Four Lessons for Companies Defining Their Next Normal

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An open letter from two communications professionals to their colleagues

Dear Colleagues,

To say it's been a crazy-busy, often frustrating, sometimes daunting year would be an understatement. Communicating in the constantly evolving circumstances of a global pandemic is not for the meek, and it feels like we’ve been on the cusp of moving forward for a long time now. Mask restrictions are lifting in many regions in the United States. More vaccines are getting into arms. Many of us can start to dream about what the next normal will be and are thrilled to no longer be languishing. But the details are still vague, and for some of our colleagues, the dream is still way off in the distance.

The good news is we’ve all learned a lot that can help guide us forward. After many conversations with our communications colleagues and clients, here’s what’s rising to the surface for our team.

Support Your Teams Before They’re Back in the Office

Virtual work is hard, and many people feel overworked and under-supported. They’re lonely. They’re stretched thin. Getting tasks done feels like the second shift they pull when the videoconferences have finally ended.

Virtual workers need help and they need it now, whether or not that aligns perfectly with broader return-to-the-workplace plans.

Small gestures from team leaders can make an immediate impact. Streamlining priorities, reducing the number of meetings or shortening them, flexing the workday and reaching out as fellow humans are just a few of the ways leaders can offer genuine support. These gestures can also open the conversation about how teams might start doing things differently as we enter this next phase. Plus, making small changes now will yield positive results when teams begin to return to the workplace.

Expand the Tent to Reflect the Diversity of the Full Enterprise

Let’s be frank: Many leaders driving companies’ COVID responses have had it pretty good in comparison to others. They often reside in developed countries, where healthcare is accessible and vaccines are widely available. As a result, their experiences and responses may not align with the needs of team members in other parts of the world or even harder-hit U.S. communities.

Companies need to bring more people into working groups to ensure strategies represent the needs of all team members and communications land as intended across the company’s full footprint in ways that advance diversity and inclusion. While your company's underlying policies and messaging should be applied uniformly, COVID communications are not one-size-fits-all.

Be Purposeful in Planning for In-Person & Remote Workers

The research is consistent: Employees who have been working remotely successfully for more than a year expect to maintain a degree of flexibility in their schedules. Some have even said they would leave for a lower-paying job to achieve their desired work-life balance. At the same time, many managers have expressed concerns about how they will maintain productivity if virtual work becomes the norm and feel ill-equipped to manage a hybrid team.

Decision makers and communicators alike would be wise to embrace this paradox from the start, helping to bridge the gaps between the employee and manager ideals before they become a risk to retention or performance. Providing better tools and training to support leaders who are managing hybrid teams for the first time and encouraging them to be intentional about how time and space are used are key to success. If teams are required to be on-site, for instance, it's essential to assign purpose to that time and deliver a differentiated, value-added experience relative to how employees work at home.

If workers are offered flexibility, managers must similarly take responsibility for ensuring all team members — in-person and remote — feel included, engaged and set up for success. Teams have to work differently, and human resources and communications teams must collaborate to prepare them.

Know the Paradigm Is About to Shift Dramatically

We love data and strongly encourage all employers to anchor their strategic decisions and related communications in research that focuses on the needs, concerns and preferences of team members in different roles and geographies. A simple employee survey or series of focus groups that you come back to over time can do wonders to validate or challenge underlying assumptions decision makers are using and ensure communications address the issues that matter most to their intended recipients.

Taking time to listen shows team members that you care — and it’s a relatively small investment to make when you consider the potential implications for talent retention, recruitment, customer experience and other success metrics.

At the same time, we should enter this next phase knowing that the whole game will shift as soon as a critical mass of workers returns onsite. The preferences your remote employees express today may not hold if they feel they’re missing out on in-office opportunities, and the same is true on the other side of the fence. If the learning, collaboration and fun that people associate with their time on-site doesn’t materialize when they get there, they may stop coming into the office.

It’s our job as communicators to help set the right expectations from the start and to be prepared to move nimbly as preferences — and potentially COVID numbers — change. The journey of leading our teams through the pandemic doesn’t end with the return to the workplace, and we’d all be wise to cultivate a culture that embraces change as a continuous opportunity for improvement.

In Conclusion . . .

As much as we’d like to say otherwise, there is no proven road map for the journey we’re now undertaking — but we can provide a compass. For us, the return-to-workplace conversation begins with candid dialogue about the purpose of the physical workplace, why anyone would want to be there and how the organization will need to evolve to stay competitive strategically and operationally. But that’s only the beginning.

The secret sauce is in how we equip leaders to keep their team members motivated and engaged and build the culture that encourages them to stay with the company for the long term. The best is yet to come.

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