TUESDAY 26 MAY 2020 3:22 PM


There is constant talk on the gradual return to work as the UK eases out of Covid-19 lockdown measures. However, as we have seen with the teaching community, there is still much uncertainty surrounding the security measures that must be taken, what will and won’t be allowed in the workplace, and how companies will function. Now more than ever, internal communicators are needed to inform the workforce in a clear and transparent manner, while guiding it through this complicated maze of ‘new normalities.’ Communicate magazine spoke to eight internal communication leaders for their insight on the function IC has had in reassuring people during the pandemic and the role it will play in shaping the UK’s future.

Amelia Wareing, East Midlands Railway

The rail industry is running ghost trains.  On-board, at stations and in depots across the UK, an army of rail workers continue to keep services running for the few who rely on rail to get to their place of work. Our employees, along with the many other transport workers, delivery drivers, carers and NHS staff, are the heroes that we clap for every Thursday evening.

It’s certainly challenging to maintain morale. The rail industry is an inherently sociable and customer-led working environment, which has changed beyond recognition since March.

The most important quality of the internal communicator now is empathy. How are our employees feeling? What are they thinking about? What are their concerns? If we can stay one-step ahead of the questions that employees are asking themselves, we can help navigate our workforce through uncertainty. We need to be ready with answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked.

So much is unknown and uncertain. But uncertainty in itself doesn’t cause employees to become disengaged, if our response as internal communicators is to champion transparency. Every week since the pandemic hit, our MD Will records a video blog. We work together to form the content. What questions will employees have this week and what is the most up-to-date information that we have to share? What could Will add to this information to offer further reassurance and clarity?

To navigate our employees through the current crisis, internal communicators must focus on clear, open and timely communications. Focus on establishing a working feedback loop between employees and senior leaders to inform the updates that you share. Focus on what matters most to the people who work for your organisation. 

We are in this together, and together we will get through this.

Lesley Allman (managing director Allman Communication)

It’s tempting for communicators to focus on the tactics – telling people what they need to know about Covid-19 policies and practices. Although this is important, it’s also the communicators role to ensure employees understand the bigger picture so they can see why decisions are being made and actions are being taken. 

For some time, many organisations will continue to experience less demand for their products and services whilst also having to put safeguards in place for their customers and colleagues.  In short, less income and more cost.  Communicators who recognise this, talk about it and help colleagues adjust their expectations and behaviours accordingly will be the ones who add most value in coming months.

Leaders must continue to communicate about the organisation’s direction and priorities, but they must also be honest about the challenges being faced and seek input and ideas to overcome these.  By being more human, listening to their teams and involving them in problem solving, leaders will build trust.
Managers need to make sure their teams have the information, equipment and conditions to do their jobs.  During lockdown they’ve been forced to be more open minded, placing more value outputs, rather than inputs. The focus has been on getting things done, rather than worrying too much about who is doing what, when and how.  Maintaining these levels of workplace agility, flexibility and trust will be key going forward.

Trust, of course, has to be earned.  Leaders and managers who have done the right thing and communicated well in ‘peacetime’ will have a head start in this.  And colleagues, who have been seen to step up rather than step back, are more likely to be trusted going forward.

Effective internal communication will help everyone feel like ‘we’re in this together’ and to focus on what they each need to do to ensure the organisation not only survives but thrives.

Luis Dominguez Pecero, NSPCC

Internal communications play a vital part in keeping staff and volunteers informed, connected, and reassured throughout a crisis like Covid-19. They are the link between how an organisation manages their response to the pandemic now, and in the future, and what this means for its people. They bring everyone together at a time where many feel isolated, worried, or exhausted.

Internal communications need to keep staff and volunteers informed and up to date with government advice and Covid-19’s impact on the organisation – from clear health and safety and furloughing guidance through to how the organisation has adapted it’s work to meet its objectives.

At the same time, organisations must continue to motivate and celebrate people, help them to stay connected, and share resources and tools to support their wellbeing – whether they’re working or not.

It’s incredibly important that they look to the future too. Internal communications have a key role in bringing Britain back and they must support their organisation in reassuring its people that they will be future ready. They will help to create certainties in uncertain times. They can help organisations understand and recognise staff and volunteer needs, so they need to be at the core of the planning process.

To help with all of this, internal communications need to adjust channels, create new ways of communicating and engaging people, and advise and coach leadership to keep their teams informed, connected and reassured – in a compassionate and transparent way.

James Powell, Irwin Mitchell

At a time when we’re all feeling nervous about what the future might hold – even where that includes a sense of optimism – it’s hugely important to provide colleagues with continued support. The role that internal communications has to play at Irwin Mitchell is focused on the needs of our colleagues, ensuring they can continue to effectively service our clients and support our wider communities  

Having our colleagues’ wellbeing at the front and centre of our thinking, means the practical steps we take through our communications approach is much more likely to work for them.  Following key principles helps us provide certainty of what colleagues can expect – focused on maintaining trust and confidence in what the business is doing to support them.

Being clear on why we’re communicating – e.g. making colleagues aware of a decision that affects them, an action they need to take, or where their involvement is desired – is the starting point. The flow of ‘who’ we then communicate with (our audience), ‘how’ (i.e. from broadcast to collaboration) and choice of channel/s comes from being crystal clear on our purpose for communicating.

As our approach has evolved - dramatically in some areas – with a focus on digital communications, it is ever more important to revisit and stick to the core principles that ensure effective internal communication. Measurement and insight should be used continuously and consistently to understand what’s working and where we can improve, with an ultimate focus on understanding colleague response and organisational impact.

Staying true to our values, listening and acting upon colleague feedback, and looking to the future means internal communications can support businesses and colleagues prepare for whatever decisions we all need to take in the coming weeks, months and years ahead.

Nicky Clark, McCann Synergy

The spread of COVID-19 has forced a seismic shift in how, where and when we work. I’ve read recently that it could mean a 35% dive in the economy and an increase in unemployment by 2 million. With the pressure to kick-start the economy and get businesses back trading, organisations will need to focus on creating a high-performing workforce.

With changes in the way both employees and customers expect to engage with organisations, companies must ask themselves: How do we address employee expectations and new ways of working? How can we rally people towards our purpose and values? How do we motivate, engage and empower our workforce and How do we continue to promote a performance culture and retain a competitive edge?

To do this, IC, HR and importantly, the C Suite needs to plan effectively for the future, or ‘next normal’ in operational terms, and bring plans to life for employees; with clarity, reassurance and empathy.

I’d suggest a good starting point is something we’re calling the five Workplace Truths – the professional needs that are relevant to all businesses today, regardless of size and sector.

1) Purpose - consistent actions that are true to the essence of the organisation, are embedded into everything it does and is meaningful to the lives of its employees

2) Reboarding - reacclimatising and repatriating people into the organisation, including the physical space and their mental wellbeing

3) Experience – use this situation as an opportunity to review and possibly reinvent the employee experience. Connect and listen to what people want.

4) Leadership   building confidence and trust from the workforce, customers and society. Consider authenticity, a human touch and supporting middle managers

5) Innovation – necessity drives innovation and as employees know customers best, enable a way to capture and action ideas.  Does the organisation have the right behaviours and mindset to do this?

Rasha El-Shirbini, Social Jaguar

Keeping employees engaged and motivated during the pandemic is high up on the agenda, especially as we prepare for our workforces to return. It is fair to say that not all employees welcome it as warmly as others.

In a recent Karian and Box survey, 87% of 75,000 employees felt they were kept informed by their employers. However, the survey also highlighted that less than half of the respondents felt optimistic, 1 in 4 respondents felt demotivated, and a third felt anxious. Despite communication being regular and informative, it is not doing enough to reassure or motivate.

Could it be that most COVID-19 corporate communications are linear, focused on instruction, updates or process changes rather than behaviour and emotion? A survey of 403 communication executives by Peppercomm and the Institution of Public Relations, showed that the top three topics communicated to their workforces, were on 'Safety guidelines' (84%), 'COVID-19 updates' (79%), and 'new organizational policies and procedures' (75%). Compared to topics listed as 'other' (19%) such as positive stories (including acknowledging front line workers) or parenting resources.

Getting humans back to work requires a human approach that focuses on relatable and informative content, targeted at 'feels' and behaviours, taking into account external drivers. Planning in communications designed to encourage particular emotional responses as well as meeting our employee's current emotional states are key. Start by revisiting employee persona types, asking questions such as, ‘how might they be feeling? How can I relate? What would it take to reassure them and make them feel positive?’ will help, significantly.

Rosie Beazley, Coats

The role of internal communicators in reopening offices is two fold – working with the cross-functional team to input on company policy to re-open offices and leading on the communications of that policy – both broadcast and two-way.

As communicators we have the distinct position of working with a broad range of stakeholders, we put ourselves into the shoes of our audiences and have mechanisms to help elicit feedback on employees’ needs and concerns.  In addition for multinational companies we can help to share best practice from other locations.  This makes us ideally placed to be on teams responsible for setting the strategy for re-opening offices. At Coats, recognising this, our head of group communications, coordinates the UK COVID-19 Response team.

During policy development our role is to keep employees engaged and involved, give them regular updates and ensure their needs and concerns are met.  Communicating the final policy means being very clear about the requirements and showing that feedback and concerns have been listened to and acted upon.  Built into the communications plan should also be opportunities for questions and feedback, as well as recognition for employees who are key implementers or are coming up with innovative ideas to ensure the new ways of working work well.

Looking beyond supporting employees return to the office, internal communicators will also have a role in adapting communications tools and techniques to support the new office dynamics in a working world that will be very different to pre-COVID-19. 

 Sarah Odams- Barnardo’s

The unprecedented situation has given internal communications teams across the UK a renewed opportunity to amplify their critical role in regular, open and transparent messaging using the best channels available. The speed at which information is moving means that internal communications is pivotal in keeping all areas of the organisation connected and the ability to be both agile and flexible is paramount.

At Barnardo’s staff engagement rates on our digital channels have rocketed and colleagues across the entire charity are now using our primary digital channel Workplace on a daily basis. In the last month over 98% of colleagues read or clicked on an internal piece of content. Video has become king as a vehicle for authentic communications from leaders, and colleagues are really appreciating the regular rhythm of communications. We have utilised all of our existing digital channels – Workplace (Facebook for staff), our weekly interactive email, videos from leaders, Leaders Live (an opportunity for colleagues to ask our leaders questions), and Management Matters (a digital email for managers which equips them with key talking points to use in team meetings or 1:1s).

The next challenge – as restrictions lift – is to focus on how we sustain these types of digital engagement rates – and how we continue to react to such a fast moving and challenging situation. Many organisations will be introducing ‘Safe Return to Work’ groups - it is essential that internal communications is involved in these conversations from the beginning so that we can provide insight about how colleagues on the ground are feeling and help to manage these emotions

Yvonne O’Hara Metropolitan, Police Service

When we’re going through a difficult time personally it is the friends who show up for us that help us to get through it all. I think this is a good analogy for how people are feeling about where they work right now. The pandemic has made many of us feel at sea personally, and in these troubling times it is our employers who we are often turning to for certainty and reassurance. As internal communicators we play a privileged role helping employees navigate their way through the pandemic, by offering clear information and guidance. This helps employees to feel they have some control over events that are outside of their control.

Our role is also to boost morale and keep spirits high when times are tough. At the Metropolitan Police Service we’ve done this by celebrating our unsung heroes on social media and on our intranet - these are officers and police staff who have gone above and beyond their day jobs keeping Londoners safe by helping people through the pandemic. This has ranged from one police community support officer who helped a 12-year-old boy with ADHD who was struggling with the lockdown restrictions by bringing him on his cycle patrol with him to a cadet who set up a volunteer force to help the vulnerable in his local area.

We also play an important role handling sensitive matters, such as the death of a colleague through Covid-19. At the Met we’ve created a digital book of condolence for colleagues who have passed away during this time, giving colleagues the space to grieve and send their memories and messages of support to the families who have lost loved ones at a time when they cannot attend a funeral in person.

As we look ahead to the next 12 months, our role will continue to be one of informing and supporting, helping employees make sense of what the transition back to working in the office or remotely will be like, while keeping them engaged in the future direction of the organisation whatever shape that takes.

Thank you to our contributors: Amelia Wareing, head of employee communications & engagement East Midlands Railway; James Powell, head of internal communications Irwin Mitchell; Lesley Allman, managing director Allman Communication; Luis Dominguez Pecero, corporate communications NSPCC; Nicky Clark, director McCann Synergy, Rasha El-Shirbini, founder and strategist Social Jaguar; Rosie Beazley, head of group internal communcation Coats; Sarah Odams, head of internal communications Barnardo’s; Yvonne O’Hara head of internal communication Metropolitan Police Service