How does internal communication play a key role in maintaining the commitment and motivation of teams despite social distancing?
The internal communication of the organisations has been put under severe strain during the last few weeks of lockdown. Marielle Rogie, Communications Director at Brussels Airport Company and Chloé Dungelhoeff, Communications and Marketing Director at Puilaetco, share the challenges they have faced and those they are preparing for as the business resumes.
- How can internal communication be used to maintain the motivation and commitment of all members of an organization despite physical distancing?
- What types of change can we expect in the coming months?
Communication to be adapted to everyday life
We organize a coordination meeting every morning to keep up the pace: you have to be highly organized, agile and flexible to do and redo the communication according to the needs.
The first challenge that these three communication professionals had to take up is that of continuous communication to which each day brings its share of novelties. A company’s communication depends on its global strategy. But how can you communicate effectively when the company’s strategy depends on the evolution of a global pandemic, drastic health directives, all in a context of crisis and emergency, where medical and scientific interests take precedence over economic interests?
Marielle Rogie, Communications Director at Brussels Airport Company, explains that her department has been constantly on the lookout for key information to communicate internally: “We follow the development of the situation in Belgium, the world and, of course, within the company on a daily basis. We take the pulse of the employees via internal surveys to find out how people feel and take this into account. We organise a coordination meeting every morning to keep up the pace: you have to be hyper-organised, agile and flexible to do and re-do the communication according to the needs”.
A support function that becomes strategic
Communication is a cross-cutting discipline which, in day-to-day activities, is often seen as a support function. It would appear that the crisis has reshuffled the cards in this respect, making communication departments the nerve centre of information within the company. More than ever before, managers rely on communications teams to relay key messages to all stakeholders. Other departments, such as Human Resources or Business Development for example, capitalise on the resources implemented by communication managers to transmit the collective and individual information expected by employees.
Chloé Dungelhoeff, Director of Communication and Marketing at Puilaetco, has observed the rise of communication in her company: “The crisis has strengthened our ties with the Human Resources and IT departments in particular. We have done a lot of “HR” communication to inform our employees of the new working conditions and the measures that have been taken to ensure their safety and that of our customers. We have also been the relay of the IT department with whom we have developed and distributed content aimed at explaining the functioning of the various tools that have been installed for teleworking. The leadership of the managers has been strengthened since good communication is essential in the way information is circulated to employees, but also to management”.
Ensuring access to information for all
As is often the case in crisis situations, it is necessary to be clear in the explanations given and to ensure that everyone receives the expected information.
Although the crisis has affected all sectors and all types of organizations, we realize that not all companies are affected in the same way. Among the cases mentioned in this article, Brussels Airport Company illustrates the consequences of extended lockdown on the operational and commercial activities of the transportation industry. The drastic reduction in passenger flights has had a major impact on companies from this sector which, in addition to teleworking, have had to put part of their field staff on short-time working or technical unemployment. From a communication point of view, this implies a major challenge for collective announcements: to inform everyone at the same time. How to proceed when employees are not equipped to stay connected to the company?
“Expectations are not always the same”, says Marielle Rogie. “Our sector is one of the hardest hit, so we had to find the right balance of communication between the active employees who work a lot on cargo and repatriation flights and those who have been laid off without having asked for it. As it is often the case in a crisis situation, one must be clear in the explanations given and ensure that everyone receives the information they expect. In an airport, there are a multitude of very different jobs between the field and the offices. We favoured communication media that allowed both individual and collective interaction. We make extensive use of videoconferencing tools such as Zoom. For audiences that are harder to reach, we really think about how best to get in touch with them, even if it means returning to more traditional means of communication. The important thing is that they receive the information and remain attentive over the long term, despite the uncertainty“.
The most important thing: reassure and keep the connection
Meetings help strengthen employees’ sense of belonging and help them find their place within the group.
If there is one point that is common to those two companies, it is the imperative need to keep the link at a distance and to reassure everyone about their future and that of the company. In this respect, the Communication departments of Brussels Airport Company and Puilaetco have made considerable efforts to maintain contact and support thousands of people who have a very different experience of lockdown. How can motivation be maintained, especially that of those who are inactive? How do you instil a group dynamic when everyone is on their own? How does the company’s raison d’être become key at this stage of the crisis?
“We know that this confinement has been more or less well experienced by colleagues. Some of them have experienced it as a moment that allows them to continue to work a lot while recharging their batteries: no more travel to do and the possibility of organizing themselves differently to enjoy their families more. Others have experienced it with greater difficulty, especially parents of young children who both work and have to juggle their personal and professional obligations at the same time. We have therefore communicated a lot about the notion of “self-care” and insisted that employees try to take a two-hour break during the day to take a breather and do something else with their families”.
This implies longer days, but it is a choice of flexibility according to the specific needs of each organization. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the work/life balance is as correct as possible in the current context, which is obviously different from the one we knew before the arrival of the coronavirus! We attach great importance to team meetings which allow us to keep the thread between people. Personally, I organise one every morning at 9am to take the pulse, encourage, thank, share, exchange and plan. Quite a program! Many other colleagues do the same. We organize at least two meetings a week, because we find that they help to strengthen the sense of belonging of the employees, to help them find their place within the group, but also to support those who have more difficulty in this context.
Internal initiatives were launched by employees, such as a series of webinars entitled “Thrive or How to Thrive in Uncertain Times”. A sports coach who usually coaches the company’s joggers gives a strength-building and gym class every Friday at noon by videoconference via Zoom. This is very successful! For the less sporty among us, it is also possible to follow mindfulness and relaxation courses we have advised cardiac coherence, yoga or meditation. Some teams have online aperitifs”, Chloé enthusiastically describes.
Reinventing communication in substance and form
The crisis forces us to question ourselves, to try new things very quickly.
In a dossier proposed by La Libre Eco (a French-speaking Belgian newspaper), 70 business leaders have shared (in French) their vision of the crisis and agree on an organizational transformation that will not be a return to the world we knew before. Some of them mention the need for companies to review their way of operating in order to better exploit and develop the potential of each individual, to make decision-making processes more fluid and to become more agile in the face of uncertainty, difficulty and complexity. This change also applies to communication, which will have to reinvent itself, both in substance and form.
“You have to keep going, find regular milestones that are important and develop them. Not everyone will return to work at the same time, so it’s imperative to find ways to maintain the pace of communication, to keep everyone’s attention, the biggest challenge being uncertainty“, concludes Marielle Rogie.
“The time when we were all 100% at the office won’t come back for a while, if it does. We’re in for the long haul. Therefore, the challenge for a bank where telework was occasional and not structural, will be to communicate in the same way with everyone, whether we are in the office or from home. To do this, everyone must have the same tools, the same access, but also the same opportunities. We will have to assess each other’s needs. How do people expect to receive information? What tools work best? How can they be put in place and used? The crisis forces us to question ourselves, to try new things very quickly. We were lucky that everything was set up quickly and successfully at Puilaetco. Nevertheless, to implement other communication tools, we don’t necessarily have to hurry, but rather take the time to listen, receive feedback and adapt“, underlines Chloé Dungelhoeff.
Conclusion: towards more inclusive corporate communication
Reading these testimonies, we will note that a return to “world before” is no longer relevant. Every company, whether it likes it or not, is entering a new era where the geography of teams and knowledge has proven that it can operate in a decentralized manner. Despite these last few months of confinement, the employees of Brussels Airport Company and Puilaetco have organised themselves to continue working, but above all they have spontaneously found a way to stay in touch and to keep a professional community in full mutation alive. The health crisis reveals (if we still had any doubts) that an organisation’s human capital is its driving force, its most precious asset. How, therefore, can it be properly valued in the future? From a communication point of view, the future holds many challenges:
- Communicate so that the needs of employees are aligned with what the company can offer them;
- Develop tools that allow an organization to stay close to its members;
- Be more transparent and inclusive about the company’s vision and strategy;
- Emphasize the recognition of the work done, the team spirit, the role of each individual in the success of the company;
- To be part of a new organizational scheme in which mixed modes of work (face-to-face and virtual) and the diversity of types of collaboration will give rise to a new corporate culture, more focused on autonomy than on control.
Thanks to Marielle and Chloé for answering our questions!