickly.
The immediate internal comms challenges are around wellbeing and return to the workplace. However, in the medium term there are three further, more fundamental, changes afoot; the democratisation of organisations, automation and AI.
Writing in his ‘Investing’ column in the Financial Times on 16 May, John Redwood highlighted the ways that investors are ‘increasingly tapping into the digital revolution’ that will emerge after countries come out of lockdown. But what struck me more was his point that governments will expect organisations to ‘favour employees and customers more highly as the price of accepting state financial assistance’. We’ll have to wait to see exactly what ‘favouring employees’ means.
What this does emphasise is a growing recognition and understanding of employer responsibilities for ‘social justice’ in the workplace. This is a theme that is emerging in research that I’m currently doing with Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford on listening to employees. Of course, organisations are not democracies. And yet employees rightly expect to have more of a say about what goes on. Greater democratisation is good for organisations. It is linked with innovation, resilience and better performance. And it is good for employees. In making this point, I’m fully conscious that it sounds to some people like a socialist pipedream. ‘CEOs are just driven by the bottom line’ I hear you say. So perhaps in different times we need a new term. The ‘communicisation’ of organisations. By which I mean the way that communication is seen as a critical success factor and something that supports employee wellbeing. Communication in its fullest sense. Listening as much as informing.
The focus on internal digital platforms will accelerate in a post Covid-19 world. And it will be coupled with greater automation and use of AI in the workplace. This represents the biggest challenge, and opportunity, for internal communication that I will see in my lifetime. Automation is already here. For example, I heard recently of an organisation that uses software to do sentiment analysis for recordings of employee focus groups. However, it is AI that will reinvent internal communication. As Rachel Royall and I explore in the final chapter of the latest edition of ‘Exploring Internal Communication’, some of the ‘traditional’ communication capabilities such as copywriting will fade in importance as AI comes in and generates copy and stories for us. AI will incorporate better systems for employees to keep themselves informed which can be merged with systems for employee voice. Internal communication specialists can then focus more on activities such as leading, coaching, advising and business partnering alongside ensuring the ethical use of AI for communication, a huge challenge in itself.
For sure, the internal comms function ‘Ain’t got time to wait’ for this to happen to them. The time to embrace change is now.
Something’s happening and it’s happening right now
Ain’t got time to wait
I said something better change
I said something better change
I said something better change
I said something better change
Extract from ‘Something better change’ by the Stranglers – a song included in the set played when I saw them at the Odeon Canterbury in the UK on 25 September 1977.
IC BEYOND COMMENTS
Mike Klein: “Something is happening right now.” Amen to that. House on fire (Covid-19 and Climate Change) is happening right now. Shaken confidence and sudden loss of resource is happening right now. And even though the post-Covid future is an uncertain, seeming eternity away, the strategies, decisions and commitments that will shape it are happening right now.
The discussion about AI and organizational democratization – long term trends – are key and informative. But I depart from Kevin’s view that ‘organizations are not democracies’ – a favorite topic of previous blogging years . Organizations devolve massive numbers of decisions to employees at various levels, and cannot hope to control the informal and voluntary conversations employees initiate and engage in. Much of what I hear about ‘democratisation’ aims to eliminate a problem that doesn’t exist, perhaps by adding complex or contrived processes (holacracy, anyone?)
Democratization is an indicative issue. Much of what’s been going on in corporate life is somewhere on a spectrum of great-to-crap, even though a lot gets tarred with the crappy brush. Keeping what’s good, as well as flushing what’s crap – is what should be happening right now.
Kevin Ruck: Ha. I knew as soon as I typed the word ‘democratisation’ it would spark a good debate. My point is that we should move away from using the term within the communication discussions we are having as it has so many connotations and differing interpretations. I do, of course, realise that ‘communicisation’ is a horrible word and it won’t be used. It was simply a crude attempt to dissociate communication from democratisation for the purposes of an objective discussion. The problems that many organisations constantly face are performance, customer service, change management, resilience and innovation. Of these, change management and innovation are probably the most pressing right now. And, as we all know, communication plays right into both of them. Good communication that is. Communication that is about listening as much as informing.
Janet Hitchen: LOVE this piece Kevin and as I read it I wondered are there any companies that aren’t using digital solutions right now?
The organisations I have worked for and the companies I speak to as a consultant are all using ESN and digital tools BUT they may not be using them in the best way or to maximum effect. You can’t just switch on Slack at an organisation and cross your fingers and hope for the best. There has to be a strategy, a plan and an understanding of how you want to use the channels get the most out of them for everyone.
That’s where IC comes in – we know the business, understand its purpose, its people and commercial goals and ambitions. Working together is key and organisations that don’t get this are going to get left behind.
People have had a taste of how life can be lived – no 2 hour commute every day, no open space where you can’t hear yourself think, better light, walking the dog at lunch, time to cook food from scratch.
I’m very interested in the research about the benefits of 2.5 days office time. It feels right. It’s about balance and with proposals to bring employees back in groups and not all together, this feels like it could be win win for everyone except the virus.
Keep the good and reimagine the rest.
Kevin Ruck: Thanks Janet. Even though digital platforms have been around for a long time, I think we’re still getting to grips with getting the best out of them. This is not a criticism of internal comms at all. It is a recognition of the complexities involved and the fundamental shift to a more social way of working. The potential for better listening through digital platforms is also largely untapped.
Belinda Gannaway: Like Janet, I’m interested in the research you reference. It’s a slightly different tack, but one thing I’m not sure we’ve got our heads around yet is the issue of distance bias. Ie we work better, more inclusively with people we’re near to. If we’re all remote, or all together, things work well. But I suspect we’ve not yet worked out the optimum way of blending the two. And we should. Because rushing back to the office five days a week is a ridiculous idea on many fronts.
I’m also intrigued by the concept of control in order to maintain meaningful interactions. This feels right and leans into your point about democratisation. Because it’s not just control over comms tech that people need to enable meaningful connections.
On your point re the price of financial assistance. I really hope you’re right. But having binge watched Michael Moore plus The Big Short in recent evenings, I’m really sceptical.
Kevin Ruck: I found the research really interesting too. The optimum blend of remote and face to face working is a challenge. As Janet commented, the finding that it is 2.5 days each feels about right to me. Although, as the research highlights, it is how remote communication works best for employees that seems to be critical. I agree about ‘meaningful interactions’ – working out what these are for employees would be a great first step for the ‘return to the workplace’.
Trudy Lewis: Excellent thoughts Kevin. I wonder if those considering the shift in operations to working fully remote are mindful of those (leaders/managers), who are struggling with this format and as a result have been trying to micromanage employees in an attempt to gain back some control?
I believe trust is the key – both for how we operate and in terms of allowing a democracy within the organisation. I think that how the organisation engages with people both now and from this point on will determine their survival, especially if they don’t embrace the critical function of IC in all this. And as you pointed out this includes the importance of listening – the impact or advantages of making these kinds of changes can be immense. The question is, are leaders and communicators mature enough to support this and to make it happen?
I am so glad you mention technology, there is a view from some practitioners that feel their roles will become obsolete as communication is impacted by AI and everything becomes digitised. I wholeheartedly agree that our role will change and will need to adapt to the more leadership focused activities. This might mean learning new skills (not necessarily coding), and being bolder to challenge leadership to get communications right.
I see embracing ‘communication in its fullest sense’ as critical, and as far as I’m concerned, the only way forward. I hope communicators can rise to the opportunity.
Kevin Ruck: Thanks Trudy. Great point about people who struggle with remote working. That’s perhaps why a 2.5 day balance might be good. The impact of automation and AI on internal communication will be significant. However, there’s very little research or thinking on this at the moment. Probably the basis for a separate, dedicated, piece when the challenges and opportunities can be explored in a bit more depth?
Adam Fuss: Kevin, this is fantastic. What I especially love is that your piece in many ways touches on what the employee value proposition of the future might look like, even if you don’t use that term directly. What are organizations going to expect of their employees, and what will they be prepared to offer in return? What will this new understanding – or contract, if you will – look like? Surely giving employees the flexibility to do their work in a way that better aligns with their personal circumstances while being in greater control of the communication and collaboration technology at their disposal is going to be right up there with ‘traditional benefits’ like compensation, insurance plans, training & development opportunities, etc. This is especially true because a) the results of remote/flexible work arrangements over the past several months are proving extraordinarily positive across industries, including at companies that had long resisted changing traditional ways of working and work environments; and b) the trend was largely moving in that direction even before COVID.
I do have to agree with Mike’s point about organizations as democracies. No, they’re not democracies in the sense that employees are akin to citizens with voting rights, but Mike raises a valid point about the countless decisions entrusted to employees at all levels every day. These are decisions that literally impact the health, reputation, and even survival of their organizations. Surely any leader worth his or her salt will understand that employees entrusted to make these critical decisions should be listened to. Additionally, even with NDAs and non-compete agreements, which can be incredibly difficult to fully enforce, employees do have the freedom to leave at any point, taking their knowledge, talent, and experience with them.
I agree with the others about the research suggesting that 2.5 days of office time per week being the ideal. It aligns with what I tell people my own preference would be, which I usually state as ‘two to four days per week in the office, depending on what I have going on in any given week.’ As IC professionals, who are often dot connectors in organizations, we should be especially sensitive to the pulse of our organizations and how we can most effectively work within whatever reality we end up in. Just because our companies tell us we can work remotely every day, or three days a week, or what have you, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Just as we should be helping to drive our work cultures by sharing success stories and best practices, using technology to its fullest, we also need to be prepared to meet our business partners where they are and be where they need us to be. I once worked for an amazing company whose motto was ‘be where you need to be.’ I suspect and indeed hope that mindset will be much more common as we continue to move forward.
Kevin Ruck: Great point Adam about employee ‘benefits’. It’s feelings of control of communication that internal comms folk can support…when we get to grips with what this really means. On democratisation, you’d think that listening to employees would be commonplace. But it’s not. 42% employees in the UK say their manager is very good or good at seeking their views and 39% say their manager is very good or good at responding to suggestions (source: UK Working Lives, The CIPD Job Quality Index). And with the rise of work fragmentation and flexibility, the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices commissioned by the UK Government in 2017 highlighted the imbalance of power in the employment relationship. On the return to the workplace, I love the ‘be where you need to be’ approach. Last week I heard of an organisation that has opened its head office for employees who want to go in. No obligation at all, but if it would benefit you to do so then fine. That’s a really understanding employer.