As we mark a full year of working remotely and continue to experience the power of social movements such as Black Lives Matter, the impact is being felt in myriad ways. This uncharted environment has made every enterprise reevaluate how they act, to whom they communicate, what they say and how. As a result, new trends are emerging that expand an employers’ internal communication audience and require organizations to get more stakeholder involvement in key decisions.
These will require companies to create a fully inclusive communications strategy, and two trends are driving this need for inclusivity:
• The definition of "employee" has expanded. In the work-from-home environment, companies must consider their impact on the employee’s own ecosystem in a greater way. People are living not just with partners, but with children of all ages (from infants to young adults), as well as their parents or other older family members. Often, co-habitants may make “guest appearances” during a Zoom meeting or work in the same room if space is limited. Internal communications need to go beyond just the employee now more than ever. These extended families become internal audiences, and more empathy and emphasis are required regarding their needs and reactions.
• Consensus guides strategic decisions. Top-down management is dead. Today, everyone gets a vote. In light of 2020’s dramatic political polarization and our collective social conscious being raised by organized gender and ethnic calls to action, there is greater appreciation for getting input from many sources—internal and external—before big and little policy decisions are made. This is also true for how decisions are communicated. Using focus groups, social media listening, direct community outreach and other data and techniques to gain insights, the communicator is the perfect candidate to be the eyes and ears of the organization to bring diverse viewpoints and potential reactions to the table for discussion.
In the current environment, work life balance has taken on new meaning and presents unique opportunities to listen and learn. Companies have gotten feedback from employees not to schedule meetings during lunch hour because when everyone is home, that should be designated as family time. Although people may seem more accessible 24/7 when working remotely, there need to be barriers. Many organizations have issued guidelines on what’s an appropriate workday. In other words—don’t send 11 p.m. emails.
IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna took things to another level by sharing the IBM Work from Home Pledge. A product of a grassroots initiative, it was created by employees and addressed the challenges of taking care of family members as well as themselves while managing their work. The specific pledges include being family sensitive, supporting flexibility for personal needs (such as homeschooling) and being kind, by welcoming members of the extended work family. Says Krishna, “I’ll roll with it with empathy. It is totally fine if children make noise or jump on camera, or pets make an appearance or say hello—they’re family too!”
When its on-site childcare centers were closed because of COVID, Patagonia surveyed parents extensively on the present and potential future state of care. Action items included sharing activity calendars adapted from their childcare program and making the program director available for conversations.
The marcom experts at CVS Health increased their amount of employee listening and made sure the information got to the right people to help make decisions about hours, protective equipment, bonuses, childcare and more.
Inclusive decision making is not just limited to employees and their families. Seeking input from the community and diverse representatives of those most impacted by decisions and those with special viewpoints goes a long way toward avoiding missteps in actions taken and messaging used.
Major energy companies have long practiced sitting down with NGOs and other possible adversaries to try to come to a mutual understanding. More recently, when Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben finally changed their brand names, part of the process was to consult with relevant outside stakeholders. The list included retailers and consumers.
One of the Page Society's key principles for the effective practice of public relations is “Listen to stakeholders: To serve the enterprise well, understand what the public wants and needs and advocate for engagement with all stakeholders. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about stakeholder reaction to the enterprise's products, policies and practices. To listen effectively, engage a diverse range of stakeholders through inclusive dialogue.”
Today, more than ever, decisions require considerable thought about how they will affect employees, customers/consumers, shareholders, community, regulators and others. Emotion and ethics must play a role. Adapting a truly inclusive communications approach by expanding the definition of internal audiences and building true consensus, will enable companies to see business benefits now and in the future.
Valerie Di Maria, founder and principal of the10company, has earned recognition as a communications and marketing leader at complex, global corporations and agencies. She is also an executive coach, and started VOICES, a program specifically for women by women. Previously, she held CMO/CCO roles at GE Capital, Motorola and Willis.