14 May 2020

Current headlines are focusing on what a return to work might look like for millions of people, but this is just one of the many issues with which business leaders must grapple.

They are also having to re-think how they communicate as the current situation is calling for a different type of leader – and this may not sit comfortably with the more ‘Alpha’ CEOs.

CEOs traditionally exert strength and clarity, particularly around their organisation’s purpose and strategic direction. In a crisis, they must also promote “psychological safety” and “project confidence” to their employees [McKinsey, March 2020].

However, this role has changed dramatically over the past two months.

Now, CEOs are being looked to for reassurance, stability and even emotional support by a workforce that has collectively experienced a traumatic event at the likely outset of a major recession.

This demands a significant shift in the nature of internal communications. Managers and employees are looking to them less for business guidance and more for personal support. Mental health needs to be a primary focus – itself a challenge in businesses which are themselves performing under significant pressure.

Many leaders are already rising to this challenge, sharing highly emotive and honest updates throughout this difficult and challenging time. One example was posted on Marriott International’s Twitter account, where its CEO Arne Sorenson delivers a six-minute speech. It is naturally scripted and rehearsed but delivered brilliantly – particularly in the final 60 seconds as his voice breaks slightly.

The use of video conferencing has broken down barriers, altered relationships and put a more human face on members of the senior team. Employees are feeling closer to one another and the C-suite, having seen inside their homes, maybe caught a glance of their children, cooed at their pets and seen them in their casual wear in a more informal atmosphere.

Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield recently commented on the change of tone in their internal communications, saying that they “can afford to be a little more casual right now”. There are numerous examples of leaders making internal communications more personal on a smaller scale too by starting blogs and vlogs, sharing their thoughts, struggles and reflections on their experiences during lockdown so far.

When planning a post-lockdown communications strategy there are three things to consider:

  1. Given this ‘new’ role for C-suite, employees will continue to look to them for emotional support and guidance. The tone of your internal communications should reflect this and continue to include personal reflections and anecdotes, where appropriate.
  2. Continue to give internal communications a sufficient amount of time and ensure you have regular touch points with the different parts of your business. Your employees don’t want to only hear from you when something is going wrong.
  3. Encourage your Communications and HR teams to prioritise and talk about health and wellbeing – ask them to arrange focus groups and get line managers and team leaders to source feedback and thoughts in team meetings. This information should be collated, discussed and fed back into your communications and corporate strategies, as appropriate.

If you would like to learn more about Hanover’s internal communications offering, or to enquire about a ‘Return To Work’ planning workshop, email Sinead Meckin at smeckin@hanovercomms.com.

Sinead was recently shortlisted for the ‘CIPR Inside Internal Communicator of the Year’ category at the 2020 Internal Communications & Engagement Awards.