Guest post: Communication habits for life not just global pandemics

This month I’m delighted to be joined by internal communication specialist, Victoria Winter, who shares her tips for the communication habits that will stand you in good stead now and long into the future.

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Ronan Keating, the great philosopher, once said: ‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all’. Then again, Ronan Keating has clearly never been in charge of internal communications during a global pandemic.

Right now, employees worldwide are juggling the daily demands of work and home life, home-schooling children and caring for vulnerable loved ones whilst working miles away from the office. We are all curious about the next steps. When can we get back to the office? What impact will the pandemic have on our organisation’s future strategy? How will this affect my role?

Visible, consistent and regular communication from senior leaders has never been more important. Here are some tips for keeping your colleagues engaged, focused and connected.

Have a regular slot for communication and stick to it

We might not be able to have ‘water cooler moments’ just now but that doesn’t mean rumours won’t take hold. During times of uncertainty we look to our leaders for reassurance and guidance. That last-minute cancellation of a team meeting or town hall event can cause concern and allow rumours to take hold. What’s going on? I thought we were supposed to be hearing about the department budget today? What does this mean? Avoid allowing your employees to draw their own conclusions by having a regular opportunity for two-way communication and stick to it.

Push back on inauthenticity

When it comes to writing your communication push back on any corporate speak and leverage the real you (sorry, couldn’t resist!). Employees are becoming increasingly tired of management jargon. We look for leaders to speak to us in a relatable and engaging way as demonstrated by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Ardern’s approach throughout the global pandemic has been widely praised as a masterclass in leadership communication. When announcing government instructions for lockdown, Ardern peppered her speech with personal snippets of what it means for her and her family. Acknowledging that her daughter would no longer be able to play at the playground and recognising the pain of ‘grief on grief’ for those unable to attend loved ones’ funerals. By showing real empathy and using accessible examples and language, Ardern gives an account that is powerful and relatable to all.

Be a visible leader – in whatever way works for you

When considering how to communicate with your staff, there are many communication channels from which to choose. Do you opt for a conference call or webinar with interactive Q&A functionality? Film a pre-recorded video message? Write a blog or send an all-staff email?

Of course, to make this decision you’ll need to consider what you want to achieve with your communication. Is it simply to broadcast a message? To seek feedback or start a conversation? Another aspect to consider is your own personal communication strengths. What communication method works best for you? What is your preferred style as a leader? Are you a naturally engaging speaker? Do you work best speaking to large groups or could you consider a roadshow where you attend department or directorate meetings (albeit via a screen)? You will be delivering the message so do consider what best for you, as well as your audience.

If you don’t know the answer, say so

As Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have recently discovered, clarity of message is everything. However, we are also becoming increasingly familiar at living with uncertainty. If a colleague asks a question that you can’t answer, say so! As Sarah Browning recently wrote in her blog on communication skills for leaders: ‘ Just because you’re at the top, doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers’. Blustering your way through a response will not instil confidence from your colleagues. Retain their trust and protect your integrity by giving a candid response. Own the question, be genuine and commit to giving them an answer as soon as you can.

Only seek questions from your staff if you intend to answer them!

As any internal communication professional will tell you, managing a staff Q&A is time consuming. Following up with relevant colleagues, seeking out the correct information and getting sign-off all takes time. However, this is vital in order for it to be a meaningful exercise. Failing to provide timely responses to your employees’ questions or providing inadequate, ill thought-through answers can be more damaging (and detrimental to staff engagement) than failing to seek questions in the first place.

Good communication habits are for life, not just for global pandemics

From that FaceTime gin & tonic party to the Zoom quiz with our overseas relatives, many of us are finding ever more inventive ways to stay connected during the lockdown. Some new activities are proving so successful they leave us thinking – why haven’t we done this before?! (No? Just me?). I think that many leaders will find themselves thinking the same about their communication approach during lockdown.

I hope leaders will see the value of the communication activities they undertake during the global pandemic and recognise their long-term benefits. The true value of adopting these communication practices, and their lasting benefits, will outlast any virus.

Victoria Winter is an internal communications specialist who has developed communication strategies for charities, not-for-profit and higher education organisations. She specialises in change communication. Find out more in her LinkedIn profile:

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