Gary Grates
Gary Grates

For all the dramatic developments such as a global pandemic, globalization, technology advancement, and competitive parity have had on business, we often overlook the most dramatic impact of all – the disintegration of the ages-old “social compact” between employers and their employees.

To be sure, volumes have been written about “hybrid” work environments, “rightsizing,” “the emergence of a social voice,” and other outgrowths of the evolving societal and business environment; certainly, those have affected business and employees directly. This is an important shift because for the first time in generations, the relationship is, in fact, forever changed.

What we are all witnessing is a workforce and even a management layer that is woefully ill prepared to address myriad issues and challenges facing the organization. Information is abundant but it is not organized, lacks relevance, and is impersonal to absorb and act on. How is this possible?

Three forces have converged to create such a scenario:

1. Internal Communications as a function does not report to or have access to the CEO or the C-Suite in any meaningful way. This results in a confused mix of content that is neither relevant to the business nor actionable to the workforce. What’s important to the business is lost in a sea of superficial content laid out as a buffet with no direction.

2. There is no Communications Standard in place for the enterprise. Employees – new and legacy – are not conditioned or trained to seek information, initiate discussion, and debate, and directed to specific platforms and venues to participate and attend. This creates a void in learning.

3. Content must break-through and align to the priorities of the business. Amid a sea of irrelevant information, critical subjects, and topics important to growth, sustainability and competitive advantage must be conveyed. This is an area that internal communicators need to grasp fully exploring provocative areas, delving into critical issues, providing deeper answers, and engaging in constructive disagreement with employees.

COVID recast how work is conducted

Adding to the above, the world changed three years ago when a global pandemic upended everything.

Being away from the office for over three years would have been unheard of prior to the pandemic. Now, employees are demanding that some sort of hybrid work arrangement be maintained as productivity and progress went on without a hitch. Further, people experienced a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie working outside the office resulting in newfound freedoms. A new mentality emerged even before COVID logically borne as much from the disappointment of the promises made to people as transformation and change efforts took hold as from a shifting global workforce in search of more practical and realistic work/life balance. As a result, people have shifted both their mindset and expectations.

Figuratively, they have said:

  • “OK, we understand the new rules: we must be faster and better than ever before.
  • “And, even if we are faster and better, we realize we might lose our jobs regardless.
  • “Plus, there’s always a decent chance that our entire business model might change on a moment’s notice.”
  • “We also recognize that compensation and benefits are changing in light of global forces.”

Accordingly, the employee mindset has changed.

  • “OK, we understand your new rules. But that means we are making some new rules, too.
  • “You must give us the best chance possible to succeed. That means training, openness, communication, and access to information we need.
  • “It also means we are going to start asking questions. Why are we being asked to do this? How did you make this decision? How are you defining success?”
  • “We also expect to know the options you face as a management team with regard to jobs, compensation, productivity, etc., and want a say in those decisions.”

This new mindset, of course, doesn’t put new pressures only on the employer – it also puts pressure on the employee to be more engaged and industrious than ever before.

“Why don’t I know?”

Today’s employees expect to know the organization’s business, culture, rhythms, information flow and knowledge base.

The once-common refrain of “I didn’t know that?” or “Why didn’t someone tell me?” is no longer viable, and no longer accepted. In circumstances of doubt or ignorance, high-performing employees ask themselves, “Why don’t I know?” If the reason is that the employer hasn’t lived up to its end of the relationship, employees are literally obligated to demand pertinent information.

On the other hand, if the reason is that the employees haven’t done their homework or asked the right questions, they are obligated to get up to speed immediately.

It is now a zero-sum game, so to speak. Employers must be open, transparent, and current with information and data. Employees must be curious, engaged, and current on the company’s products, services, policies, opportunities, struggles, performance, etc.

That, in a nutshell, is the new standard for today’s employer/employee relationship – mutual respect and collective engagement.

The Nexus between Manager/Supervisor remains the key to performance

How can leaders and managers operate effectively in a social and digital era where the need for constant and meaningful relationships with employees takes time when they face so many other priorities?

Specifically, leaders, managers/supervisors must establish:

  • A way of operating that places their personal knowledge and education of organizational realities first.
  • A set of standards for how, when, and what to communicate in a face-to-face manner.
  • A protocol for employee behavior in terms of accessing, discussing, and debating information on policy, positions, strategy, and decisions that the company operates against.
  • A curiosity for how people are thinking, progressing, behaving in order to move the business forward.

The irony of the digital age is that face-to-face communications remains the prevalent form of communications with social used to support or complement major initiatives.

In this way, people have a regular dose of business, meaning they interact with colleagues and peers exchanging ideas, concerns, opinions, etc., which help shape and condition behavior and thinking.

Evaluating your own organization

Given this new reality, has your company instituted new standards of engagement for managers and employees? Is information readily accessible and updated? Is your internal communications architecture in synch with your company’s management model? Are managers and communicators alike evaluated on the frequency and content of information shared with employees?

Is there a seamless “push” and “pull” balance of information?

Of course, you can probably determine this rather quickly by simply answering a few questions:

  • How often do employees generate ideas that are integrated into management practice?
  • Do managers inquire about company performance without being asked or requested?
  • Are company meetings interactive, or do only the managers speak?
  • Do people have solid understanding of competitive threats? Priorities? Challenges?
  • Where does internal communications sit in the structure? Does it report to or have access to the CEO?
  • What information is allowed to “break-though” regularly to allow people to make the argument themselves?

Finally, do employees often offer the equivalent of “I don’t know” …or, rather, do they respond to new information by asking “Why don’t I know?”

The right answers in this case will determine just how much your company is at risk at a time when success is a razor thin proposition.


Gary F. Grates is Principal and Managing Director of GConsulting Group, a global consulting and advisory firm in the areas of business transformation/change, corporate communications, and corporate relevance. He was formally principal of Real Chemistry, a health innovation firm, president/global managing director of Edelman Change and Employee Engagement, and vice president/north america, General Motors Corporation. He is an adjunct professor at the Syracuse University Newhouse School, member of the Plank Center, Page and IPR.