COVID-19’s impact on the workplace has been vividly depicted on our news channels for many months.

It’s been an ongoing narrative of disruption, threatening mental wellbeing and personal and business prosperity, followed – in New Zealand at least – by a degree of recovery and marginal return to normal. But what’s it meant for employee communications?

The heart of any workplace is its people – they determine the culture of the place – and the lifeblood of that culture is communications. COVID-19 imposed an urgent need to get important pandemic information – how to do the work and be safe, if it was still possible to do the work – to the troops. It also complicated the delivery of information with a shift to home-based or more flexible working and a consequent rejigging of the channels that would work.

From a series of workshops I ran on internal communications before, during and after the COVID-19 lockdowns, however, it’s fair to say the core internal comms issues that tend to beset the workplace remain the same.

Distilling the input of participants at those sessions and their feedback on what challenges and rankles them in their internal comms programmes, here are six major issues that cropped up regularly.

Communicating in a dispersed and diverse organisation. There’s no question it’s easier to communicate with a small number of staff in an office on a common IT platform.  But once an organisation has multiple sites up and down the country and a mix of white- and blue-collar workers, as well as wide ethnic diversity, the comms challenge soars. Frontline workers may have little or no access to that PC or laptop that channels information to your desk-bound troops; they may be quite remote from any channel bar their cellphone.

Getting engagement from staff. Communicators report much frustration around engagement: by which they mean getting people to hear the messages they’re trying to get out and responding or acting as a result. You can’t force them to read it; what do you do? And it’s not just employees – managers can be wilfully disengaged as well, which makes it even harder.

Being taken seriously. Internal comms is about keeping your major asset well-informed, but too often it’s “mushroom management” – being kept in the dark and fed horse manure. The glamour comms gets the resources – marketing comms, corporate, advertising, big glossy external reports. Internal gets the scraps because in someone’s eyes it’s not linked to the bottom-line, like sales and reputation management tend to be.

Getting information from managers. As a communicator, you need the facts, the stories, the details. But extracting those from the people who hold them can be a major mission. It’s late, it’s incomplete, it’s possibly inaccurate. This issue is linked at the hip to the previous one.

Conflicting messages across the organisation. An extension of the-left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-is-up-to is a tendency in dispersed organisations for key messages to vary from one site to another; important stuff emphasised in one place and ignored or played down elsewhere. The grapevine will assert itself and compound the confusion.

Doing the work. Internal comms people are usually lone rangers, probably with other laborious duties in addition. Or they may have a more predominant role and title (possibly not even a comms one) and internal is an add-on. Their internal comms to-do list then looks formidable and demoralising: lots of channels to maintain (moreso since COVID-19), ad-hoc demands, maybe a sudden change project to support, shelving everything else. Something has to suffer.

The fixes

So how do you tackle those internal comms bugbears?

For the dispersed, diverse organisation, as far as channels goes, one size won’t fit all. Your managerial (and supervisory) network needs to work honestly and hard to get the messages down the chain and back up accurately; senior management needs to be getting around – roadshows (and face-to-face comms of any kind) are gold. And you should know what information employees want to hear, then deliver it in a timely (not delayed) way.

Getting better employee engagement flows from communicating properly, i.e., on topics they want to hear about (and not the stuff they don’t) via channels they prefer. You find that out by auditing them properly on precisely those preferences.  And engaging with their managers and supervisors helps; who do they listen to? It helps immensely to deliver the information well: crisply and creatively to get that all-important cut-through.

To win respect for internal comms at the top you need to hammer home the message that happy staff = happy customer, and that happy staff – as every engagement survey is likely to attest – is about good comms.  Research tells us 65% of projects fail to meet expectations and the common cause for failure is poor comms. The other approach is to illuminate previous comms disasters where things turned pear-shaped because comms wasn’t involved – or got hauled in at the 11th hour. Ask employees about the state of comms and you’ll usually get plenty of ammo’ to help push for improvements and better resourcing – so that audit is a must.

Getting information calls for terrier-like tenacity and skill around “ghosting” and drafting the words, then seeking validation rather than requesting copy from a keyboard-phobic contact. Good planning (including a decent comms calendar of action for the year), early engagement, and the fostering of willing “stringers” are worthwhile strategies.

Aligning the messages across an organisation is about comms controlling the channels – which these days might include several Facebook Workplace groups or MS Teams – and seeking a single point of truth on important matters. Planning your comms should involve nailing down the key messages and getting those agreed by management and adhered to.

Getting all your comms done without bursting a fufu valve is predominantly about planning and prioritising. Try to do too much and obviously not all will get done; and what does may be of sketchy quality for obvious reasons. There has to be an A, B and C list – and the C’s (sorry boss) aren’t going to get done. Get your manager to call the priorities. Your audit will also tell you what channels are important; if you’re strapped for time and resources, work out the best ones and focus on those.