THURSDAY 6 APR 2023 2:36 PM


Business communications strategist Jenni Field describes her role as helping organisations move from chaos to calm. With almost 20 years’ experience in this role, Jenni gives Rebecca Pardon her perspective on today’s culture crisis.

In 2021, a ‘post-pandemic organisational culture crisis’ was forecasted in a poll by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, as the now-familiar hybrid work culture was only just blossoming. It would be wrong to call this hyperbole, as a more dispersed workforce threatens the loosening of employers’ ties with their staff, possibly irretrievably.

A recent Oliver Wyman Forum report shows that many young employees are prepared to leave a job in search of roles offering more flexibility. If you didn’t already know, company loyalty has become passé: 70% of young people who claim to be ‘loyal’ to their employer are also actively on the hunt for new positions, and 60% believe a job merely needs to provide the flexibility for finding fulfilment elsewhere. 

It is no shock, then, that hybrid working seems here to stay; 85% of young employees prefer hybrid or remote working to being office-bound. While graduates may be settling comfortably into the new norm, a ‘culture crisis’ is still unfolding. Undermanaged remote staff can often feel neglected, and this has the potential for negative consequences, from job dissatisfaction to burnout and fraud. Company culture is commonly defined as ‘the way we do things around here’, and Redefining Communications founder Jenni Field believes remote work has altered this considerably. “Big crises escalate existing trends, and technology is not going to be a silver bullet to solve any problem,” she observes.  

Back in 2015, a study titled ‘Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office’, published by Rockmann and Michael Pratt of Boston College, explored the unintended consequences of distributed work. One central finding was that once a proportion of workers decided to operate remotely, the quality of office-based work was diminished. Staff found themselves “alone in a crowd, surrounded by people but not gaining any meaningful social contact in the on-site office” and ultimately preferred to work off-site.

The cultural and management ideal that many employers may now yearn for perhaps never really existed. According to Field, an “existing trend” of neglect was already percolating within companies long before the advent of the pandemic. “I don't believe organisations have been giving enough time to understanding how day-to-day operations and processes impact culture. Hybrid working has shone a light on poor internal communications, where cracks were already beginning to appear.

“We haven't been doing enough work to ensure that we understand people, because organisations are people.”

This may be forgiven however in the case of one particularly enigmatic person, Elon Musk. In 2018, Musk penned an open letter to Tesla employees promoting a “free flowing” work culture in which “communication should travel via the shortest path necessary.” It is appealing to hope that a hybrid work culture has introduced a more democratic workplace that negates the stuffy and traditional ‘chain of command’ structure. Field, however, refutes this: “Musk is a disruptive entrepreneur. He deliberately wants to disrupt the status quo. That is what he wants to do, regardless of whether you like or dislike him. 

“There is a necessity to be mindful from a reputational perspective, so that we are aware of our behaviour and impact, which is aligned to our values. Internal messaging needs to be linked to external reputation."

“People always say we need flatter structures, but it doesn't work. As human beings we need structure. The only instance in which reduced control or hierarchy may work is if there is strong alignment from the top. But you must remember the importance of organisations being psychologically safe for employees; to achieve this, you need to be intentional about the things you do.”

To reinforce her point, Field refers to an experiment by Google in 2002, where the company took out all of its managers only to then have to return them abruptly after. “An entirely ‘free flowing’ structure of communication risks just creating noise. If you are all freely talking, but do not all agree with what you’re doing, you are in what I call ‘chaos’.

“Personally, when I listen to employees, I am listening for a reason,” Field explains. “Whereas if the internal communications strategy is to be more conversational - and that's part of our culture – then that is not listening for me. That is just enabling conversations and dialogue throughout the organisation.”

According to Field, protecting yourself from chaos is all about having a clear purpose and direction, which is imparted most effectively by management or leaders. Field emphasises the importance of remembering that companies are, at their core, a mosaic and motely of individuals, including ‘disruptors’. “There is an element of the complexity of human beings that we struggle with,” she says.

“When it comes something like listening, ask yourself: why are you listening, what are you listening to and where are you listening to it? If you are only listening to employees on a platform like Glassdoor, for example, you must expect a bias that may be more negative.”

Surprisingly, the way internal communications itself “gets done” has not seen much change in recent years. “We have been very broadcast based in internal communications for a long time. We don’t know how to manage the feedback and constructive conversations that are critical,” Field observes. “There are lots of reasons to listen, but I don’t know that we’re very purposeful about how we do that listening, which is where communication begins to crumble.

Whether we use a survey or try to create channels that are two-way, there needs to be a hypothesis if you want to enact change,” she continues. “You must also involve a cross-sample across the organisation, otherwise you’re just going to be listening to the noisiest people. A union, for example, might have a more negative perception but be noisier.”

When it is posited that, in the face of crises, the relationship between external and internal communications might be becoming blurred, Field claims that this has been the case for a long time. “There is a necessity to be mindful from a reputational perspective, so that we are aware of our behaviour and impact, which is aligned to our values. Internal messaging needs to be linked to external reputation.

“It’s like that famous saying: ‘You can’t talk yourself out of a situation that you have behaved yourself into’,” she says. “This is what people forget; our values, our purpose and our mission as an organisation need to match behaviour, otherwise people can go public and reveal what is going on behind closed doors.”

Perhaps what constitutes ‘how things get done around here’ - or not – simply comes down to human nature, which is often capricious. “This is exactly what is meant by the blurring the lines,” Field agrees. “It is about a loss of control. Years ago, you had control over the internal narrative for your company, and that could be kept between you and your mates down the pub. This control has disappeared.  

“Today, if I have a bad experience at a company, I can reveal it on Glassdoor in a way that could be really damaging. For internal communicators who have been working for as long as I have, there has been a lot of new developments: you started off with things like print magazines, and then the intranet,” Field reflects. “Although internal communications is still broadcast based, it is much less so than it used to be.

 “That so much of culture is implied is a challenge. This is why communication is so important: how you behave, and the channels and tone that you use, shapes your culture.”